Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish

Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish (song shu gui yu.) is a dish associated with Suzhou, the city west of Shanghai famed for its gardens. Tradition has it that the Qianlong Emperor once stopped at the Crane House there during his Southern Tour and saw a carp flopping on the holy table and ordered it cooked for him. The chef, knowing it was the emperor's order, spared no effort in flavoring and seasoning it.. In order to be exempted from the sin of killing the “holy fish”, he made the carp into the shape of a squirrel with its head and tail soaring high. The dark reddish brown fish, crisp outside and tender amid, was sour and sweet enough to the Emperor’s taste. He appreciated it very much and the Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish dish was thus created. [Source: Feng Hui, suzhou.gov.cn]

The fish for Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish must be fresh and the prepared dish must be characterized by the tenderness of the flesh and sparseness of the bones. After scaling and frying, the head of the fish looks big with its mouth wide open, the tail bends upwards, and the flesh imitates the erecting hair of a squirrel. It is said sprinkling it with shrimp meat, dried bamboo shoots and tomato ketchup causes it to squeak. In this way Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish is complete in color, smell, flavour and sound, and will arouse the appetite of whoever sees it.

Laura Kiniry wrote in Atlas Obscura: “Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish” is boned, and then its flesh is cut with a diamond-shaped knife pattern. It’s then seasoned, battered, and deep-fried. Crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside, it gets its name both from its elaborate appearance and for the squealing sound it makes when covered in hot sweet-and-sour sauce. “It’s a fish that looks like a squirrel, ” says Jerry Gao, a chef at the InterContinental Suzhou. “The fish meat is spread out like gold fur, and its head and tail are both turned up.” [Source: Laura Kiniry, Atlas Obscura, September 21, 2018]

Song shu gui yu has become so popular that it appears on menus countrywide, served from Beijing to Guangzhou with all the aplomb of royalty. “When guests from other areas of China [visit], the first thing they want to try is song shu gui yu, ” says Pan Xiaomin, head chef of Suzhou’s SCHotel Group. Within Suzhou, it’s gradually becoming more than an occasional splurge, too. “Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish is an expensive dish, because mandarin fish is expensive and the way to make song shu gui yu is not easy, therefore only on special occasions, we eat it, ” says Chen. “Since our living conditions are becoming better and better, many people [are now able to] afford to pay for this dish and enjoy it.”

Both Xiaomin and Gao describe song shu gui yu as the epitome of Suzhou cuisine. It’s a dish, as Goa describes, that utilizes “fresh ingredients and fine-cutting skill.” It’s so masterfully diced and unusual in appearance. The Qianlong Emperor popularized the squirrel-inspired delicacy in the 18th century. Each time Qianlong traveled to Suzhou from Beijing on one of his “Southern Inspection Tours, ” which oversaw the area’s Imperial progress, he stopped by the Songhelou restaurant to order it, often in disguise. “Qianlong really enjoyed it, ” says Xiaomin. “His endorsement is why this dish is so beloved.”

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Good Academic site on regional cuisines kas.ku.edu ; China.org Food Guide china.org ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org Rice Culture Article china.org ; Eating China Blog eatingchina.com/blog ; Imperial Food, Chinese Government site china.org.cn; Wikipedia article on History of Chinese Food Wikipedia ; Chopstix chopstix.com ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; Chinese Food Recipes chinesefood-recipes.com : Food Tours in China, China Highlights China Highlights Books: “Beyond the Great Wall; Recipes and Travels in the other China” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan, 2008) features travel stories, political analysis and recipes from Tibet, Xinjiang, Guizhou, Inner Mongolia and other places off the beaten track in China.

