DIY stinky tofu: How to make the perfect, albeit smelly, Shanghai street food
Shanghai’s beloved stinky tofu (chou doufu, 臭豆腐) can be prepared in a variety of ways, but Shanghailanders like theirs deep fried, doused in spicy and sweet sauces and very... well, stinky.
Like sailors bewitched by the call of Sirens, when locals get a whiff of fermented tofu frying, they follow their noses to find the quick and inexpensive snack. Foreigners living in Shanghai are slower converts to this classic.
“To be honest, you’re my only foreign customers,” says Mr Liu, our favorite chou doufu vendor.
“I usually can’t sell these fast enough; Shanghailanders usually come and snatch them up after work and school for a snack before heading home for the day.”
Mr Liu simply fries his cubes of tofu for just a few moments in boiling vegetable oil. Once drained over a rack, he skewers them, charges RMB 1 for four, and lets his customers customize their snack with the sauces he lays out.
“Instead of putting on the flavors I like, I let the customers do it because they are the ones who are going to eat this, not me,” he tells us.“Some like it spicier than others, some like them sweeter, and some like the combination of both together.”
His explanation reminds us of the effect spice has on the sweet flavors in Mei Ling’s jianbing (check out our DIY jianbing article); she told us that that flavor combination is like the balancing act of yin and yang. The same holds true for chou doufu.
But seriously, what is that smell?
It isn’t the taste that most people comment on when talking about stinky tofu though -- it is, of course, the smell. Mr Liu bluntly tells us, “The tofu smells because it’s moldy.” Yum.
I usually can’t sell these fast enough; Shanghailanders usually come and snatch them up after work and school for a snack before heading home for the day— Mr Liu, master stinky tofu vendor
The tofu goes through a brining process in fermented milk that is a fairly similar process to cheese making. While in this brine, vegetables, meat and sometimes dried seafood are added.
“My recipe is a family secret,” says Mr Liu. “People like my tofu, so I don’t want other vendors knowing how I make it.”
He did, however, divulge that his brine ferments for an entire month, unlike factory-made tofu, which usually only brines for a maximum of two days.
He continues, “The smell here is nothing compared to the smell of the brine.”
We’re glad we’re not around for that.
Mr Liu then marinates large blocks of firm tofu for an additional week, creating, what we can only imagine, is the most unsanitary snack on the Mainland.
If you can bare the smell long enough to wait in line at a chou doufu vendor, we suggest trying this snack, as it tastes neither offensive nor smelly. The tofu is surprisingly -- and a bit ironically -- clean tasting, and its interior soft and crumbly.
And even if you don’t like it, at least you’ve merited a few bragging rights. (Want a few more points? Try something from our "Weird Foods" list.)
Making your own stinky tofu
If you don’t want to try the street-side smelly tofu stands but you do want to give this classic food a shot, making it at home is a good option.
Carrefour offers tofu that's a little bit cleaner than the process Mr Liu describes. Their cubes of firm tofu only brine for a day, and in a liquid that has only been fermented for a few days longer.
(Makes one serving)
- 4 slices of firm tofu marinated in fermented milk (found at the tofu counter at Carrefour)
- 3 cups vegetable oil (enough to have 1 inch of oil in your wok)
- 1 tbs soybean paste
- 1 tbs chili sauce, or dried chili flakes
- Heat wok over a high flame
- Add the vegetable oil
- When the oil is hot enough that a splash of water or flour causes it to sizzle, it’s frying time
- Carefully place the tofu slices into the oil, and gently stir to make sure they don’t stick together
- Let fry, stirring occasionally, for two minutes (it will start to smell!)
- When the bottoms are browned a bit, flip over and let fry for two to three more minutes, until a really nice golden and crispy crust is formed
- Drain on a plate with paper towels
- Place the pieces on a serving dish and top with the soybean paste and chili sauce
- Serve immediately
Disclaimer: They don’t call this stuff “stinky tofu” for nothing -- your apartment will stink.