A Violation of the Geneva Conventions. Stinky Tofu - Star Lunch (CLOSED). 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 Dutch ovens you with the worst flatulence 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.
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.
versions since I left Taiwan. It is fabulous.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
did you just recommend "barbequed chicken ass" to me??? buy me a drink first, i hardly know you.
Pasteis de bacalao that you can get in Sherman Oaks are much fishier and coddier than lutefisk.
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...
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)
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.
your article is perrfect