Peking Duck

Peking duck is one of the best known Chinese dishes. The duck is marinated in oil, sauce and molasses many hours, then skin-roasted in a special oven, and carved up into pieces that are rolled up in paper-thin pancakes with slivered spring onions, leeks or sliced cucumber and hoisin sauce or plum sauce. Sometimes the meat is wrapped in doughy sesame buns rather than pancakes. The meat is very rich. Usually Peking duck has to be ordered in advance or is eaten at a restaurant that specializes in it. It is often sliced at the table. It best to get a piece of oily roast duck and strips of crispy duck skin and wrap them together in a thin pancake with spring onions and plum sauce.

Peking duck
Peking duck was reportedly invented 1,200 years ago in the Tang capital of Chang'an when two nobleman put live ducks in an iron cage that was placed over a charcoal fire. As the temperature rose the thirsty ducks drank from a bowl, accidently placed before them, filled with a mixture of vinegar, salt, honey, malt and ginger, and kept drinking the mixture until they died. The noblemen ate the ducks and were delighted with the taste. The flavor of the meat was delicious because the duck had been poached their own sweat and the ingredients in the mixture.

The ducks used to make Peking Duck are 35 days old and have been fattened for the last 10 days when they are slaughtered. Properly prepared Peking duck is roasted in an apricot-wood-fired oven for one hour and 15 minutes and cut up with a giant clever at the diner's table. Diners are first presented with a plate of crispy skin and meat then a platter of moist duck meat. Sometimes the pancakes arrive in a bamboo steamer. Usually they arrive piled on a plate. After diners roll up the meat, scallions or cucumbers and plum sauce in a pancake there is nothing to stop them from popping the whole thing into their mouths.

Hot Pot

Mongolian hot pot is a traditional winter dish consisting of frozen bean curd, bean flour noodles, beef and mutton cooked with other ingredients and spices in a hot pot in boiling oil and broth. In hot pot restaurants, customers often cook the ingredients in their own individual pots or a pot eaten collectively by a group that is heated by a burner under the table. When the ingredients are ready you pluck them out of the pot with your chopsticks and dip them in a tasty sauce and eat them. Hot pot was created by nomads on the steppes of Mongolia. A Mongolian barbecue — an American invention — consists of meat, poultry and vegetables picked by the customer and then cooked on a big grill.

Hot pot is summer dish in Sichuan, and the hotter it is — both in terms of temperature and spiciness — the better. The idea is that if you eat a very hot dish, it will make you sweat and keep you cool. One man at a hot pot restaurant in Chongqing told the New York Times, "If you want to get cool, you have to get hot."

Hot pot in Sichuan is made in an iron pot filled with boiling oil and hot chili peppers. Ingredients include pig's or cow’s brains, cow's throat, calf's liver, seaweed, vegetables and most anything that a cook wants throw in. Pig's blood is often added to give it body. Sometimes the selections are dipped fondue-like into the pot.

According to local lore, Sichuan hot pot developed in the 19th century in Chongqing, where laborers who pulled river boats upstream on the Yangtze River were based. The laborers were poorly paid and lived in camps. The first hot pots were pots placed on campfires and filled with water and whatever the laborers threw in.

Hot pot restaurants resembles saunas in which eating is allowed and are packed when the temperatures rise above 100̊F in the middle of the summer. They generally have no air conditioning and each table has hearth that emits heat like a small furnace. One of the diners said "There is no way you can feel hot when you leave here, because every place else feels cool.”

Describing the inside of the Jin Jianglan Hot Pot restaurant in Chongqing, Seth Faison wrote in the New York Times, "Meng and his pals took of their shirts and hung them on a hook on the wall, as though it were time to get down to business, which in this case simply meant eating and sweating. So accustomed are they to the ritual, however, that none of the friends showed more than a thin bead of forehead perspiration until well into the meal."

Hairy Crab

Crab meat is a delicacy in China, with hairy, green, mud crabs from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River around Shanghai regarded as the best. The autumn is considered as the best time to eat them: September for females, when its it said their meat is especially tender, and October for males. Hong Kong hosts beauty pageant for hairy green mud crabs. In 2004, a pair crowned king and queen were auctioned off for $25,600.

