A Violation of the Geneva Conventions. Stinky Tofu - Star Lunch (CLOSED). Chinatown, San Francisco.

o tapei cafe stinky tofu
A Biohazard Delight!

Let’s say, hypothetically, some terrorist group captured and tortured me with marathon viewings of Emeril and then asked my advice for the most effective way to take out a large group of innocent people dining in a Chinese seafood banquet hall during the peak dinner hour. After seconds of resistance, I would, with massive remorse, suggest they buy up every throat constricting, tear duct flooding, nostril assaulting slab of stinky tofu in town, then overpower the restaurant’s waitstaff and (while wearing gas masks) serve the entire room this demon dish of a delicacy until every last soul is overcome by the unparalleled putridity that is unique only to this intensely fermented soybean curd. Why employ nerve agents when stinky tofu will knock even the hardiest foodie flat on his ass?

My wife Diane, who has survived a close encounter with stinky tofu (or phonetically in Mandarin Chinese – tsoh doh-foo), describes it as smelling like a used tampon baked under the Death Valley sun.  When I hear that I have to roll my eyes and wonder, “Why the restraint?” Come on, for schnoz sake, it smells much worse.  It’s like making a smoothie out of durian melon, Limburger cheese, kim-chee and nuoc mam then letting it fester inside a porta-potty for a month and then, as you have a taste, your dickhead big brother enshrouds a thick blanket over both of you and rips the worst fart ever.  

This is not much of an exaggeration considering the tofu has to soak for a couple of hours in a brine of literally rotten vegetables and shrimp.  The vegetables and shrimp have been trying to rejoin the circle of life for the past six months but has been sentenced instead to a life of brine. This fermentation process which is responsible for that special something you smell and taste in stinky tofu is potentially so noxious that, if not careful, it can be contaminated with pathogens and maggots.  No joke.

One afternoon in San Francisco while killing some time between my cousin's wedding ceremony and reception, I went nose to nose with stinky tofu. The venue was Star Lunch deep in the bowels of Chinatown.  Forget about mapquesting this place.  Your eyes are useless here.  You’ll smell it long before you see it.  

Star Lunch is a straight up, mid-day meal spot plainly appointed with greasy stainless steel and a narrow aisle of counter stools.  It resembles none of the other Chinese hole-in-the-walls in the city.  It is a solitary and lonely establishment out of a Hopper painting but bleaker.  The tall, twig thin proprietor of Star Lunch sets down a small glass of hot amber colored tea and hands me a one-page grease coated menu.  I was unable to find stinky tofu anywhere on the sad looking list of offerings. There is only one tofu dish at the restaurant and, judging from the unmistakable odor, it is none other than stinky tofu, but at Star Lunch it is politely called “spicy bean curd,” a euphemism that will fool nobody with a functioning olfactory organ.  

I place my order and watch the skinny man scoop out three shiny, creamy chunks of fermented tofu. He then carefully cubes them into twelve bite-sized pieces.  Next he places the cubes gently into a cauldron of blistering oil. After a few minutes of reading the paper he retrieves and strains the stank cubes and presents them on a plastic plate.  The dish is served with a thick, subtly sweet, dark sauce of unknown ingredients.  

I try to look unphased as I take a bite and puncture the vaguely golden crust, which is not really crunchy but almost crumbly.  Tragically, it was too late to recognize that the fried coating was my only bulwark against the furious fetor that was about to smite me like a violent backdraft.  The fermented fume was so concrete I could physically feel the thickness of it surge down my throat and leave in its wake an aftertaste that was both repulsive and ambrosial like a savory ammonia. Under the fried shell is the steaming custardesque bean curd responsible for its infamous bouquet of sour and spicy, salty and pungent — it made Camembert seem like a dessert from the Cheesecake Factory. It was simultaneously nasty and yummy.

Did I love it or hate it?  If you can get past the initial disgust, it is one of those few foods, like durian, that can give you a truly bipolar experience. I walked away from stinky tofu with very strong but mixed feelings. Though stinky tofu is many things, subtle it is not.  It certainly is the best tasting hazardous material I’ve ever eaten.  I’ve never heard of stinky tofu remotely described as being "the food of the gods", but my feeling is that maybe it should because I can’t imagine any other dish designed to stink to high heaven like this one.

Comments

Anonymous said…
You have captured the essence of stinky tofu -- not an easy task. Well done! - Alaina Browne
Eddie Lin said…
Alaina, you are correct - it was most definitely not an easy task!! ;)
Eddie Lin said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chili Bill said…
You should definitely go to Spices No. 1, 294- 8th Ave., just off Clement St. They fix the stinky tofu in a variety of ways. It may be the only other place in SF that serves it.
Eddie Lin said…
Do I dare? Yeah, what the hell...next time I'm up. Thanks, Chili!
Anonymous said…
When we lived in Beijing 10 years ago and my intrepid sister came to visit, Fermneted Tofu was the only dish she wouldn't eat. And she tried EVERYthing. And EVERYthing was at least "interesting".

