Remember the viral natto-eating challenge on TikTok? Well, there’s another one that took the platform by storm – the stinky tofu challenge. In simple terms, it’s fermented tofu with a potent smell. Some challengers couldn’t stomach it due to the overpowering aroma and taste.
But it’s not just about the smell. Stinky tofu looks quite different from the fresh, regular tofu you’re used to. Some pieces may be discolored, wrinkled, and far from appetizing.
Strangely enough, this “stinky” food is a big hit in its home countries. Stinky tofu is a delicacy in Southern China and Taiwan. It’s even a must-try street food for tourists and foodies visiting Taipei.
But is it safe to devour this foul-smelling tofu? Let’s delve into stinky tofu – it may stink, but it’s a Taiwanese favorite.
What’s Stinky Tofu?
Stinky tofu, as described by Dr. Health Benefits and My Trip, is a traditional Chinese dish. It involves intentionally fermenting tofu with saltwater for several weeks or even months at low temperatures, which gives it that distinctive smell. The duration of fermentation varies among producers or small-scale artisans.
Saltwater is used as the fermenting agent, encouraging the growth of natural microbes that create the tofu’s unique aroma. Sometimes, fermented milk, vegetables, and even meat are added during the process. Other ingredients may include dried shrimp, spinach, bok choy, bamboo shoots, and traditional Chinese herbs.
The Historical Roots of Stinky Tofu
Historically, this pungent, fermented tofu dish has its origins in Chinese cuisine. A scholar named Wang Zhihe compared to Huang Shan in Anhui Province is said to have found stinky tofu. Wang initially came to Beijing to take a civil service exam but failed and found himself short on funds for the journey back home.
Stranded in Beijing, Wang attempted to make ends meet by selling tofu. When his tofu sales slumped one day, he decided to cut it into small cubes and store them in clay pots. After some time in storage, the tofu changed in color to a greenish-gray hue and developed an incredibly pungent odor.
Naturally, the tofu was initially considered unfit for consumption due to its strong smell. However, it turned out to be delicious. The pungent aroma and unique taste led Wang to start selling it. The stinky tofu made by Wang Zhihe became famous over time and was even served in the royal house during the Qing Dynasty.
Evolving into a Taiwanese Delicacy
Starting in mainland China, this distinctive and smelly stinky tofu gradually became extremely popular in Taiwan. The political upheaval that saw Chiang Kai Shek and hundreds of thousands of his supporters leave mainland China also brought the recipe to Taiwan. Over time, this pungent tofu, known for its smell, became more popular in Taiwan than in mainland China.
In fact, it became so beloved that is considered one of Taiwan’s national dishes. In Taiwan, there’s Shenkeng Street in Shenkeng District, known for its vendors. Local residents even call it “stinky street” because the smell hits you several meters before you enter the area.
In Taiwan, stinky tofu is served as a popular street food snack, especially in the evening. It can be prepared in various ways, much like regular tofu – fried, stir-fried, or steamed. Typically, it is garnished with shredded cabbage, garlic, and spicy sauce.
Surprisingly, this stinky tofu isn’t just delicious and safe to eat; it’s also packed with nutrients that are good for your health. The use of soybeans and additional fermentation enhances its nutritional value. It’s high in protein from soybeans and low in fat.
Another benefit is its high fiber content, promoting digestive health and nutrient absorption in the intestines. Like other fermented foods, it is rich in probiotics, beneficial bacteria that support a healthy digestive system.
But there’s more – stinky tofu also contains various minerals beneficial for the body. It offers sources of iron, potassium, and magnesium. Additionally, it contains isoflavonoids and specific bioactive peptides that stimulate insulin secretion, which can be helpful for people with diabetes.