Shanghai is famous for its freshwater "hairy" crabs. The crabs are indigenous to rivers and lakes in the Shanghai and Kuangchou regions and is raised in fish farm ponds, often filled with Yangtze River water. In markets the crabs are sold live with their legs bound together with rubber bands. Smaller crabs are said to be tastier than large ones.

Offering a guest some fresh crab is regarded as the best possible form of hospitality in Shanghai. Chinese not only eat the meat the also enjoy consuming the crab innards (known as “kanimiso”), which is found under the carapace. The eggs in females is also eaten. Much of the time the crab is prepared in a bamboo steamer. The carapace is opened by hand and the meat and kanimiso is plucked out with chopsticks and dipped in soy sauce with vinegar and ginger.

Dim Sum

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Dim Sum Siu Maai

Dim sum restaurants in southern China feature goodies wheeled around on carts from table to table by a dim sum maids. Dim sum chefs often prepare 40 to 70 different items. Skilled dim sum chefs like to experiment, dream up new dishes and give them color ful names like “Blooming Flower for Good Luck.” Sometimes they flip through nature magazines for inspiration. Describing a dim sum chef from Taishan in Guangdong, Walter Nichols wrote in the Washington Post, “Working quickly, using the side of a Chinese cleaver, he flattens one ball of each color of dough into a three-inch disk. The disks are then layered together, and a glob of sticky lotus paste is centered on the top of the disk. Tucking and trimming the dough into a ball that encloses the paste. Ruan uses a razor blade to secure the dough, then gently pulls back layers to form the lotus flowers.”

Dim sum means “heart’s delight” in Cantonese and is known in southern Chinese as “yum cha” (meaning tea time). The dishes and snacks are often eaten with tea. Aficionados put as much care into selecting the right tea, with many selecting a pu-he, chrysanthemum or oolong variety. It is a good idea to get to a dim sum restaurant early — between noon and 1:00pm — while the selection is good and the items are fresh and steaming, but that is also when lines can be the longest. Some diners get a table near the kitchen so they get dishes right after they have been prepared.

First timers tend to select too many items form the first cart that passes by. More experienced dim sum eaters are patient and carefully select a variety of small plates from as many as six carts, generally starting with steamed dumplings and baked meat-filled buns and saving the heavier pan-fried and deep-fried dishes for last, remembering to set aside some space for a tart from the sweets cart at the end. After selections are made the server checks off the dish on a menu whose choices are divided into different price ranges that have no relation to portion size.

Dim Sum Favorites

Among the Western dim sum favorites are shrimp dumplings (“hargau”), open faced pork dumplings, “sui mai” (steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce), “char siu bau” (sweet barbecued pork), steamed spare ribs, meat dumplings, steamed shrimp dumplings, rice and chicken in a lotus leaf, spare ribs with a special sauce, steamed rolls with chicken, and chicken legs steamed with black beans. Many are served in small bamboo steamers Also features are things like fresh rice-flour crepes filled with minced meat and steamed vegetables; football-shaped dumplings made with rice-flour dough stuffed with minced pork, shrimp and vegetables; steamed shrimp dumplings with shrimp and minced bamboo enclosed in a wheat-starch wrapper; roast pork buns made with sweet bread filled with sliced roast pork; assorted meats such as Chinese sausage, roast pork, and diced shrimp wrapped and steamed in lotus leaves with and sticky rice.

left Among those favored by Chinese are fish balls, jellyfish skins, sea snails, beef tendons, duck tongues, chicken feet, chewy beef tripe, turnip cakes, steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce; green tea balls with black sesame paste and pigs intestines. Foremost among dim sum sweets is “daan-taat” (a tart filled with baked egg custard)

