Vegetarian Taiwan: Stinky Tofu

In February I went to Taiwan for a week, and had an amazing time. Because it was the week of the Lunar New Year, many restaurants (particularly the vegetarian ones) were closed. Luckily, Taiwan has a vibrant street food culture. On my first day I stopped by a road-side stand around the corner from the City God Temple for a taste of Taiwan’s signature dish: chou doufu, aka stinky tofu. Yes, that’s really what it’s called. It’s tofu, left to ferment, until it develops its signature aroma: a mix of rotting garbage and unpleasant bodily odors.

The most popular way to eat stinky tofu is as you see above; cut into chunks, deep fried, and served with pickled cabbage and chili sauce. At first glance, it looked delicious, and I actually didn’t smell anything. I used my chopsticks to corral a piece, along with some cabbage, into my mouth, and took a bite. First impressions: not bad, it tasted a lot like fried tofu.

As I chewed, however, the aroma began to creep up the back of my throat. As soon as my brain received the signal it started sending emergency signals to my belly: You just ate something rotten, get rid of it! Get rid of it!

Of course I refused to throw up in front of the woman who had just served me this meal. And there was the recognition that there really wasn’t anything wrong with the way it tasted, it was a pure psychological reaction to the smell. As I continued to eat I expected the effect to lessen, but it didn’t really. Each bite was a struggle, no matter how much cabbage and chili sauce I piled on to it. But I kept eating.

About halfway through my meal, a local passing by stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me eating the tofu. He approached cautiously, and asked me if I was enjoying it. Of course I knew the right answer to that, I told him it was very good. Obviously pleased, he patted me on the back and moved on. I stayed until I finished the plate of tofu.

For the remainder of my time in Taiwan, every time I smelled the stuff I had an immediate gag reflex. Determined not to let the stinky tofu beat me, a few days later I resolved to give it another go. At one of Taipei’s night markets I stood in line, steeling myself to order it again. I was next in line to order when the smell hit me, and I had to retreat. Stinky tofu beat me after all.

On my last day in Taiwan, in the small town of Pinglin, I met a group of Americans traveling with some Taiwanese guides. As we talked about food, the Taiwanese guides asked (through the Americans) if I’d had a chance to try stinky tofu. After careful consideration, I said yes, I had. I said I had liked it, and was glad I’d tried it, but didn’t plan on eating it ever again. The laughter of everyone told me they had heard that reaction from foreigners before.