Friday, May 7, 2010

Oh, so that's what that rotting garbage smell is!

One of my prime objectives in coming to Taiwan was to find and eat stinky tofu. For the uninitiated, it's basically tofu that's been marinated in some kind or another of rotting, fermented goop. I've seen TV shows about how they make it-- usually, it involves a big plastic tub full of this incomprehensible black slime, full of weeks-old rotting vegetables and god knows what else. It has a characteristic odor comparable to limburger cheese, or worse, but it's an extremely popular mainstay at restaurants, night markets, food stands, and anywhere else you can imagine. It's almost impossible to walk down a busy street in Taipei and not have that familiar and vaguely nauseating stench waft your way.

The problem with it (from a non-animal-eater's point of view) is that if you pick any stinky tofu vendor at random, you can never really be sure what they put in the marinade. It could just be old, putrid vegetables, it could be fish eyes, it could be squid guts-- hell, it could be liquified hog uterus for all you know. There are even stories of less-scrupulous sellers in mainland China who use human feces to speed up the fermentation process. Taiwan is considered to be decidedly more sanitary in their practices, but it's still a gamble, especially if you have any dietary restrictions.

Even if I could speak Chinese, the vendors are reluctant to divulge the contents of whatever toxic waste they've submerged the tofu into, since it's kind of a trade secret that results in each stand's unique flavor. Despite my enthusiasm, I didn't want to chance picking a street vendor at random while not knowing if my tasty fried snack had been in an open-air jug of chicken intestines for the last month.

Fortunately, the Supreme Master came to my rescue. Long story short, Supreme Master Ching Hai is the leader of a vaguely cult-like group that owns dozens of restaurants around the world and promotes a vague message of vegetarianism, humanitarianism, and general weirdness. I don't buy into her claims of divinity, but her restaurants can always be counted on for a tasty, reasonably-priced and animal-product-free meal, and as far as cults go, hers seems more benign than most.

Her group is based out of Taiwan, so there are no fewer than 12 of her Loving Huts in the Taipei area alone. One of these specializes in stinky tofu, so I insisted we make a stop at this place, despite Andrea's reluctance. Once inside, we went for two variations on the noodle bowl, which each boasted a half-dozen chunks of the fetid bean curd.

The verdict... not that bad! Pretty tasty, actually. We got the impression that Loving Hut's stinky tofu was a bit toned down for easily-startled foreign diners.

Our guess would later be proven correct at Raohe Night Market. Another popular weekend gathering place, Taipei's night markets (Raohe is one of several) are jam-packed full of food carts, tea stands, knock-off clothing and shoe stalls, and lots more. Somewhat dejected that I wouldn't be able to get the full stinky tofu experience, I happened upon a food stand that contained not only the familiar characters for Cho Do Fu (the stinky stuff), but also the standard Vegetarian Food marker! 40 Taiwan Dollars (or about $1.20) later, here was my result:

Garnished with a sweet, BBQ-like sauce, and with a side of pickled cabbage, presumably as a palate cleanser. It doesn't work.

So, here's the verdict on this one: this night market food cart version of stinky tofu was a lot stronger than the Loving Hut version. The fact that it's fried reduces the initial odor somewhat, but it more than makes up for that once it gets in your mouth. I actually liked i t quite a bit, although I had a hard time getting the taste out of my mouth for the rest of the night, despite a much-needed fruit juice intervention.

So, for the prospective Taiwan traveller interested in this fair-yet-foul dish, what's my advice? Know a few basic characters and phrases, know where you're going and exactlyhow to get there (a map, along with a good sense of direction or, failing that, a compass, is key), and try really hard not to let the smell dissuade you. You will find the putridity surprisingly rewarding!

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