Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oooh That Smell

In the one of my travel updates I intimated the olfactory experience that is Asia. Japan is unique among Asian countries in lacking the olfactory extremes of the rest of the continent. Not that the smell of incense in the absence of the smell of pot emanating from Japanese temples isn’t charming and exotic to American noses, but incense is the least of the olfactory intrusions in the rest of Asia. Indeed, I have also mentioned exotic foodstuffs in the past, but if you were thinking “Limburger” when I used that phrase, you were an order of magnitude or so off of the malodorous reality of certain items that Asians eat with alarming regularity.

So in the spirit of better communication, the word for today is Tsou Dofu (臭豆腐 the ou is a long “o” with a slight rounding of the lips at the end of the sound) – usually translated as “stinky tofu”. It is confusingly transliterated as Chou Dofu. I have a running feud with the rest of the world for using utterly stupid systems of transliteration of Chinese into English - the first sound in Chou Dofu sounds like the last consonant cluster in “rents” not the first consonant cluster in “cheese, what is that smell?”

Back in 2001, the food critic at SF Weekly pretty much described my attitude towards this stuff better than I could. In fact, I think that this excerpt is probably the reaction of any sane, non-Chinese person who comes in contact with Tsou Dofu:

It was a stink that could make other stinks recoil in horror, a stink so mean it
could beat a man senseless, drink his whiskey, then run a marathon through
manure in his best suit. It was so dense we could almost see it hovering over
our table during the brief period we spent acquainting ourselves with stinking

Yep, that’s the smell I remember. For you Terry Pratchett fans out there, the memory of the odor of Tsou Dofu is the smell that creeps into my brain when Terry describes the odor of Foul Ole Ron. When I first encountered this culinary delight on the streets of Taipei, one of the Chinese in my party, well, let's be blunt here - it was my wife - insisted on ordering it. Actually she insisted on following the smell to the vendor. The smell reached us first when we were several blocks from the source, and I asked naively: “who is frying dog turds”? The smell took on several layers of richness as we approached, and I insisted on remaining upwind while the delicacy was purchased and consumed away from the proximity of the vendor. I did consume a small piece at this point, and came to the conclusion that the smell and the taste are intimately related, and that this is an acquired taste that I have no intention of acquiring.

But what is it? Well, obviously bean curd is the key ingredient, and it is fermented for months in a salty stew that includes shrimp and several vegetables. “What is the flavor?”, you ask. The first site I came to when I Googled this stuff years ago was from a vegan writing a paean to this bona fide all-vegetable delight. All I can say is that if you have been reduced to using this stuff to get protein, perhaps it's time to re-introduce animal products into your diet. I didn’t detect any bleu cheese taste that the vegan mentioned in this stuff, although the chili paste that came with mine might have drowned out that particular flavor. Fermented cat's pee in a sponge cake medium is more the impression that I got.

But people actually eat Tsou Dofu voluntarily. It is so popular that scientists in Taiwan actually get grant money to study it. I’m so glad I found that abstract, my life was incomplete before I learned that you can use the level of ammonia in the fermentation vat to measure the progress of the reaction. One line from the abstract really rolled my gut:

Moreover, it is easy to be contaminated with pathogens and maggots during the
open-type fermentation.

So, tonight, three years after I originally wrote this piece for my old blog, I get a look at Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods, Taiwanese edition. Take a look at the video in that link. Start at about 2:25 in and Zimmern gets a taste of what he thinks is Tsou Dofu, but which looks to me as if it's normal fried tofu that was maybe dipped once into the Tsou ferment. He thinks it's delicious. If it was Tsou Dofu, I think he's nuts. Best quote from the early part of the segment? "It's a good thing this this isn't "Smell-O-Vision". But then, at about 5:00 into the segment, he goes to a real establishment that makes its own product. Now we'll see if he thinks the real deal is delicious.

So, at around 6:45 in, he gets served authentic Tsou Dofu. At 7:15 comes the actual taste. This is a man I've seen eat live, wrigging grubs from a rotten tree. And he can't get this stuff down. His reaction is pretty much exactly what mine was upon tasting this for the first time. Take a look at his face when he pops it into his mouth. My wife and I were ROTFLOAO. His simple, heartfelt declaration of "that is absoultely horrifying" is pretty much what anyone with a functioning olfactory system should say.

I have eaten this stuff on two occasions. (No more than a mouthful each time: I’m crazy, not dumb). Both times were from a street vendor with probably no hygienic oversight from whatever passes for a USDA in Taiwan. Excuse me while I go wash out my mouth.

Yeeeck, that’s better.


Nathan said...

Because of Jeri's suggestion, I started a meme called "Meals I've Massacred".

I know you weren't following the crowd here, but you win anyway.


Random Michelle K said...

Does this smell worse than Durian?

I've managed to avoid both, because I have a disturbingly acute sense of smell, but I've heard that Durian has been banned on flights it's so awful

John the Scientist said...

I have eaten Durian and Durian-flavored cookies. I can eat that, I can't eat this.

And yes, Durian is banned on public transportation in the Asian countries where it is grown.

Random Michelle K said...

You are a truly manly man.

Or else insane.

Your choice.

John the Scientist said...

Either way, I win.

Mr. Bingley said...

If you bring that for the pot-luck supper at church you are a dead man...