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: tasty dim sung includes: 1) Shrimp dumplings (sia jiao) — Chunks of fresh shrimp steamed in a thin wrapper that creates a tasty juice broth inside when cooked; 2) Glutinous rice with chicken (nuo mi ji) — A mix of glutinous rice, meat, mushrooms and salted egg yolk wrapped in a lotus leaf; 3) Barbecued pork buns (cha shao bao) — Savoury pork cooked inside a bun; 4) Baked turnip pastry (luo bo si bing) — Delicate flaky pastry with a savoury filling of shredded turnip and seasoned with salted ham and scallion; 5) Spring rolls (chun juan) — The original of the Western favorite known as an egg roll: meat and vegetables deep fried in a thin wrapper; 6) Pork dumplings (shao mai) — A mix of minced pork and shrimp, cooked in an open egg-based wrapper; 7) Turnip cake (luo bo gao) — Steamed and mashed turnip, mixed with sausage, pork, shrimp and mushrooms, and pan fried. Tastes great when dipped into a little vinegar. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

White Soup with Stewed Pig Feet

White Soup with Stewed Pig Feet is a dish contained with a particular restaurant in Sichuan Province. A reporter with the Yomiuri Shimbun wrote: In Chengduthere is a very popular restaurant that sometimes causes traffic jams around the area because many customers park their cars on the road to visit it. It is called Lao Ma Ti Hua and is near the People's Park in central Chengdu. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug 26, 2014]

“Lao Ma Ti Hua is also the name of the restaurant's signature soup. The soup is made from stewed pig feet, and its popularity gave rise to the restaurant's name. In Sichuan, chili-spiked, red, spicy food is common. However, this soup is white. The pig feet are stewed for four to five hours with salt and seasonings. The soup is delicious as it is, but adding a special sauce made from soy sauce also makes it taste sublime. The soup is rich in collagen and served with beans and finely chopped scallions. It costs 22 yuan (S$4.50).

“When I visited the restaurant during lunchtime, 80 percent of the customers were women. "Despite how it appears, the soup has a light flavor, " said 17-year-old Lin Yan, a popular server at the restaurant. "It's also very good for your skin."

General Tso’s Chicken and General Tso

General Tso chicken is one of the most famous Chinese dishes in the West. It is named after General Tso Tsung-Tang (Zuo Zonong), a fierce warrior born in Wenjialong in Hunan in 1812 who was credited with crushing a number of rebellions that threatened the Qing dynasty. It is not clear how the dish became named after him. There is a Hunan dish that bears his name but it is quite different from the sweet and spicy offered at restaurants in the United States.

German Lopez wrote in Vox.com: “General Tso’s chicken is freaking delicious. And thankfully, it’s enormously popular in America’s Chinese restaurants, making it easy to purchase and even get delivered to your door at 1 am on a Saturday. But you might be surprised to learn that General Tso’s chicken is actually not very big in China — and it doesn’t even originate from mainland China. In fact, it hasn’t even been around for long: Its creation is widely credited to Peng Chang-kuei (who recently died) in 1952. [Source: German Lopez, Vox.com, December 28, 2016]

“The story goes like this: During the Chinese civil war, much of the country’s old political leadership fled to Taiwan in the late 1940s. Peng, the chef to China’s acting president, went with them. In 1952, Peng was cooking dinner for a visiting diplomatic envoy. He wanted to make something very special. So he made a unique kind of chicken, naming it after General Tso Tsung-t’ang, who is revered in Hunan, Peng’s hometown back in mainland China. (As Peng’s son told Great Big Story, “General Tso's chicken is a symbol of Hunan flavor.”)

“After his chicken became a hit in Taiwan, Peng brought the dish to the United States, particularly New York City. It also became a big success here, largely thanks to glowing media coverage about how much then — Secretary of State Henry Kissinger loved it. As word spread, imitators popped up. They added sugar, sauces, and spices to the dish — to the point that General Tso’s chicken in much of the US doesn’t even taste like the original. But funnily enough, the recipe never took off in mainland China. So as America and Taiwan gobble it up, much of mainland China doesn’t even know about it.

