The Legendary Origins Of Stinky Tofu

Taiwan is famous as a foodie destination due to its plentiful night markets and vibrant street food culture. There are over 70 night markets in the small country and 30 alone in the nation's capital Taipei (via Hop on World). Stinky tofu is one of the country's most infamous street foods, and comes in various forms — deep-fried, steamed, grilled, stewed, or braised — but it is always accompanied by its signature aroma. The treat has a somewhat intense and extremely pungent scent, which is the result of the fermentation process it undergoes in production, according to Reuters

Although its smell can be a bit divisive — there are a few who don't dare to even go near the street food because of it — stinky tofu is a mainstay of Taiwanese street food culture, and has been served out of street stalls for generations. In fact, stinky tofu has been around for at least a couple hundred years though who exactly invented it and how they developed the fermentation process responsible for the 'stinky' in stinky tofu is still up for debate.

A tofu merchant accidentally ferments his precious product

One legend, according to BBC, tells the tale of stinky tofu as the result of a happy accident. A shop owner with unsold tofu that had gone untouched for days, discovered that his supply of bean curd and soy milk had turned green and begun to ferment. Despite its foul odor, the owner decided to taste the tofu instead of wasting it and found it was actually pretty tasty. From there the story says he began to sell the stinky tofu with great success, eventually impressing China's Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty and landing his product on a list of foods served at the imperial palace during the 1800s.

Another tale, as reported by China Daily, has it that a scholar during the same dynasty, Wang Zhihe, failed an imperial examination in Beijing and needed to sell tofu to cover the cost of travel to get back home. Eventually, his tofu supply went bad so he pickled so he could eat it later for himself, only to forget the concoction until he found a delightfully tasting discovery months later. In this story too, Wang Zhihe began selling the product, which became so popular it gained the Empress' attention.

Whether it was a merchant's excess wares gone bad or a pickled lunch left forgotten for months, what is certain is that stinky tofu found its way onto Empress Cixi's plate and into her heart and eventually landed in Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. Today, after a mysterious centuries-long journey, it's become a Taiwanese national treasure and is found in every street market.