The bite-size cubes of fried tofu look innocuous. They might be little squares of corn bread or fried polenta. Then I pick up the plate and take a whiff. My throat clenches. The rotten aroma triggers a wave of nausea. It's my first visit to a new restaurant called Taiwanese Cuisine on Bellaire, and I'm sitting "nose to nose" with the Taiwanese delicacy called chou tofu -- "stinky tofu."
I ask the restaurant's owner how he would describe that smell. "Sewage" is his one-word reply. In my new book, Are You Really Going to Eat That? Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker, I make some boldclaims about my willingness to eat weird stuff. Now I find news of nasty snacks everywhere I go.
The first time I heard about Taiwanese Cuisine was back in June, when the Houston chowhound.com gang met there for dinner. I didn't go, but the comments they later posted about crispy intestines and stinky tofu were intriguing. Chowhound.com and egullet.com are my two favorite Web sites for keeping track of what the adventurous are eating these days. Each has a special Texas section. If you want to share deep food thoughts or locate ethnic foods, I highly recommend both sites.
Of course, there's a difference between eating odd things to learn about culture and choking down spiders on Fear Factor. Stinky tofu, which is actually called "funky bean curd" on the menu here at Taiwanese Cuisine, is an excellent case in point.
Legend has it that tofu was invented by a Chinese feudal lord named Lu An during the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to 8 AD). Tofu is made by separating soy milk into curds and whey in a process very similar to the way cheese is made from cow's milk. Fresh tofu spoils quickly, and it was long a Chinese tradition for tofu-makers to work through the night to provide fresh tofu by breakfast time.
Stinky tofu was originally fermented as a preservation method. "Old grandmothers claim that tofu was fermented to last through winter, and that deep-frying it removed whatever bacteria that might have developed," according to the article "Joy of Soy" on walkerasia.com. "Some Taiwanese even offer that decades ago, stinky tofu was devised by cooks in military camps as a cold-resisting, yang-boosting staple for soldiers patrolling China's borders." There isn't any reason to ferment tofu anymore, but a taste for stinky tofu persists among the Taiwanese. If you love sauerkraut, as I do, you immediately recognize the parallel. What is sauerkraut or kimchi but stinky cabbage? These are foods that became important when fermentation was a prime method of food preservation. And now their stinky flavors are imbedded in their respective cuisines.
At first, putting these foul-smelling things in your mouth seems like some kind of childish stupidity. But the more you learn about these foods, the more fascinating they become. Foods that are repugnant to the uninitiated are often emblems of membership of a culture, Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania once explained to me. The Taiwanese party with funky tofu; Laotians love incredibly pungent fermented fish sauces made from whole fish; and other Southeast Asians crave durian, the fruit that smells like rotten eggs. The Eskimos relish a putrefied whale blubber that no one else can stand.
If you think Western cuisine is different, you're quite wrong. A friend of mine who was born and raised in Thailand confessed to me that he had been trying for years to eat Roquefort, the stinky French cheese. But try as he might, he can never get it past his nose. To him, it's the most disgusting-smelling food in the whole world. He says it smells like vomit.
But by now, those of you who aren't terribly interested in eating weird stuff may be wondering: Why would I want to go to this restaurant? To that excellent question, I would respond that you want to go to Taiwanese Cuisine because any restaurant uncompromising enough to offer six kinds of stinky tofu isn't pulling any punches on the other Chinese dishes, either.
For instance, take the menu item "sautéed chicken with basil," which I try on a subsequent visit. It sounds innocent, and the chunks of chicken look normal enough. But what a shock when you bite into it! Those things that look like half-peanuts turn out to be huge slivers of garlic. And every bite seems to contain a leaf or two of pungent basil and a big flat slice of fresh ginger root. Thanks to the unabashed seasonings, this is one of the most flavorful chicken dishes I've ever had.
The excellent mussels come swimming in inky fermented black bean juice and thoroughly coated with garlic and chive slices. The same profusion of garlic and chives coats the salt-baked pepper shrimp, this time with big slices of jalapeño added. The shrimp are served unshelled with the heads on. It may be the best thing on the menu. My dining companions choose to peel them, but I eat them Chinese-style: heads, shells and all. (Chew carefully -- they're sharp.)
The shrimp appear on a special menu section called "Drinker's Appetizers," along with smoked duck, sautéed oysters, roasted sardines, crispy intestines and pork tripe with pickled greens. Despite its offerings for drinkers, Taiwanese Cuisine doesn't serve alcoholic beverages, so I'm compelled to walk to the grocery store a few doors down and pick up a six-pack of Heineken to complete the experience.
The beer goes especially well with the cold appetizers. We try marinated cucumbers, which taste like freshly made pickles; "roasted" beef, well-done beef slices served cold in a mild sauce and marinated seaweed; and a crunchy seaweed salad with a slightly funky fermented tang.
Duck with mushrooms and dried bean curd skin is very interesting, although the presentation of hacked meat still on the bone makes for slow eating. My tablemates immediately wolf down the giant brown mushroom caps. None of us knows quite what to make of the dried bean curd skin, which looks like unopened flower blossoms and tastes like chewy pasta. It's not an easy dish to love, but it's certainly not boring.
My least favorite items at Taiwanese Cuisine are the stir-fried cuttlefish, which I find rubbery; the beef in black pepper sauce, which is too plain; and the syrupy sweet-and-sour pork ribs, which I immediately regret letting the woman at the cash register talk me into in the first place.
There isn't any table service at Taiwanese Cuisine; you order at the front counter. This being my first visit, the owner is surprised when I ask for funky bean curd. When our order's ready, he brings it out to the table with a warning: "The first one is hard to eat. But the second one is okay. You get used to it."
After passing the plate back and forth for a few initial sniffs, my lunch companion and I pick up our chopsticks. I dip a stinky cube into the sauce and shove it into my mouth. It's steaming hot, so I don't really taste much of anything on the first bite. But as I swallow, the aroma reaches my olfactory nerves from the inside of my mouth, and I have to fight to suppress my revulsion.
On her first bite, my dining companion's eyes widen and her face turns gray. She considers spitting it out, but she decides to try to swallow it. She gags audibly as she gets a whiff of what's in her mouth, but somehow she chokes it down. I think it's safe to say that stinky tofu will never again cross her lips. I eat a second cube to test the owner's contention that it gets better. After five cubes of stinky tofu, I think it's fair to say I've given it a try. I'll try it again whenever I go back to Taiwanese Cuisine, but it may take me quite a while to get used to it.
I wonder if it would taste better dipped in blue cheese dressing?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.