Chinese general Tso Tsung-Tang (1812-1885) against the Taiping During the Taipin Rebellion and against the Muslims in Gansu. He is hero in China for marching into Turkestan (Xinjiang) and ending Yakub Beg's rule there. Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ In 1873, Chinese General Tso Tsung-tang established himself in Barkoul and Hami in eastern Xinjiang, having been sent by the government to endeavour to put a stop to the great Muslim rebellion, which, beginning with a mere spark, had spread like wildfire all over Western China, and through Central Asia. The difficulties to be overcome were so great as to appear almost insuperable. It was then common to meet with articles in the foreign press in China, ridiculing both the undertaking of Tso, and the fatuity of the government in endeavouring to raise money by loans, in order to pay the heavy war expenses thus incurred. Within a year of his arrival in the rebellious districts, Tso's army was marching on either side of the lofty T'ien-shan in parallel columns, driving the rebels before them. When they reached a country in which the supplies were insufficient, the army was turned into a farming colony and set to cultivating the soil with a view to raising crops for their future support. Thus alternately planting and marching, the "agricultural army" of Tso thoroughly accomplished its work, an achievement which has been thought to be among “the most remarkable in the annals of any modern country." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Mutton Town, Odorless Mutton and Long Legs Mutton

The Shanghai Daily reported: Mutton (sheep, lamb, goat) has always been an important dish. Traditional Chinese medicine recommends mutton in winter, as it's a yang (hot) energy food that boosts your own energy. Winter is the time to build energy. Many people find the mutton odor disagreeable, even when the meat is cooked with a lot of spices. But the best mutton has no odor, even when it's boiled. Most people go to Beijing, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region or the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for the best, odorless mutton (it comes from castrated sheep and there's no hormone smell). Mutton isn't as popular in the south, but many small towns near Shanghai have been preparing mutton for centuries, with their unique family recipes. [Source: Shanghai Daily, February 23, 2009, China.org]

Long Legs Mutton is a tiny, dusty and dilapidated eatery hidden in a long narrow lane of Zhoupu Town in Nanhui District, above an hour's drive from downtown. The town itself is small and unremarkable and Long Legs isn't a real restaurant. It only has a small butcher's counter where mutton is sold and six dusty tables and some chairs outside. It fits the description of those secret little food havens in martial arts novels. Even most Shanghainese don't know about it. Most people pass by because it's closed for most of the day.

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The mysterious Long Legs Mutton belongs to Uncle Long Legs, whose real name is kept secret, but he has been selling mutton in the area for at least 25 years. He only sells broiled mutton, intestines, noodles and rice wine. Mutton is about 40 yuan (US$6) per pound (0.45 kilogram) and rice wine is 4 yuan per bowl. The shop opens at 4am daily and starts wrapping up around 8am, when everything is sold out. Uncle opens again briefly around 2pm, and closes again when the mutton is sold out — it goes fast. Many seniors in town have been going there for more than 20 years. They gather at the four tables in the narrow lane in early morning, eating mutton and noodle soup and drinking rice wine. They also take the fresh meat home. There are long lines that include folks who woke up early and drove to the legendary spot.

“Compared with tiny Zhoupu, Qibao Ancient Town in Minhang District is more famous as the new popular watertown, after Zhouzhuang and Zhu Jiajiao. The town is named after a small temple in the town, built at least 2,000 years ago by a rich family named Lu as a place to pray to ancestors, is famous for its mutton. Almost all shops sell broiled mutton and the largest restaurants even provide an entire meal of mutton — more than 10 dishes of different parts of the sheep, cooked in different ways. Everything but the "baa" is eaten.

Cangshu is a small town in Suzhou. Cang means hiding and shu means books. Apart from its beautiful scenery and gardens, Suzhou is famous for producing scholars. Many famous ancient scholars, writers, poets and painters were born in the area.After the Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China in 221 BC, he became notorious for burning the books of intellectuals and burying Confucians alive. Local tales in Cangshu tell of book burning. Long ago students and scholars there had to bury their books to protect them, and to save their own lives. They dug them up 15 years later when the brief dynasty ended and named the town after their sad experience. Ancients believed that all the plants and trees in the town absorbed the wisdom and the aroma of buried books, through their roots.

