Chinese 'smelly food' adventure: Stinky or sweet-smelling?

Strong-smelling preserved tofu

Updated: Mar 22, 2021 Print
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Strong-smelling preserved tofu

Perhaps the most well-known member of the Chinese "smelly food" family, strong-smelling preserved tofu has several distinguished branches which sparkle in different regional cuisines. Let’s learn more about how this smooth-tasting ingredient exudes its special charm!


Famed as the “national stink”, Wang Zhihe smelly tofu, a Beijing-based time-honored food brand, makes its products out of high-quality soybeans, putting the beans through processes including soaking, grinding, filtering, brining, fermentation and pickling. The most crucial process, the pickling, requires salt, cold water and mixed starch that will imbue the final product with a green hue.

Wang Zhihe smelly tofu [Photo/]

Why is this kind of tofu so addictive while emitting such unfriendly odors? Its protein decomposes during the fermentation which generates hydrogen sulfide, releasing a stinky smell. However, its hydrolyzed amino acids give off a pleasant odor. In the past, the dish also gained the interesting nickname of “roasted goose for poor people” among Beijingers due to its rich protein.

A jar of Wang Zhihe smelly tofu is readily available at supermarkets [Photo/]

There is also an intriguing story behind this time-honored band. It is said that Wang Zhihe was a scholar during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) who failed the imperial examination held in Beijing and had to sell tofu to earn his travel expenses to get back to his hometown. When some pieces of the unsold tofu went moldy, Wang didn't want to discard them. Instead, he pickled them with salt in a jar for his own eating. He forgot about them for several months, then when he remembered them, he was surprised to find that the tofu tasted so good - despite its terrible appearance and odor. Wang started a business and established his own brand. Even the Dowager Princess Cixi (1835-1908) was a huge fan of it and gave the preserved tofu an elegant name: “cyan cube”.


Shaoxing smelly preserved tofu is pickled and fermented using the sauce of moldy amaranth stalks, another superstar of the local smelly food culture. It features a rather crisp taste and simpler production process compared with its Beijing counterpart, and its flavor has a lot to do with the time it is soaked for and the pH value of the sauce.

Fried Shaoxing smelly preserved tofu [Photo/]

In addition, this kind of smelly tofu can be used in many cooking methods with both vegetables and meat, including frying, decocting, steaming, boiling and stewing. The fried ones are always paired with a special marinade called “the red sauce” made of boiled sweet soybean paste, sugar, and cinnamon. Bright, sweet but not greasy, this sauce makes a perfect combination with the salty tofu, composing a wonderful and delicious sonata on the taste buds.

Fried Shaoxing smelly preserved tofu is a popular snack available at street vendors [Photo/]


When you are travelling in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province, you will see many stalls on the streets selling bowls of black cubes. In fact, you will probably smell them first.

A bowl of fried Changsha stinky tofu [Photo/]

As before, the sauce here is the key to success. To begin with, you should boil black bean curd in clean water and filter out the residues. Then, after it cools, you can add the crucial ingredients, including alkalis, winter bamboo shoots, mushrooms, iron vitriol, crude salts and white koji liquor. After 15 days of soaking and one string every day, the sauce will be fully fermented and turn inky black.

Next, put white tofu into iron vitriol water, and then soak it in the sauce for three to four hours. Finally, it is the time to fry the tofu and enjoy it! Stick a small hole in the tofu, add some spicy flavors then take a bite. Now you will have your own special memories of this crispy, smooth, fragrant and stinky snack.

Changsha stink tofu [Photo/]

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