Joanne Yao: Don't fear the stinky tofu

Joanne Yao: Don't fear the stinky tofu

Shanghai foodie reveals how she came to like the infamous snack and urges stinky tofu virgins to dig in

Joanne YaoDespite the fact that I was born in Shanghai and should have known better, after I left China and became an American at the age of four, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” made me think Asia was like the heart of darkness for food.

The message was reinforced by food blogs that oohed and awed over mottled green fish poop spaghetti from the Philippines, renegade chefs gagging up larb lu -- a Thai salad of minced raw beef mixed with blood, bile and spices -- and PETA’s outrage over monkey brains served in fur-lined skulls in China.

Although some people reckon that stinky tofu's the most obnoxious food in Shanghai, it is hardly in that category. It smells bad, but it’s no monkey brains, and there is no need to fear it at all.


Uncovering stinky tofu

I admit Shanghai’s stinky tofu is a nasal assault. It’s a bullying stench that likes to hang out at street corners and catch people by surprise.


Stinky tofu is part of the local color. It’s an indelible part of the city that you are in, in both a metaphorical and olfactory sense.


One friend of mine told me she had become quite obsessed with uncovering this “mystery smell” after months of being unable to attach a noun to it.

She had to find out what it was -- and she did eventually. She tried stinky tofu, and she lived.

Her story made me recall the first time I tried stinky tofu when I was 10.

It was during a summer break I spent with relatives in Shanghai when I got my very first styrofoam tray of eight little cubes.

I skewered one and looked at the sucker intently. I leaned in close, sniffed and stared some more, then I held my nose and I popped one into my mouth.

Munch, munch, munch … it was just a crispy nub of tofu, with an extra burst of umami.

My first bite of stinky tofu was not extraordinary, but it allowed me to pass behind the veil, and now, the militant stench has lost its power.

Although feared by a lot of new comers to this city, stinky tofu is just a crispy nub of tofu, with an extra burst of umami flavor.

Just tofu

Stinky tofu is just tofu. It’s just the least offensive food in the world.

Moreover, stinky tofu is part of the local color. It’s an indelible part of the city that you are in, in both a metaphorical and olfactory sense.

I like stinky tofu now, the smell and all.

I like the crispiness and the umami, I like how each cube says, “I’m a delicacy” with its petite size, and I like how I can be walking on the street and suddenly be in a cluster of stinky tofu vendors, but when I am actually looking, I can’t find a single one.

I confronted a small fear the day I tried stinky tofu. So did my friend, the detective of the Shanghai’s mystery stench. But both of us have overcome it.

It could happen to you too and you’ll move on to conquering bigger fears and bridging bigger cultural gaps.

So I encourage you to try stinky tofu once, just once.

The urban legend

I know you’ve heard that story, and you could actually believe someone made tofu out of something vile, really rubbed it in, fried it in some oil skimmed off a chunky river of sewage and presented it to you in a poisonous styrofoam container; but it’s just an urban legend.

People eat stinky tofu every day and survive and you, yes you there with the untested digestive system trembling in your UGGs, won’t be the exception.

Besides, lamb kebabs probably go through the same conditioning. So does the shui zhu yu. Kidding, just kidding.

If you have to worry, worry about Shanghai's pollution, it'll probably kill you first.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Joanne Yao.
Joanne Yao is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.
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