But not Fermented Tofu! She actually was going to bring it back for a refund, thinking it must be spoiled, until my tutor said it was perfectly normal Fermented Tofu.
Eddie Lin said…
Used to hate it till I ate it...well, um, actually that's not entirely true. It's still pretty gross.
Anonymous said…
Thanks. I love the stuff. I haven't found any decent
versions since I left Taiwan. It is fabulous.
Eddie Lin said…
Glad you enjoyed the article. My mom loves the stinky stuff too. I still have a love/hate relationship with it.
Airwolfe said…
That was the funniest food review I have ever read. I was almost crying I was laughing so hard. Dam that was good.
Eddie Lin said…
Thank you. That's one of the best compliments I've ever received. I really appreciate it.
Sora said…
When it's done properly, there's nothing like a good plate of stinky tofu and pickled veggies, the best I've had was in the south of Taiwan from the back of a truck by the beach (good luck finding it! it is, however, a well-known truck that seems to have been in the same place for the past fifteen years). Makes the breath smell pretty rank for a few hours though, imagine rotting cheese and garlic breath... Thanks for the heads up on where to find a few more places that serve it, I found Queen House has it in Mountain View but theirs is missing a certain je ne sais quoi in terms of stinkiness and saltiness.
AiYahh said…
hi, found this posting through tribe and LOVE it!

you described stinky tofu perfectly! my first experience with the odorous stuff was on my first trip back to hong kong. i was with my brother and once we smelled it, we chased it down. he actually got me to try it and i LOVED it! I work in SF, but never actually eat the stuff here. It's just not stinky enough for me hahaha
Eddie Lin said…
Sora, I will keep one nostril on alert for that stinky tofu truck (whatever happened to just plain ice cream trucks?).

Aiyahh, thanks for the nice words. "Aiyahh." My mom screamed that to me so often when I was a kid I thought MY NAME was Aiyahh. It's a Chinese thang, everybody. Peace out.
Anonymous said…
Awww...Stinky tofu...nothing like it!
I was converted by a Chinese friend who also introduced me to seasame cereal (looks like mortar, tastes like heaven).
We subsequently introduced a vegan friend, and former cheese addict, to this quirky ambrosia. He loves the stuff!

If you want to try it a new way, buy a jar and use it in lieu of pungent cheese.
Toast some really dark bread or a fiesty sourdough. Spread it with stinky tofu straight from the jar and combine with fresh spinach, roasted red pepers and shreaded carrots.
A kick ass sandwich only possible in the fusion land called California...

From a Californian living in London and dreaming of the Golden State.
Eddie Lin said…
I think you're referring to spicy fermented bean curd. I love fermented bean curd. You're right it's much more like a soft stinky cheese, creamy and yummy. Stinky tofu, however, is a different creature, same species, just different. Maybe you should try the king of stink.
togarashiko said…
Most certainly, your description of stinky tofu is perfectly aromatic and appropiate.
The first time I got to try the stuff was at a vietnamese cafe, almost next door to Ranch 99 in the Bay Area.

My husband and I always know we are on to something, when the sullen waitress make surprise happy face, say "You been here befo'!"

Yup, major surprise.
While people compare it to sewage, the worst butt-crack fermentations, or kimchi-on-crank, I find that it smells, and (I presume) tastes exactly like fresh camel dung. I grew up at the San Diego Zoo, so I am very familiar with any kind of ruminate emanations.

I managed to wrestle in and keep down the tofu, and certainly the sweet bean/chili sauce helped. The bigger challenge was to keep from rudely gagging in front of 30+ vietnamese customers, curious in seeing us white folks eating one of their own delights.
We ate it ALL.
And left a big tip.

Since then, what I used to think was the wonderful, rank street perfume of Chinatown's gutters and groceries, now I know there is much 'Chao Dofu" walking about, usually hidden in plastic bags, cherished by older folks for their special occasions.

I quickly learned to love durians, I adore uni and dried oysters, so sometime, I'll learn to love stinky tofu, just to annoy my husband, and freak our stogy unitarian friends.
Eddie Lin said…
togarashiko,

good for you for trying all this stuff when you were initially ambivalent. funny you talk about how stinky tofu reeks like camel dung. the owner of typhoon, one of the restaurants on this blog, told me he thought stinky tofu was reminiscent of elephant dung. he knew this because he used to handle elephants for a zoo. stinky tofu, camel and elephant dung? could it be the diet? what is in zoo feed anyway? so many questions.

thanks for reading.
Anonymous said…
Interestingly, my mom ate at Star Lunch and asked the cook why the stinky tofu wasn't that stinky or that good. They answered because of their neighbors' complaints, they couldn't make it "truly authentic" (i.e. really stinky).
Eddie Lin said…
Anonymous,

Oh how times change. I lament such things. I remember when gasoline was under a dollar, cigarettes were allowed in bars and stinky tofu was, well, stinky. C'est la vie. There's always mainland China.
Anonymous said…
I was chatting with a friend whose familial roots are in Norway...

