Perhaps one of the best known (or should I say, notorious?) Chinese street food dishes in the West – and no doubt the one that people would find most objectionable – is choudoufu, or stinky tofu. It is a well-deserved name – even in China, choudoufu, given its distinctive pungency from many days of fermentation, is a bit of an acquired taste, though many lovers of choudoufu would defend their obsession by claiming that choudoufu “wen qilai chou, chi qilai xiang (smells stinky but tastes great)!” After all, doesn’t the same level of polarization apply to durian, the king of fruits, or those fine aged French bleu cheeses, both of which, coincidentally, I could barely stand at all?
I grew up loving choudoufu (an influence of my mom’s side of the family, I’m sure; my dad never cared for it). There are at least two choudoufu vendors that I can remember: one in Xiyuan, our residential complex, who would set up her fryer next to the jiucaibing vendor who called me “Yalei!”; the other near the Shangzhidu (“Capital of Commerce”) shopping center in downtown Hefei, where my mom and I would frequent on the weekends. There are countless others that I’ve forgotten, I’m sure.
There’s no need to advertise the presence of a choudoufu vendor, though many would still put up a big sign claiming “authentic Bagongshan choudoufu” (a region in Anhui Province, of which Hefei is the capital, famous for its tofu products, including choudoufu). The smell alone would do the job – it is rather hard to miss. From a long distance away, I would be able to smell the distinctive odor given off by the black, ink-like brine in which the tofu chunks are fermented; it has a hint of the gutters, maybe slightly ammoniac, and even I would find it tolerable at best. Then, I’d see one of these stalls – the setup is always the same: a gas burner, with a wok filled with boiling oil on top, and a plastic bucket filled with bite-size cubes of tofu marinating in brine on the side. I’d wait impatiently and watch as the owner would pick out 6 pieces of tofu with a pair of long chopsticks, slide them into the wok, and turn each piece as it sizzles and pops. After all the pieces are golden brown and floating on top of the oil, she would scoop them out, drain off the excess grease, and drop them into a small plastic bowl. Then, she’d add a mixture of seasoning and spices as you like: soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame paste, minced garlic, cilantro, and – most important of them all – chili oil. She would pour on whichever combination of seasoning I chose (always a ton of chili oil and go easy on the garlic and cilantro), stick a toothpick into the bowl, and hand it over for 1.5 yuan.
My patience standing in the midst of the stench and waiting for that little plastic bowl would be richly awarded: the fermentation process gives the tofu an indescribable depth of umami balanced by earthiness, well-complemented by a fireworks of the chili oil and other spices; the tofu cubes themselves, thinly coated with a crispy layer on the outside, are tender and succulent inside. The stink of the tofu is left behind with the brine – there is actually no foul smell after they’ve been deep-fried and drenched in all kinds of seasonings. Walking down the street, with my mom and I each holding a bowl of choudoufu in hand, either on the way home or browsing through the boutique stores – that was one of the most pleasurable food experiences of my childhood.
There is another dish that is also translated as “stinky tofu”: chouganzi, a darker, drier, stronger tasting version of choudoufu. They have different origins: choudoufu came from the eastern city of Nanjing and is usually served with a mix of seasonings, whereas chouganzi came from the southern city of Changsha and is usually served with a type of reddish chili-garlic paste popular in Hunan Province, of which Changsha is the capital. As much as I loved choudoufu, I never cared for chouganzi, despite its much greater versatility and reach beyond simple street food (it’s often found in stir-fries with other strong-tasting vegetables that I hated, for example).
Another somewhat similar dish, doufuru, is also made from fermented tofu. It can be stinky (in the form of chou doufuru), or savory, or even sweet, depending on the ingredients of the marinade in which bite-sized chunks of tofu sit and ferment. It is commonly eaten with porridge in small quantities as a seasoning, as its flavor is often rather overpowering. The texture of doufuru is somewhat like really ripe soft cheeses popular in France, with a similar level of pungency and earthiness, which is something I never got used to. I guess even I, who is obsessed choudoufu, would not be able to stand any of its relatives…