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"A lot of people get really turned off by the smell," Ann Wang, owner of Green Cube (Qing Fang, 青方) said with a sigh. "I just want people to be more open-minded and actually try it before they turn away in disgust."
Green Cube is a major stinky tofu supplier in Los Angeles and operates around a recipe that has been in the family for generations. Based in Walnut, the Taiwanese-owned company has been providing local restaurants with fermented tofu products for over ten years. Their client list includes major Taiwanese powerhouses like Boiling Point and Class 302.
The tofu is produced in a warehouse and delivered to restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. People unfamiliar to the delicacy tend to have visceral reactions to the smell -- equating the scent to that of stinky feet.
But it's this same pungent aroma of protein that draws the crowds. Like with any other fermented food, the presence of glutamic acid (common in cheeses as well), creates an intense umami taste.
It's the Chinese equivalent of blue cheese.
Stinky tofu, known as choudoufu (臭豆腐) in Mandarin Chinese, was created by accident during the Qing Dynasty -- nearly 300 years ago.
In Beijing, a food vendor by the name of Wang Zhihe was left with a surplus of tofu, so he put the leftovers in a jar with salt and various spices in an attempt to make bean curd. The tofu turned a greenish hue and became a huge hit. The Empress Cixi was known to be a fan and named it qingfang (请方), which means green cube.
While the story's reliability is unclear, it is agreed that chodoufu appeared in China in the 16th century.
What It Is
While the original stinky tofu was a greenish, black color, most versions these days don't sport such an offensive, charcoal-like hue. Look closely at the pre-cooked cube and you'll see spots of black and green, but nothing so intense that it coats the entire block.
The recipes for this delicacy varies.
Hugo Food, a 626 Night Market stand and Taiwanese-food caterer, ferments their tofu in a brine of salt, amaranth, and cabbage for two weeks. BeBe Fusion, a recently-opened Taiwanese joint in Alhambra, uses a shrimp shell-based solution.
Alternatives include a meat and milk brine, but for sanitation purposes, most places only use a vegetable-based solution.
The Different Forms
The fried cubes are the most common variation of stinky tofu in Los Angeles. Deep-fried in a vat of oil so that they come in a golden brown hue, these varieties are usually served with a garlic-based dipping sauce or chili. On the side is almost always a helping of sweet and sour pickled vegetables -- fermented with sugar, vinegar, and water.
At Tofu King in Arcadia, the stinky tofu comes in blocks of three, incised ever-so-slightly so that the garlic soy-sauce seeps deep into the protein layer.
While stinky tofu is pungent by itself, sometimes, the accompanying sauce makes all the difference. At the 626 Night Market, an Asian-themed bazaar in Arcadia, brothers Matt and Leo Wu whip up a wonderful version -- grilled ($5) and coated in a secret spice.
Their stand is called the Kebab Brothers and they only revealed the basic sauce ingredients to us: garlic, soy sauce and sugar.
Few places in Los Angeles specialize in stinky tofu soup, but when you do stumble upon these joints, you're in for a treat. At Boiling Point, if you order the house special (lunch: $9.99, dinner: $10.99), you'll get a wonderful broth mixed with nappa cabbage, pork blood, intestines, quail egg, mushrooms, clam, and of course, fermented tofu.
If you crave something a little bit spicer, stop by Green Cube's stand (named Ferment Tofu) at the 626 Night Market. They serve theirs ($5) in a spicy, tongue-numbing broth doused in chili peppers.
BeBe Fusion in Alhambra does a strange thing with their tofu, but we're not complaining because it makes for the perfect finger food. It's shaped into French-fry-like strips before deep-frying and sprinkling spices and pepper on the final product. On the side is a saucer of garlic-soy sauce. Beware first-timers: BeBe's fermented tofu, made from a shrimp-based brine, is strong. You can immediately tell when the kitchen is whipping up a fresh batch -- guaranteed.
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