I've tried stinky tofu and he's had lutefisk. But neither of us have had the other.

So, to all you international foodies out there, what's worse? Stinky rotting tofu or Lutefisk, AKA rotting fish?
Eddie Lin said…
anonymous,

i would love to try lutefisk. i've heard so much about it but i'm pretty certain that i can't get in los angeles. i'll keep looking or sniffing.
Anonymous said…
So I've lived here for a year and a half and am moving back to Alaska next month. I asked my coworkers for some adventurous ideas before leaving. Stinky tofu came up. Almost all of them are from Hong Kong originally and say this place is the best in the US: there is a small Shanghainese Restaurant in Chinatown (on Jackson x/s Kearny) which is very famous in this dish.
Eddie Lin said…
anonymous,

thanks for writing. chili bill (one of the first few comments) also suggests "Spices No. 1, 294- 8th Ave., just off Clement St." maybe you should check that one out also.

good luck.
Anonymous said…
I personally prefer fresh Stinky Tofu steamed with chili paste. I have a really bad sense of smell, so the smell really doesn't bother me.
taiwantiger said…
Actually, here in Taiwan, stinky tofu (the taste of which, incidentally, grows on you quite quickly--even the smell makes my mouth water!)also comes in a softer variety, braised in a hot sauce: Ma La Chou Tof Fu. Also, in a hot pot form: Chou Chou Guo. Yummy. I'll have some tonight.

By the way, barbequed chicken ass, blood cake, and duck blood soup should be on your list of foods to eat. They're all over Taiwan.
Eddie Lin said…
anonymous,

eating stinky tofu with a bad sense of smell??? well, that's so not fair. that's like saying what's the problem with guns when you're bulletproof. whatever. try some poison blowfish and let me know if you're immune to that!

thanks for the comment.


taiwan tiger,

did you just recommend "barbequed chicken ass" to me??? buy me a drink first, i hardly know you.
Anonymous said…
Just ate at a restaurant where someone ordered this. Needless to say, I thought I had stepped in something before realizing it wasn't me and looked around to see half the restaurant collectively holding their noses. The person I was with nearly retched. It smells like an unwashed ass. I guess you just had to grow up eating it, but I don't know if even THAT is an excuse!
Eddie Lin said…
"unwashed ass"? man, you people are getting worse and worse with the stinky tofu descriptions. but i guess it would also depend on who the owner of the unwashed ass is. wtf?
Anonymous said…
I like stinky tofu... I don't think you could smell it that far away, and they usually leave it isolated in a "smell-proof" container until served... I think the place you went to didn't do it right, as it shouldn't even have the adjective "repulsive" in the description. Perhaps a bit strong, like blue cheese, but not repulsive.
Anonymous said…
And about the Chou Chou Guo taiwanese tiger mentioned, that literally means stinky stinky pot... they say stinky twice. ;)
Jerome said…
You can get lutefisk in the fall in Van Nuys when the Sons of Norway do their dinner. I went last year and a few years ago. It's just the texture that's odd. The smell is very light, it's like a mildly cod flavored gelatin. I don't get the horror.
Pasteis de bacalao that you can get in Sherman Oaks are much fishier and coddier than lutefisk.
Anonymous said…
My Taiwanese wife introduced it to me 10-15 years ago and I quickly took a liking to it - I love it now. We can currently get it in the South Bay at "Southern Taste" restaurant in the Cupertino Village shopping center, Wolfe Rd. and Homestead Rd., (anchored by Ranch99), and at a small restaurant called "China" in english, I think, in Fremont on Decoto Rd. at Alvarado Niles Rd. (anchored by Marina market). The latter also sells it raw so you can take some of the tasty stuff with you to fry or steam at home. We never cook it indoors! Enjoy...
Anonymous said…
There's a place in Rowland Heights, CA where you can smell their tofu a mile away. Well, maybe a couple of hundred feet away. They have the strongest smelling tofu that I've ever experienced, and it tasted good too. It's next to the Hong Kong Supermarket on Colima Road and Fullerton. Just follow the smell like I did.
Amy said…
awesome. i love stinky tofu and am glad there are so many enthusiasts. eddie, you should definitely try bbq chicken ass! it's good sh*t.
Betty said…
I've moved out of the Bay Area and where I am, there's no stinky tofu available in restaurants.

