Oct 17, 2004
A Violation of the Geneva Conventions. Stinky Tofu - Star Lunch. Chinatown, San Francisco.
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.