Taiwan, Part Two: Stinky Tofu (With Bonus Duck Blood)

8 Aug

If Taiwan is famous for one food (besides bubble tea), it’s stinky tofu. Stinky tofu is exactly what it sounds like: fermented tofu that smells to high heaven, or more accurately, to the next block. You don’t need to be able to read Chinese to know what a stinky tofu vendor is selling.

Like other fragrant foods, like durian, French cheese, or natto, stinky tofu is an acquired taste — but somewhat addictive once acquired. Take the example of our man in Taipei, a Midwestern boy gently reared on Lutheran cuisine (motto: “Just put it in Jell-o!”) who became a lifelong stinky tofu fan after an internship in Taiwan. He was the one who not only suggested we go for stinky tofu and duck’s blood, but dug up the Google directions for “Stinky Tofu Street” in the suburbs of Taipei. Shenkeng is a district renowned for its tofu, and its Old Street has restaurant after restaurant serving various tofu dishes, as well as street vendors who congregate along Zhongsheng Bridge. The area is literally known as “Under the Big Tree (大樹下).” (I would include the English pronunciation, but I can’t seem to call it up on Google. Maybe one of my Mandarin-speaking readers can help.)

Stinky tofu kebabs

As an appetizer, we started with grilled stinky tofu, which can be topped with a choice of pickles. This is probably the mildest way to eat stinky tofu; the aroma was subdued by the grilling process to a pleasant funkiness. This stall was insanely popular; even though it was nearly 9pm, customers were queued up, sometimes taking 5 or 10 orders home.

Mmm, stinky tofu and duck blood

Not as mild: the famous stinky tofu and duck blood hotpot. The two main ingredients are simmered in a rich, spicy broth. The broth was delicious; complex, satisfying, everything you would want from a hot pot. The stinky tofu was also enjoyable, having absorbed the flavor of the broth (the best thing about tofu as an ingredient is that it’s basically a sponge) while contributing its own slightly funky flavor. (Despite its name, stinky tofu isn’t all that stinky when you eat it.) The duck blood, on the other hand…let’s just say that while I am a fan of black pudding and the like, cubes of coagulated blood is not really my thing. I think it’s a matter of texture: it’s like Jell-o (sanguine flavor). Maybe that’s why our Lutheran friend is such a fan? I will say in its defense that it tasted much cleaner than pig’s blood, which I’ve had in noodle soups in Malaysia. But between this and the duck blood and pork intestine hotpot, I started craving a salad. Tom ended up abandoning the soups entirely and filling up on noodles.

Speaking of which, I’ll be feasting on dumplings and noodles galore in part 3!


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