A favorite Chinese food packs a rotten smell, but does it taste that bad?

Sarah Markmann
Put off by the odor, a Danish girl living in Shanghai eventually succumbs to eating stinky tofu
Sarah Markmann

The dish can be described as having a smelly and rotten odor. I've been told that the stronger it smells, the better it tastes. It is comparable to blue cheese but even stronger in smell. Can you guess what Chinese cuisine I am describing?

You might have guessed it; it is stinky tofu!

Stinky tofu is a staple Chinese dish, usually served as street food. It is known for its extremely strong smell. Stinky tofu was always a dish I wanted to try but was hesitant about due to the odor.

 I recall walking past street food vendors that sold stinky tofu and being hit with the strong whiff of its smell. I would hold my breath and pick up my pace, asking myself "why would someone voluntarily eat this?"

My boyfriend, James, always encouraged me to try stinky tofu, as he enjoys eating it. We have talked about me trying it, but I never got around to it. It was not until we were going out to eat with his family, including his grandparents, that I considered trying it.

A favorite Chinese food packs a rotten smell, but does it taste that bad?

Illustration by Rachel Yu

The restaurant we ate at was called "农家菜老大" and it is unique because you order the dishes downstairs where there are many different food stations. There is an immense multitude of food choices, such as seafood, vegetables and meat. The seating area is upstairs, where there are various individual rooms.

The first couple of dishes we ate were pretty tasty, nothing I hadn't tried before. But about halfway through the dinner, I noticed a very strong odor. Surely enough I was able to smell the stinky tofu before it was even placed on the table. I had no intentions of eating this dish until I made eye contact with James' grandpa.

He looked at me, grinning from ear to ear, and pointed to the stinky tofu. I started laughing because I knew he was signaling that I should try this dish. Even though his grandpa and I cannot have complex conversations as he speaks Shanghai dialect, and I speak Mandarin at a beginner level, we find a way to communicate by other means. With some hesitation, I concluded that I could not say no to James' grandpa. I had to suck it up and finally try this dish. I smiled at his grandpa and nodded. This would be the time I finally try stinky tofu.

James reassured me by saying "don't worry it tastes better than it smells, I promise." He also told me that I should dip the stinky tofu in the spicy sauce. Reluctantly I picked up my chopsticks and grabbed a small piece of stinky tofu and dipped it in the sauce. I took a small bite of the tofu, but it was plenty to get a sense of what it tasted like. I did not finish the tofu, but I was glad that I could finally say "I have tried stinky tofu!"

As I am writing this, I am trying to come up with a Danish dish that is comparable to stinky tofu, but I am struggling. There is not one dish from Denmark that I would say is equivalent, however, the closest in terms of odor, would be blue cheese, which is still too strong for my liking.

Growing up I remember opening the fridge and being hit with a strong whiff of blue cheese. My dad loves all types of cheese, including blue cheese, and would often have it in our home. However, my sisters, mom and I would all complain to my dad repeatedly about the odor, and eventually he stopped buying blue cheese to spare us.

In conclusion, I used to hate the smell of stinky tofu, and sadly that has not changed one bit. However, I can confidently say that I can understand why many love this Chinese delicacy. And I do agree that it taste better than it smells. Nevertheless, I will still hold my breath and speed up my pace as I walk past street food venders that sell it.

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