This Wonder, This Miracle, This Stinky Tofu

Or Ezrati
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Or Ezrati

In Moshav Gan Hashomron, east of Hadera, after you pass the ice cream bean tree, the ylang-ylang and other exotic trees and after you go around the large house with the peacock and the chameleon by the entrance, you get to a tin hut in the back. Here, on a heavy table, hens are pecking at a loaf of bread. Walk past them and the fridge and the professional pizza oven ad you see a dark wooden shelf. Atop it, below a dried pig hoof and a shark jawbone, are two plastic boxes and two glass jars. One jar apparently used to be a Taster's Choice instant coffee jar and the other still has a Dag Eden gefilte fish label affixed.

Nothing indicates that the two random plastic boxes and the two recycled jars, especially the gefilte fish jar, are the only place in Israel where it is now possible to find one of the most delicious of foods, featured in CNN's 2011 list of the world's 50 most delicious foods. Anyone who receives the owner's permission (and few do ) can open one of the jars or boxes, and for a moment he may regret having done so. A whiff of something rancid will overcome him and if he persists and looks into the jar, he will see packed inside a murky liquid grayish or reddish cube coated in a damp mildew.

Chou doufu is the common name for this delicacy, a Chinese phrase meaning "stinky tofu." Other names are fermented tofu, sufu (which appeared in the first scientific study devoted to the delicacy in 1929 ), and also Hong Kong legs.

Chou doufu is a variation of soybean, another stage in the evolution from beans to soy milk and from there to tofu. Chou doufu is to soy milk what Stilton and Roquefort cheese are to cow's milk. It starts as fresh tofu that is infected with a fungus that sprouts a layer of mold to grow on it for three days. Then the tofu is rinsed with alcohol, which apparently gets rid of the fungus, but not the enzymes it produced. The next months will be spent in a jar with a solution made of a mix of salt, vinegar and alcohol, which will often be spiced with hot pepper. While stored in the jar, the tofu will continue to soften thanks to the effects of the enzymes and its flavor will become richer and more complex.

Chou doufu is a very common street food in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and there are also local versions in Singapore and the Philippines. It is served in small cubes as an appetizer along with a hard drink, or deep-fried with sweet and sour sauce, or in sweet and sour chili sauce with pickled vegetables.

Its origin is attributed to an error. In 16th-century Beijing, after Wang Zhi He failed the imperial examinations, he chose to become a tofu merchant. One day he got stuck with a surplus of fresh tofu, so he cut it into cubes and tried to store it in a clay jug. When he opened the jug a few days later, he found the tofu had turned green and had a rancid smell. Before throwing it out, he tasted a bit of it, was captivated and started selling it in his store.

The story's reliability is unclear but researchers agree that smelly, fermented tofu appeared in China in the 16th century. It first reached the West in travelers' descriptions in the early 19th century, and by the end of that century it was already being sold in San Francisco, where there was a large community of Chinese immigrants.

Still, the smell and the appearance left chou doufu with few Western devotees. Only now, in the early 21st century, is chou doufu becoming part of several culinary trends: It is another popular fermented food and primarily it is part of the worldwide move toward vegan foods and away from animal-based edibles.

In his lectures in Israel, the veganism guru, Gary Yourofsky, turned to the audience and said "Try tofu, it's tasty." It was a scary moment. If that is what he said about tofu, how can you believe the other things he says? After all, the taste of tofu, like the invitation to listen to the sound of a single hand clap, is a Zen riddle and not a culinary experience. Chou doufu saves the man's reputation.

An explosion of flavors

There is no organized importing of chou doufu to Israel. On rare occasions, and not at present, you can find a jar of it in the Chinese grocery on Tel Aviv's Hakovshim Street. The tofu makers in Israel do not manufacture it, but one producer, Shizen, offers a glimmer of hope. "If anyone would have it," said the man on other end of the phone, "it would be Moshe Wallach of Moshav Gan Hashomron, he knows a lot about China." I could not help wondering who this Moshe Wallach was and if he bore any resemblance to the local emperor of Chinese cuisine, Israel Aharoni.

I met a gruff farmer in a stained undershirt, who was amazingly nice in his unfriendliness, sitting in the middle of his exotic tree orchard with a basket of fruit, only some of which I found recognizable. He is 62, divorced and a father of six. At the age of 40, he developed diabetes and was exempted from doing his reserve duty in the artillery corps. "I had two months a year available so I started traveling around the world to find out if there is life before death."

His trips gradually lengthened, his children grew up and at a certain point his wife also left and he had a lot of free time. In total he spent around half of the last decade in China. He learned how to turn soybean into soy milk, and soymilk into tofu, and then while he was with his daughter the baker in the city of Guanming in China's Hunan region, he encountered chou doufu. His daughter was the first to be excited by the taste, and he stayed with a local family to learn how to prepare it.

When Wallach returned to Israel, he went into his hut, bought a quantity of tofu and started experimenting. But the mold was slow in appearing. After consulting with others, he was told that the fungus that produces the right mold is found in the stalk of a rice plant. A botanical garden sent him a stalk of rice, but still the tofu refused to become malodorous.

In despair, he contacted Eyal Zvi, a friend and partner in the culinary experiments, a vegan and a thorough computer person, and together they found on the Internet the site of a fermented foods lover, an Italian living in Australia, who told them that the missing fungus is called action mocur, and it is worth adding rizopous oligosphorous bacteria to it.

The men ordered both over the Internet. After recreating the humid climate of the Far East in the hut and placing the tofu in an industrial oven for 36 hours in a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, the tofu cubes were at last coated with a grayish white layer of mold. The next step was to find out the exact composition of the solution for preserving the tofu, which after six months soaking in it would yield the best result.

Wallach opens jars and places the cubes on a very clean plate. I take a piece of bread and see a troubled look cross his face. "Take another piece, the hens pecked at this one," he says, but after he sees that I already bit into it, he reassures me: "They're clean, they don't have rabies."

The cube of chou doufu is ivory grayish colored, a little damp on the outside. The texture is soft, a fork easily cuts through it and the taste is a concentrated bomb. There is saltiness, sweetness, mild acidity, tangy spiciness, and an intense umami, savory taste, the same taste created by the presence of a glutamic acid, common in soy sauce and cheeses. It really is reminiscent of the taste of bleu cheeses and especially Stilton, but without the fatty side effect.

It is an intriguing encounter between the familiar and the new, the same slightly threatening but invigorating sensation; an entire world in a single bite. I try to lengthen the moment but Wallach is already at the fridge pulling out the first samples of his and Zvi's next project, vegan ice creams.

In conclusion, I try a chou doufu cube with some mildly hot pepper, and one younger one, and then return to the riper ones, the ones in the gefilte fish jar. I wonder, my head spinning from the abundance of flavors, which item experienced greater change, the fresh fish that became a grayish patty with a cooked carrot slice on it, or the tofu with its moist coat of mold. Of the two, I have no doubt that the tofu's travails were far more justified.

Moshe Wallach’s chou doufu: What Stilton or Roquefort is to cow’s milk, chou doufu is to soy milk.Credit: Or Ezrati