Probably 10 or 15 years ago, one of the local Chinese Newspaper (Shi Jie Ri Bao, 世界日报) actually printed a version of the recipe. Granted, it is not the traditional way of making it with brine and fermented vegetables, but I've made it myself many times and had quite a few "Stinkfest parties", which luckily have not gotten me kicked out of my apartment. It smell and taste pretty close to the original.

Other interesting articles on Stinky tofu...
1)Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinky_tofu)
2) Study identifying one microb in stinky tofu (http://ift.confex.com/ift/2000/techprogram/paper_2811.htm)
3) Study identifying chemical compound that makes it stink (http://ift.confex.com/ift/2002/techprogram/paper_13155.htm)
asian traveler said…
I tried the Notorious Stinky Tofu when were in Taipei, you might want to check out also my hilarious story.
Anonymous said…
Let me start by saying the I am a fan of Stinky Tofu. I have eaten Stinky Tofu in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. To me it was the stinkier the better until my experience in Ningbo, China. There was this local dish called the "Three Stink). It was Stinky Tofu, Stinky Bamboo Shoots and for the life of me, the last item which I could not remember. The stench was incredible even for someone that has been a fan of the delicacy. I started off with the Tofu and which was already on the edge. But the Stinky Bamboo Shoot had me gagging, spitting and rinsing my mouth with rice wine just to get rid of the taste. I stopped after that and had the waiter remove the dish. The taste in my mouth and the smell lingered with me for days. If you get a chance, go to Ningbo and check it out.
Anonymous said…
FERMENTED TOFU IN A JAR: Actually, there is a "Stinky Fermented Tofu" in a Jar. I was once given a jar of this stuff from a friend from Shanghai but my maid threw it away before I can try it.
radyo said…
informative blog thanks.
Anonymous said…
Love stinky tofu. First introduced to my brothers and I as kids by my dad who, fortunately, warned us that it was an acquired taste a lot like blue cheese and smelled horrible like durian. Now, when we go back to Hong Kong, that's the first thing we're on the lookout for and can't get enough of since we can't get a bad/good smelling dish of the stuff here in the states. Nothing like a freshly fried square of stinky tofu to get you through the day and every person out of your way when you talk to them..
perry said…
... in Beijing, the chou-dofu man used to hang out by the sketchy print shop on my street. And so I thought that the sulfurous fumes (battery acid?) were coming from the shop.

And used to shake my head sadly, as I passed--a little smug horror about workers' rights, then.

Until one day--the smell moved. And when I tracked it, the only thing nearby was the damn cart. Surrounded by school children. Who were eating... whatever was making the smell. With enthusiasm.

... cultural relativism 101.
estetik said…
thank you

your article is perrfect
Sylvia said…
My husband loves tofu, but it leaves the worst taste in my mouth. I ate it in 2nd grade and haven't recovered... Maybe my palette has changed since then, but just the thought gives me the he-bees.

-Sylvia
Smokers Barbecue
Cyberia said…
LMAO. Hyperbole much? Anyway, REAL Chou Doufu (from the Hunan region) is black. If it's golden, it's not authentic :P.
Curt said…
That really was one of the most hysterically funny blogs I have ever read. Congratulations! It brought tears to my eyes from laughing so hard. I recently returned from a business trip in Beijing, and my hotel was in a hutong off a local shopping street with lots of food stalls. In certain areas there was this just simply indescribable odor-like a skunk that died along a Georgia highway and was allowed to remain there for several weeks before someone happened past and vomited on it. Gradually I came to localize the stench and realized it was attached to the chunks of tofu that to my utter horror the locals were lining up to eat.

Curt
Eddie Lin said…
Thank you, Curt. This is one of my favorite posts since I began Deep End Dining.
Jennifer M said…
Ha, ha, ha... I am laughing so hard. What the hell do you read that taught you to write so well? I want the stinky sh-t now just based on how well this was written.
Eddie Lin said…
Thank you, Jennifer M! Your comment made my day! See you back soon...
Rick 3 Chopsticks Wong said…
Just learned about Stinky Tofu after watching Ching-He Huang show on Cooking channel this morning. Looks delicious. Amazingly I am in my 50's and grew up ABC in and around San Francisco Chinatown and have never heard of it or tried it. Thanks for a very hilarious post Eddie. Almost ten years your discussion has been going on. Someone should do a zombie aka Resident Evil/Night of the Living Dead video where the folks who eat this are never attacked by the brain eating zombies - we just breathe at them and watch them run away spewing zombie vomit in disgust.
Eddie Lin said…
Thanks, Rick Wong, for your hilarious comment! Yes, we stinky tofu eaters are the last line of defense against zombies!!
Anonymous said…
My boyfriend and I just went to Spices and ordered Ma Pow stinky tofu. We actually could not believe it ... it smelled like meat farts and dog poop on your shoe. Yet we ate it all!!! nom nom nom