Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Get Your Stink On: Long a staple of Taiwanese cuisine, stinky tofu is now being sought out by Westerners.
This Food Stinks
And if you're a daredevil eater looking for the last culinary thrill, it may be your best bet
By Stett Holbrook
FOR THE thrill-seeking diner, Silicon Valley offers few unexplored culinary frontiers. Unless you're one of these people who find broccoli challenging, there's really nothing too daunting out there. Sushi used to be considered exotic fare, but it's become as run-of-the-mill as a burger and fries. Malaysian food? Tame stuff.
Muslim Chinese food? Been there.
But for the true culinary adventurer prepared to boldly go where few have gone before, there is something left: Stinky tofu.
Stinky tofu is a popular dish in Taiwan and southern China. It's typically served as a fried street snack from roadside vendors and small food stalls. It's also served at a few Silicon Valley Taiwanese restaurants like Shinbala in Cupertino.
Stinky tofu starts out as regular nonoffensive tofu, but then it's fermented for several months in a noxious brine of fermented vegetables, dried shrimp and other offenders. The brew has to be well covered because it's a magnet for flies drawn to its fetid odor.
Like yogurt and sauerkraut, the stinky tofu fermentation process creates a number of beneficial bacteria and a rather potent vat of volatile but innocuous alcohols, acids, aldehydes, furans and other chemical compounds that sound mildly intimidating.
As the name implies, stinky tofu is indeed stinky. But stinky sounds cute and friendly like a baby fart. Stinky tofu is on another plane of stankiness. It's like eating garbage inside a sewer on a hot day. Or maybe it's like that time that when I was a kid walking in an orchard near San Jose City College and I came across an upended white bucket. Curious, I kicked it over and was assaulted by the sight and smell of a rotting goat head wriggling with maggots. No, that's not quite it, either. How about this? When I worked in a cheese shop I was tasked with cleaning the blue cheese tray. After several weeks the Roquefort, Stilton and Gorzonzola and other blue cheeses oozed a fetid, yellow-green mucus that collected at the bottom of the tray. The smell burned through my sinuses, melting my olfactory glands with gassy, ammonia-meets-sun baked-soiled-diaper pungency. Stinky tofu smells kinda like that.
But I ate it anyway.
You may be asking yourself, why would anyone put something in their mouth that smells like it should be cordoned off as a biohazard? I don't have a good answer for that other than a spirit of adventure. You've got extreme sports where crazy guys do back flips on motorcycles 50 feet in the air. Think of eating stinky tofu as extreme dining. It's the culinary equivalent of skydiving naked. On acid. It's like nothing you've ever done before.
If you're up for it, Shinbala is the place to go. Cupertino has become Silicon Valley's outpost for Taiwanese food and Shinbala restaurant specializes in Taiwanese street food like sausage, noodles and various fruit drinks and teas. And then there's stinky tofu, euphemistically called "fried aged tofu" on the menu.
According to our waiter, stinky tofu is one of the most popular dishes. But when I ordered it, he arched his eyebrows a bit, wondering if I knew what I was in for. I told it was my first time and asked for his advice.
"Forget about the smell," he said. "Just eat it."
Easier said than done. The miasma floats almost visibly off the plate. While it smells evil, stinky tofu looks harmless enough. It's cut into triangles and fried, a preparation that entombs some of the stench. It's served with kimchi and is best eaten with the pickled cabbage and a dab of chile sauce. One order ($4.25) is plenty. You might want to inquire about a half portion.
I carefully cut off a piece and, stepping into the great unknown, I put it in my mouth. The first sensation is texture, crunchy, a little crumbly outside and then creamy soft inside. This isn't so bad, I think. But approximately a quarter of a second later my sinus cavities erupt with noxious, ammonia-spiked fumes. I don't gag but the possibility looms large.
And yet, there's something almost edible about stinky tofu. Almost. The taste is much milder than the smell and it comes closest to really powerful cheese, perhaps a very ripe soft blue cheese. I can imagine someone who grew up on the stuff liking it. It's an acquired tasteyou know, like necrophilia.
Would I order it again? Hell, no. But like Janis Joplin once said, it's better to regret the things you have done than to regret the things you haven't. I can now scratch stinky tofu off my list.
Address: 20956-A Homestead Rd., Cupertino.
Hours: Open daily 11am-2pm and 5pm-9:30pm.
Price range: $1.50-$15.
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