“Local sheep grazing on the wise grasses ingested the wisdom — and that's why mutton in the town doesn't have that strong odor. A charming story. Castration is the real story; the male hormones create a strong smell. Although some Shanghai restaurants sell mutton from Cangshu, the most authentic mutton is sold in the old town. The most famous is cooked with soy source, and it's possible to eat a full-course mutton meal.

Stinky Tofu

Taiwan, particularly Taipei, is famous for stinky tofu. It can also be found on the manland, particularly in the south. Randy Mulyanto of the BBC wrote: “I was about to cross the road in Taipei’s upscale Xinyi District when a pungent and rotten stench smacked me in the face. That’s how I knew I was getting close to Dai’s House of Stinky Tofu, one of the Taiwanese capital’s most popular and putrid-smelling restaurants. For nearly 30 years, Wu Hsu Pi-ying, now in her 70s, has been running the family business at Dai’s, using a secret fermenting process passed down by her parents to create 10 varieties of stinky tofu, a beloved Taiwanese dish that’s full of live bacteria. Often referred to as the national snack food of Taiwan, stinky tofu gives off a putrid odour that’s so intense, it engulfs its surroundings in a foul-smelling funk that’s reminiscent of sour milk and rotting garbage. Love it or loathe it, these spiced and sliced fermented slabs pack a uniquely spoiled taste that’s all their own, and have come to symbolise Taiwanese street food.[Source: Randy Mulyanto, BBC, May 7, 2019]

“Inside the restaurant, I saw four Buddhist monks munching on cut slabs of the glistening green dish at one of the joint’s few tables. Framed calligraphy signs in Mandarin characters highlighted stinky tofu’s health benefits, while images of menu items tacked to the wall showed the eatery’s stinky star served deep-fried, steamed or in a spicy soup, with prices ranging from NT$20 to NT$100 (about 75 cents to $3.50) Sensing my hesitation, a slight and softly spoken woman in a red jacket came out of the restaurant’s back fermentation room, where she was working alongside her son and daughter-in-law, and approached my table. “We have opened for 30 years, ” she said, smiling. “No guest has ever thrown up [from eating my stinky tofu].”

“While slightly reassuring, I couldn’t help but think about American TV host Andrew Zimmern, who criss-crosses the globe to taste the world’s strangest and most disgusting dishes in his show Bizarre Foods. After stopping at Dai’s to order a cooked cow stomach hamburger in a fried stinky tofu bun, Zimmern spat the food into his napkin, saying, “I can’t do it… that is absolutely horrifying.”

History of Stinky Tofu

Randy Mulyanto of the BBC wrote: “According to legend, stinky tofu was accidentally invented in China hundreds of years ago when a struggling tofu merchant opened his container of unsold goods after several days to discover that his bean curd and soy milk mixture had started to ferment. At some point, the merchant built up the courage to bite into the rancid, green-hued concoction and realised it was quite tasty. He quickly started selling the fermenting food, and the stinky snack became so popular that China’s Empress Dowager Cixi added it to the list of imperial foods served at her Qing Dynasty palace. [Source:Randy Mulyanto, BBC, May 7, 2019]

“The dish arrived in Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, when some two million people followed Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 as he fled to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist government. According to Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island, stinky tofu now exists in various forms across Asia, but nowhere else is it more beloved than in Taiwan, where vendors deep-fry it, pickle it and enhance it with different flavours at small outdoor carts at the island's night markets. “[In] trying to lure people to come to their stand, [they had] to come up with something really sensational, ” Erway said. “It’s something that really stands out in the crowd.”

