Stinky Tofu

That first taste you never forget – by Brent Crane


What first struck me in Hangzhou were the trees. Along South Mountain road, a trendy corridor of cafés, modern art galleries and Western eateries that runs along the eastern shoulder of the lake, there is a line of strong, tall sycamore trees. It’s rare to find an old tree in a Chinese city, where the old tends to give way to the new and young.

Hangzhou is famous in China for its sprawling tea fields and the mythical West Lake, the waters of which have enraptured poets, painters and imperial royalty for centuries. Now they attract an endless stream of camera-toting tourists, with robotic tour guides and knick-knack hawkers. A stroll around the lake’s edge, perhaps once a profoundly calming journey, is now a maze of tour-cart dodging, people sidestepping, pocket checking and ear covering. A place praised for its tranquility and isolation has been transformed into an amusement park.

Yet the city was still a welcome relief after the hustle and bustle of Shanghai and Beijing. There was no denying its sense of quiet, even if you had to dodge the occasional chirping motorbike on the sidewalk. Centuries of solitude and serenity had soaked into the streets, and the ancient was obvious: Buddhist altars, stone dragons, calligraphy scrolls hanging outside open air tea houses, pointy wooden temples and pencil-like pagodas that sat on top of green mountains by the lakeside.

Perhaps it was because of the city’s airiness, but an unescapable lethargy infected me in Hangzhou. By my sixth and final day there I had done or seen nothing remarkable. The bike ride out of town into the steep hills and tea fields was pleasant, the West Lake and the accompanying museum was worth the effort, and nightly socialising with backpackers at the hostel was fine and good. But I hadn’t experienced anything truly memorable. I had come to Hangzhou with a backpack and grand visions of adventure. What I had found was nothing more than a tourist brochure.

On my final night, in search of a late dinner, that I felt compelled to dare myself. I was walking down a popular snack street by my hostel, a long stretch of hawker stands selling all sorts of treats. There were pot-stickers, naan flatbread, roasted meat kebabs, soup dumplings, porky rice balls, grilled clams, crabs and other crustaceans, an ocean’s worth of fish, fruit smoothies, coconut water, fried tarantulas, scorpions and other creepy crawlers. But it was the stinky tofu that I settled on.

Stinky tofu is the only cooked food I can think of that, because of its aroma, you have to fight the impulse to flee. It smells like something between flatulence and meat past its expiration date. It is a smell that presses in on you, a heavy, pungent thing that wraps itself around your whole being like a sweaty snake. It is how I imagine having your face shoved in Kobe Bryant’s armpit during the post-game would feel like. Or spending a night with Peyton Manning’s used jock strap as your pillow.

The hawker noticed me lingering and reeled me in. “Stinky tofu! Want a plate? It’s delicious!” He was 24 but looked 17, and wore a tall white chef’s hat and a pulled-down face mask. The engraved sign that hung above his head read “Hangzhou’s Number One Smelly.” Underneath that, in traditional characters, it said, “Yongchang County Jianmin Company Smelly Tofu Fourth Generation Successor.” On the table were four big blue and white bowls, each with a different topping: cilantro, green onion, pickled garlic and a special sweet crimson-colored sauce.

I asked for an order and the hawker’s face contorted in glee. With silver tongs he picked out six chunks of tofu from a bowl and dropped them into a wok filled with rolling oil. The tofu was grey and rectangular, like little blobs of chewy cement. They smoked in the hot oil and a rusty fan blew the rancid fumes out into the street.

As my food fried I made small talk with the boyish hawker.

“How did you find this job?”

“On the internet. I’ve worked here for five years. My parents are both smelly tofu people too.” He made nearly 10,000 US dollars a year. “I don’t have a girlfriend and I live with my parents”. He paused while motorbikes and tourist hordes slipped past, then continued, “I work six days a week from 5:30pm to 11:30pm”.

“Do you plan to go to college?”

“College? I’m too stupid! I’m not clever at all.”

There was a lady grilling tofu a couple yards away under a sign that said “Fragrant Tofu.” “Why is there another tofu stand set up so close to yours?” I asked.

“We are all owned by the same company and the bosses decided to put her there. It’s not a private company. It’s owned by the government. But no one controls us. If we want to just sit, we sit. If we want to stop, we just stop”.

The tofu was getting smellier by the minute. Once it reached its apex stench, the hawker lifted each piece out of the oil with his tongs and dropped them one by one onto a cardboard tray. “Give me all of the toppings,” I said. He doused the little steaming chunks, now finely browned, with a colourful assortment of spices and herbs. “You want spicy?” he asked. “All of it,” I repeated. I thought that the more external flavouring I could stack on top the tofu, the less noticeable the stink would be. He handed me a long toothpick and the tray of tofu. I stabbed at a square and plunged it into my mouth.

It was chewy in the center but had a crispy skin. It soaked up the sauces nicely, so the fetor was a more subtle flavour than I expected. It gave the tofu a uniqueness without overpowering the palette. It was a spicy meal and I bought a mango smoothie next door to calm the heat. “Not too smelly, huh?” The hawker beamed.

The next morning, the day of my departure, it began pouring rain. It was as if the Gods had switched on a giant luxury shower head in the sky. The cobblestoned streets by my hostel were turned into a river system. Water poured down the steps that lead up into the hills like a mountain stream. Calligraphers kept their studio doors opened and painted to the rhythm of the rain, and tea connoisseurs collected the water for special brews. The tour groups by the lake opened their umbrellas, and the tour guides turned up the volume on their loudspeakers. I walked through the downpour to the train station. Within minutes I was sopping wet, but completely awake.

Brent Crane is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @bcamcrane

Also read Brent's previous dispatches for the Anthill, The Sage and the Sales Pitch and Ramadan in Kashgar