If you've never had stinky tofu (chou do fu) before, you might be really grossed out by the idea of the dish. Smelling the dish wouldn't help either. Essentially, stinky tofu is tofu that has been fermented and smells like it has gone bad.
It is a popular street snack in Asia and you often find it in night markets. You can enjoy it deep fried, steamed, or many other ways. The fried version is a bit less stinky, and is a good place to start if you've never had this dish before. Typically, stinky tofu is accompanied by a strong sauce, either spicy or sweet. It is made by marinating tofu in a brine of fermented milk, vegetables, and fermented shrimp for a minimum of several hours.
The fermentation process creates a broth that is full of good bacteria cultures, sort of like yogurt. Because bacteria cultures differ from location to location, the complex flavors of stinky tofu can vary a lot depending on where it's made. Similar to cheese, location, temperature, and time can wildly affect the flavor of a final stinky tofu product. Oftentimes, stinky fermentation broths take months to develop.
Once the broth is ready, the tofu is marinated in the broth for 4-6 hours. During this time, enzymes in the broth break down the proteins in the tofu. This chemical process releases compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, which may account for some of the stinky smells. Of course, the process also creates a lot of complex, "flavorful" amino acid molecules as well.
Many people associate the smell of stinky tofu with garbage or sewage. Nevertheless, people who swear by the dish claim that the stinkier the tofu, the better it is. It's an acquired taste, sort of like blue cheese, fois gras, or other strong tasting foods. I have had mild stinky tofu a number of times, and I think it's OK, although I don't think I could handle the really strong stuff.
In Boston, you can get stinky tofu at Taiwan Cafe, Jo Jo Taipei, and Gourmet Dumpling House. It's supposedly mild at these restaurants, so it's not a bad idea to start there before trying it straight off the streets of Asia!
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