My, how times - or my taste buds - have changed.
When I lived in Shanghai the scent of chou dofu (fermented - some would say 'rotten' - bean curd) frying in oil sent me running for cover. That was more than ten years ago. In the interim I've developed a taste for durian (as long as it's Malaysian or Balinese durian), innards, and Thai bplaa raa.
So I landed in Taipei eager to revisit this stinky Chinese specialty. I didn't have to look far. It's sold everywhere. And you can smell it a mile away.
This version was dished up by a streetside vendor at the mouth of Taipei's historic Dihua Street. Its scent was characteristically foul - I'm willing to go with the usual 'old gym shoes' descriptive, multiplied dozens of times and supplemented with a slightly stomach-churning cheesiness - but the set-up was so pretty I couldn't resist.
Verdict? Chou dofu tastes nothing like it smells. There's an initial rush of funkiness, no stronger than that of roquefort cheese, but it fades quickly. And then you're left with just the bean curd's fabulous texture: crackly from the fryer but almost grease-free outside, spongy-chewy within. The dofu is served in a pool of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar augmented with shredded garlic and ginger and accompanied by a mound of pao cai (sharp, lightly salted pickled cabbage and carrots), sliced cucumbers, and a dab of extremely spicy chili sauce.
A mouthful of dofu, a bite of cabbage, a nibble on a slice of cucumber - as tasty a Chinese snack as you could imagine. The heat balances the ever so slight funk. As I was eating, thanking whatever or whomever for endowing me with the ability to appreciate the dish's merits, I couldn't help but wonder what the best version in the city tastes like.
The only downside: linger at a chou dofu stall and your clothes will smell like it for the rest of the day. And there's no denying it - the stuff smells baaaad. Nothing like it tastes.
Chou dofu stall, corner of Dihau Jie and Nanjing Xi Lu, morning to late afternoon.