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Jul 13, 2006 12:08 AM

Jim Leff wimps out on the stinky tofu

From Jennifer Bain in the Toronto Star:

I line up 15 minutes for a serving, only to discover the tofu's fermented with dried shrimp. I'm allergic — and off the hook.

But none of my four market companions will take a bite — even Jim Leff, the New York co-creator of (a site "for those who love to eat").

"I can't get it within two feet of my face without feeling deeply, deeply nauseous, which shames me greatly," Leff admits.

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  1. I have had 3 or so variations of fermented tofu. Some very firm some more silky/slimy. Don't know enough to correctly ID them, but I do know that one variety I had at a Taiwanese restaurant in Boston went beyond my limits of comfort. Pungency way beyond any runny stinky cheese I have experienced.

    As for natto, there is variation in flavors there, too. I do agree that it is more of a slim issue than pungency issue.

    And, Gary, thanks for posting that link. Good reminder of the delights to be found when I next visit Toronto.


    2 Replies
    1. re: wrayb

      That's okay, Jim! I feel the same way about a lot of tripe dishes. Even worse, I feel guilty when I order a dish in an ethnic restaurant that arrives reeking of tripe and I can't eat it. I feel like I've ruined the restaurant for the next gringo who comes along and will get the "gringos won't eat that" treatment. I look forward to at least trying stinky tofu, but not natto -- that slimy, mucuous appearance is just too repellant!

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        hey! ive been on a natto handroll for breakfast kick for two weeks running now. I cant imagine my life before it...yes i love it that much./

    2. There is a very stinky Korean tofu stew. A variation on daengjang chigae, a stew made from fermented soy beans (like the Japanese miso). Except this daengjang is fermented way beyond stinkiness. I've only tasted it once, from food court purveyor in the top floor of a Los Angeles/Koreatown shopping center, but it was difficult to get close to the bowl. However, to my dad, this rare treat was ambrosial.

      5 Replies
      1. re: dippedberry

        Do you know what it's called? I would like to try it.

        1. re: Humbucker

          If I'm not mistaken, I believe the poster is referring to a stew called "chung gook jang" -- my family loves it and my mom makes it as often as she can, despite all the protestations about the stench. It's basically the same stuff that goes into dwaenjang but the soybean paste is not as far gone in the fermentation process.... anyways, the korean stores now carry chung gook jang but it's nowhere as stinky (or as good) as the real homemade stuff -- really, after we have this at home, the house is off limits to visitors for weeks! I don't know of any korean restos that make this though (at least not here in Toronto where I live)...

          1. re: berbere

            I've had this stew in a Korean restaurant in Manhattan that specializes in tofu (Cho Dang Gol Restaurant). The waiter looked horrified when I ordered it and strongly warned me against it. Usually, when that happens, I know I'm in for a wonderful treat. But this time the waiter was right and it nauseated me. As a point of pride, I ate every bit of the huge casserole. By the end, I got accustomed to it. But I never ordered it again.

            1. re: Brian S

              Found it!


              Now I must track down a restaurant in my area (silicon valley) that serves it...

              1. re: Brian S

                Was is ChoDangGol, Natural Tofu, LiHua or some other place?

        2. I don't have an "aversion" to stinky tofu (I have aversions to bologna, bleu cheese, and chocolate cheesecake). I'm not psychologically blocked or grossed out. I'm willing to eat it. I like the idea of it. I even love foo-yee, a near cousin (also a fermented tofu) which Cantonese people think NO gringos like.

          But the smell just turns my stomach. Cannot get near mouth. Purely visceral reaction.


          2 Replies
          1. re: Jim Leff

            Thank God someone else (especially you dear Jim Leff) has an aversion to bleu cheese.Everyone loves bleu cheese and treats you like a psycho killer if you hate it.I've eaten guinea pigs, crickets, racoon,lobster guts are my favorite food but bleu cheese totally freaks me out.Everyone is always trying to make me eat it. (Shudder)

            1. re: missclaudy

              Bleu cheese tastes like plastic to me. I can choke it down, even gauge a "good" one. But it's just unfood-like to me. And I'm surprised more bleu lovers don't understand. I mean, I love cilantro, but I certainly understand why some don't. It's such a specific sort of taste, it's easy to imagine why some wouldn't deem it food.

          2. Jim, I had my cousins trying to help me acquire the taste for 'stinky tofu' in HK every summer for almost 10 years. I agree whole stomachedly with your visceral reaction.

            There may be hope for us though ... after about 20 years of on and off exposure to durian I finally acquired the taste. And it used to taste as bad as it smelled (to me of course) I am waiting for my next dose. Luckily I am not addicted yet.

