Perhaps it’s appropriate that Taiwan, a small, vibrant country off the coast of China, is shaped like a sweet potato. This island nation expertly combines many traditions, Chinese with indigenous, Western with Eastern, to make its own, special Taiwanese way of life. And an integral part of that life is the food, both traditional and innovative.
Taiwan is gaining international recognition for its mouthwatering culinary delights: beef noodle soup, mango shaved ice, and dumplings and stuffed buns of all varieties, to name but a few dishes. There are also some edibles that would strike a foreigner as odd, including grilled squids, scallion pancakes, tea eggs (eggs boiled in tea), and ice cream burritos (or, more appropriately, ice cream spring rolls). This last is a modern take on the traditional run bing, and it consists of a thin, crêpe-like base with a couple of scoops of ice cream, shavings of peanut, candy brittle, and a few sprigs of cilantro to top it off. The whole thing is wrapped up and eaten like a burrito (beware biting into solid ice cream!). Despite all of these victuals and so many more, the most striking gustatory experience for any traveler is, undoubtedly, stinky tofu.
Ice Cream Run Bing
Often a night market snack, stinky tofu is fermented tofu that can be served plain, deep-fried, or in soup. Traditionally, stinky tofu takes several months to prepare, allowing it the maximum time to ferment in a brine of milk, vegetables, and meat. Nowadays, preparation is faster (modern technology, getting us our stinky tofu fix, ASAP), but the stench remains. It has to, as it’s often said that the stronger the smell the better the flavor.
I had heard about stinky tofu before I left for Taiwan, in fact from the very students I was going there to teach. Over a Skype video call organized by the school so I could meet my classes ahead of time, the students delighted in telling me about this tofu that smells awful. I couldn’t quite figure it out: if it smells bad, why do you eat it? Why are you so excited about it? Why does anyone sell it? This is the great irony of stinky tofu: Even the Taiwanese recognize that it smells disgusting. Even if people like it, they know it stinks. Some equate this to the French and their cheese, or anyone who likes stinky cheese. While this is not a bad comparison, it is not completely comparable, as the stench of truly stinky cheese is only a fraction as pungent as that of stinky tofu.
Of course, I have a vivid memory of the first time I smelled it. Like many cities, Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, despite its delights, can be quite odoriferous in certain areas. There are food stands galore, all adding their particular aroma to the air, along with the unavoidable smells of almost 3 million people, buildings, factories, companies, etc, all existing within 270 square kilometers (or 105 square miles). It’s a rich olfactory environment, to say the least, made up of smells both good and bad.