“Today, stinky tofu is still primarily a street food throughout Taiwan, where it’s as synonymous with the country’s outdoor night markets as beef noodle soup. When I visited one of Taipei’s largest and most famous outdoor bazaars, the Shilin Night Market, I saw (and smelled) stalls serving the stuff barbecued, braised, steamed, skewered and fried into chips served with pickled vegetables. East of Taipei Zoo, Shenkeng Old Street is an entire boulevard dedicated to the dish, with hawkers selling it boxed, boiled in a spicy soup and even as a flavour of ice cream. While certain restaurants may serve stinky tofu with duck’s blood or as a side item, Dai’s is one of the few restaurants dedicated exclusively to the pungent dish, and it serves as the centrepiece for every menu item.

Stinky Tofu Mecca

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Randy Mulyanto of the BBC wrote: “In recent years, Dai’s has become something of a mecca for stinky tofu lovers with discerning palates. In addition to the many griddled, skewered and spiced tofus found throughout Taipei’s night markets, Wu also serves a unique cold and raw variety of the versatile dish, topped with crispy seaweed-flavoured batter, spring onions and brown sauce. And for a dish where the smellier is the better, each of Wu’s menu items comes with an accompanying ‘stink score’, ranging from the hold-your-nose Sichuan-style soup to the fried cuts served with pickled cabbage to the cold and raw slabs that she and her family invented. [Source: Randy Mulyanto, BBC, May 7, 2019]

“Nothing, however, compares to the gag-inducing smell of Wu’s stinky tofu paste, a creamy, grey goo of tofu that’s been fermented for so long that it’s decomposed. The stuff is so potent that, instead of serving it to customers, Wu only sells the protein-rich paste as an ointment to help smooth and firm people’s skin. “I really love eating stinky tofu since I was little, ” said Wu, sitting across the table from me. “But also, I would not like it if it is not stinky enough.” “Growing up in Taipei, Wu remembers her parents making stinky tofu in their home and selling it on the street. An acclaimed martial artist, Wu left Taiwan to tour the world for many years as part of a kung fu performance troupe. She eventually returned to Taipei and used her family’s 60-year-old secret stinky tofu recipe to open Dai’s (named after her stepfather) in 1989.

“Like all fermented food, stinky tofu takes time. Once Wu receives the pressed tofu slices from her brother, she dumps the slabs into a series of vats in the restaurant’s cramped back room, each filled with different consistencies of an all-natural vegetable and herb brine that’s been slowly fermenting at room temperature for two years. Like a sponge, the tofu slowly absorbs the dark-green mixture for up to two weeks. The longer the tofu sits, the more it absorbs — and the softer and smellier it becomes. “I really think stinky tofu is an acquired taste. It grows on you over time, just like the bacteria that enhances the tofu’s flavour as it’s fermented, ” said Mike Lee, co-founder of Taipei Eats food tours. “What’s unique is that the batter is just the bacteria that is developed through fermentation.”

“Today, Dai’s is still very much a family business; Wu’s son and daughter-in-law help her prepare the dishes and serve guests, while Wu’s younger brother makes the pressed tofu. Yet, the undisputed brains and beating heart of the business is Wu, who maintains the family recipe and creates each batch of her specialty stink by hand....Wu no longer works every day at the shrine to stink she built, and now entrusts her son with much of the restaurant’s day-to-day operations and her family’s secret recipe. Just as her parents passed down their technique to her, Wu hopes that her son will keep the family tradition alive.

Eating Stinky Tofu and Using It as a Medicine

“I settled on the málà (spicy) stinky tofu soup, made with mushrooms, peppercorn and chillies, and slowly lifted a spoonful of the fetid, oily broth towards my mouth...Most stinky tofu aficionados maintain that if you can stomach the stench, the dish tastes far better than it smells — not unlike a sharp, fermented cheese. Though for Wu and many Taiwanese, the most important aspect of the dish is its many health benefits, which, according to Wu, include helping the digestive system and treating cold symptoms. But that’s not all: according to a number of recent studies, eating stinky tofu can also help prevent osteoporosis, lower the risk of prostate and breast cancer, and reduce cholesterol. “People from every country come [here] to eat [stinky tofu], ” Wu said. “But if they could find out the goodness of what is inside my tofu, [it] may get rid of their illness.”[Source: Randy Mulyanto, BBC, May 7, 2019]

