Memories of China: The Stinky Tofu

Several years ago I lived in the lesser-known Chinese city of Nanjing for about a month to study Mandarin. Nanjing is quite a nice city, and smaller for China at “only” eight million people. It’s less modernized than places like Shanghai or Shenzhen, which has its benefits (super cheap food) and drawbacks (where is peanut butter?)

Chinese clothes

Trying my host sister’s Chinese costumes

At one point I had a short stay with a lovely Chinese host family. My host father spoke English well and was not afraid to speak his mind about his country (which is refreshing in China), while my host sister was just a few years younger than me and very cool—we got along great. However, my host mother and host grandmother spoke absolutely no English, and since my Chinese was quite poor at the time there were some communication barriers.

On Sundays my host sister still had school, so the parents decided to take me out for a short excursion to the local tourist area, called Confucius Temple. It was basically one of those Chinese tourist attractions that looks like a cool old temple, but sells tourist crap. Basically every ‘ancient-looking’ place in China turns out this way, at least in the cities, and it is one of the things I hate most about tourism in China. But anyways.

As we were wandering through the stalls, all of a sudden the most horrifying stench hit my nostrils. It was like a piece of roadkill slathered in old cheese or something. My host mother grinned in excitement and rushed over to a nearby food stall. “Ah, that’s stinky tofu!” my host father exclaimed. “She loves it!”

Stinky Tofu

臭豆腐 / Chou Dou Fu / “Stinky Tofu”(www.chinesecuisinefood.com)

My host mother came back with a serving of the stuff, eagerly stabbed a piece with a toothpick, and swallowed it whole, licking her lips. Then she held one out for me to try.

I didn’t want to be rude. Because there was literally almost nothing I could say to her. I’m not even sure I knew the words 不要 (I DON’T WANT IT) yet, let alone 好可怕 (very frightening). And besides, as my host father reassured me, “It tastes better than it smells!” So I took a bite.

Well, it probably did taste better than it smelt, but only because it smelt like a dead raccoon that has been rotting in your crawl space for six months. It maybe only tasted like a raccoon which had been rotting for three months. Yum!

No. I ran to a trash can immediately and dramatically spit it out, choking back tears. My host family just laughed at me, but I felt super basic, and honestly couldn’t help but worry they would be disappointed in me for rejecting Chinese cuisine so violently. Hopefully the number of dumplings I ate that evening proved to them that I really love Chinese cuisine, so long as it isn’t congee, chicken feet, or chou dou fu.

Chicken Feet

The other Chinese food I won’t eat… (www.seriouseats.com)

For the rest of my trip my host family made sure I was well fed by giving me what they believed was ‘real American food’: chocolate cake for breakfast. And being a mature adult, I casually decided not to correct them on that one…

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