            16 Replies
            1. re: kerwintoronto

              I can do durian, in small amounts, as a milkshake. I can ingest it, I just have

              Stinky tofu I can't get close. Weird that I like foo yee. Who knows.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Foo yee rocks!

                I find foo yee more along the lines of a ferment sweet/savory nuoc mam (fish sauce) or anchovy paste. I thnk stinky tofu is that plus another whole layer of fermenting/aging.

                I never got the stinky tofu to my lips so I can't say much as to the taste.

                1. re: kerwintoronto

                  Funnily enough, stinky tofu doesnt taste how it smells! It tastes AWESOME if you can put the smell past your taste buds. Perhaps hold your nose next time, until you can get the tofu into your mouth, and then try tasting it. :) Oh, and the chilli sauce (dao ban jeung) helps too.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    No, why? Do you suspect I'm somehow infected?

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      No, no. Pencillium fungus puts the blue in blue cheese. I was musing that your taste aversion might be your body's way of protecting itself.

                    2. re: Melanie Wong

                      Don't think it works that way. My mother's allergic to penicillin and is fond of blue cheese, whereas I have no physical aversian to penicillin, but a definite "taste aversion" to blue cheese.

                  2. re: kerwintoronto

                    In Hong Kong, on burrow street at Wan Chai Rd there's a small take out place that makes better Fried Stinky Tofu than most other places. The light golden outer layer had this blistery (but fine) texture while the inside was honeycomb-like, and just the right driness. I think the guy makes it better than the woman. It's also especially good of course, just fresh out of the oil.

                    Someone asked if "anyone ever crave stinky tofu"...The answer is, "you have no idea how much!!!"

                      1. re: Gary Soup

                        I wish I could post pictures and have them come up as fast and painlessly as yours....

                        Anyway, the ones from Hong Kong are pretty big and rectangular.

                        The ones from my childhood in Taiwan were square but much flatter and has almost nothing inside. so, pure fried tofu skin with a kick.

                        The ones from the US's Taiwanese restaurants are almost always like the ones in your picture....I guess things change within the same country through different times...

                        And how about the stinky tofu from Wu3Han4? Flat, black, not sure if it's even deep fried...but more like a dougan texture. Pretty good, too. In fact, if I couldn't have the ones from the olden time of Taiwan, I'd prefer this.....

                        Of course, the stinkiest might be the Shanghainese STEAMED stinky tofu...!!!

                        1. re: HLing

                          Oh I've seen the blackened stinky fu's. They look horrid!!! They're so black I dont even wanna put it in my mouth. What makes them that black?

                      2. re: HLing

                        I totally crave stinky tofu! The good kind. BUT I'm sorry to say, last visit to Taiwan two years ago, I didn't find it all that great! My mom told me what I remembered from childhood were probably stinky tofu produced 'authentically', with real mold and rot :P While now days with sanitary standards, they can't possible produce the same kind of stink and taste. Alas, I think she might be right.. I tried stinky tofu in two different cities in Taiwan in four different street stalls, all were lacking.

                        I've not been to HK, but if I ever do, I will definitely check them out there too.

                          1. re: Gary Soup

                            I went to HK half a year ago, and I must admit that although the smell of the tofu was quite pungent, I have to admit that the taste was less than overwhelming. Perhaps the sanitary standards got to them too (since street cart food is mostly illegal if not outright so these days in HK and has practically vanished from the cultural milieu of the city).

                            1. re: Gary Soup

                              I spent three months in HK in 1997 and lived near the Temple Street Night Market. Every night a woman would show up and start frying stinky tofu on a portable burner. Every night the police would show up after about an hour and chase her away. The following night she would return. Her tofu was especially odoriforous, but delectable, and her regulars knew when to be there to score some.

                              1. re: Gary Soup

                                PRICELESS! Some scientist wrote a paper on stinky tofu! Now that's a real chowhound!

                        1. Excuse me, but has anyone yet said they actually crave the stuff?

                          I've had it once, at a very good Taiwanese restaurant, and the best I can say about it is that it doesn't taste as bad as it smells. But as a tofu lover I must say that I can think of hundreds of other versions I like better.

                          So can anyone tell me it's a taste worth developing?

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Steve

                            As you'll soon see (via a photo essay I"m working up), vast teeming hordes of people lined up for this stuff at the Toronto Night Market....

                            It's like stinky cheese. Love/hate.

                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              Most stinky cheeses taste a lot better than they smell: Muenster and Liederkranz, for example, would be disgusting if they tasted the way they smell.

                              Stinky tofu, what you smell is pretty much what you get.

                              1. re: Jim Leff

                                Maybe.... one man's "smell" is another man's "aroma." But I have never smelled a stinky cheese that rivals stinky tofu. I look forward to seeing your photo essay! Too bad Smell-O-Rama never hit the Internet.

                                One question - did you wear nose plugs?