“Just then, Wu disappeared into her back fermentation room and emerged with a jar of the potent stinky tofu paste. Tiny bubbles rose to the top of the foamy, green concoction. Tilting it into a small saucer, Wu spooned the thick paste and told me that rubbing it on my skin would help smooth and soften it. She dipped a dollop of the mixture on my right index finger and instructed me to rub it on my left palm. Remarkably, the skin on my hand instantly felt firmer and smoother, but even after eight washes, the robust smell of concentrated stinky tofu lingered for more than seven hours afterwards.

“It turned out that, despite its soy sauce base and piquant pepper flavouring, the málà stinky tofu soup I ordered was more smooth than spicy and smelled much worse than it tasted. The tofu actually helped bring out the freshness of the mushrooms and chilli, and the broth was surprisingly light, given the tofu’s rich thickness. “It grows on you over time, just like the bacteria that enhances the tofu’s flavour as it’s fermented

In fact, I liked it so much that I then went up three notches on the stink-o-meter and ordered the cold and raw stinky slabs. The raw stuff packed a punch, and I nearly gagged before biting into the moist, jelly-like pieces. Though, as with the stinky tofu soup, if you can stomach the stench enough to taste it, the raw tofu was actually quite pleasant and reminiscent of a ripe cream cheese.I thanked Wu and walked out of Dai’s and back into the crisp, clean air of the Taipei night, lifting my hand to my nose to smell Taiwan’s stinky snack once more.

Sweet and Sour Pork and Spicy Chicken Recipes

Sweet and Sour Pork Ingredients: ½ cup flour; ½ teaspoon salt; ½ teaspoon black pepper; 1 pound lean pork loin, cut into bite-size pieces; 3 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil; 2 green peppers cut in large pieces; 1 onion, sliced; 1 carrot, sliced; ½ cup pineapple chunks; ½ cup pineapple juice; ¼ cup white vinegar; 2 Tablespoons soy sauce; ¼ cup brown sugar; 2 Tablespoons cornstarch; A few drops red food coloring (traditional, but optional); Boiled rice, warm. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

Sweet and Sour Pork Directions: 1) Prepare rice according to package and keep warm. 2) Mix flour, salt, and pepper in a large plastic bag with a locking seal. 3) Add the pork pieces to the bag and seal. 4) Shake the bag well to coat each piece. 5) Remove the pork and throw the bag away. 6) Heat the oil in a large frying pan. 7) Cook the pork pieces on all sides until brown. ) Lower the heat and cook for 20 minutes. 8) Add the peppers, onions, and carrots, and cook for 5 minutes. 9) Stir in pineapple, pineapple juice, vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, cornstarch, and food coloring. 10 ) Cook until the mixture is hot. 11) Serve over cooked rice. Serves 4 to 5.

Spicy Chicken Ingredients: 3 pounds chicken pieces (may be chicken wings, boneless breasts cut into strips, or drumsticks); ¼ cup soy sauce; 2 cloves garlic, crushed; 1 teaspoon pepper; ¼ cup sugar; 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil; Several lettuce leaves. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

Spicy Chicken Directions: 1) Rinse the chicken in cool water and pat dry with paper towels. 2) Mix the soy sauce, garlic, pepper, sugar, and oil in a bowl. 3) Thoroughly coat the chicken pieces with this mixture, reserving a little mixture in the bowl. 4) Let the chicken stand (marinate) for 2 to 4 hours in the refrigerator. 5) Preheat oven to 350°F. 6) Place chicken into a lightly oiled baking pan. Bake for about 40 minutes. 7) Every 10 minutes during roasting, turn the chicken and use basting brush to brush on the remaining soy sauce mixture. When the chicken is tender, remove from oven. 8) Arrange pieces on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 6.

Image Sources: Beifan.com , Perrechon blog, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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