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Heavenly food stinks to high heaven

When it comes to stinky food, there's no middle ground. You either love or hate it.

I recently saw a perfect love-hate example at a street stall near fashionable Xintiandi last week. On one side of the street, a child around 10 years old was eating his freshly fried stinky tofu with gusto. One the other side, two foreign passersby quickly held their nose, frowned and walked away.

In China's modern history, some great men have been passionate about stinky (chou in Chinese) food. Zhang Taiyan (1868-1936), a famous philologist and calligrapher, particularly loves stinky peanuts (boiled peanuts soaked in a special smelly fermented sauce) and stinky donggua (winter melon, or wax gourd). It was said that he would be willing to trade his fine calligraphy for food that stank.

Late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) is said to have been addicted to mei cai xian (a kind of moldy amaranth from his hometown Ningbo in Zhejiang Province).

The great writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) considered rice with salty and stinky furu (fermented tofu) a perfect dish. Chinese people used to joke that "to be a great person, you should first get used to their remarkable palate."

Generally, malodorous food falls into three categories.

First are those that are naturally stinky, such as durian fruit (smells of rotted meat) and goat cheese.

Second are those that smell disagreeable because of processing such as soaking and fermentation. These include cheeses (Stilton, Limburger, Roquefort, to name a few), stinky shrimp and aged shrimp sauce and stinky tofu.

The third are foods like garlic, leeks and onions that don't smell or taste bad (good, in fact), but result in bad breath.

Zhou Libo, a Shanghai stand-up comedian, once joked that people who eat garlic are selfish, bringing themselves pleasant fragrance and taste but others an unpleasant odor.

Why do some people especially love smelly foods? Two experts give different answers. Manfred Krifka, a German scholar focusing on the language used to describe smell, said in a paper last year that people's sense of taste is much more tolerant than their sense of smell. That's why stinky food lovers say "it smells stinky but tastes good."

Shen Siming, president of the Shanghai Cuisine Association, said many people like stinky food because they grow up around it, usually in warm climates with seafood that goes bad quickly in the heat.

"Have you noticed that those great people who loved smelly food, whether Chiang Kai-shek or Lu Xun, are all from Zhejiang Province?" he asked rhetorically in an interview with Shanghai Daily. Both the cities of Ningbo (Chiang's hometown) and Shaoxing (Lu's birthplace) are located on the hot, humid coast.

Seafood easily goes bad in warm weather, locals get used to the smell and use salt and processing to improve the taste.

Els Ramadhinta, an Indonesian working in Shanghai, agreed with Shen, saying, "Fresh markets in tropical Indonesia are filled with the stinky fish smell and people there prefer using those fish for cooking."

How to serve stinky food? Chinese and Westerners have different suggestions. Simon Jiang, a Ningbo native, says stinky smell, especially from fish and shrimp, is associated with umami savory flavor. Serving it without any accompaniment is the best way to appreciate the flavor, he said.

Steve Grein, executive chef at The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, said the way a smelly food is served depends on how strong the smell is. Those with a light smell can be served directly but those with a strong smell are best served with a food opposite in nature.

For example, salty and stinky blue cheese with runny texture can be paired with sweet and crispy apple. "The bigger the contrast, the better the taste," said the chef.

Here we introduce top stinky foods in Shanghai.


Pidan, also called "thousand-year-old preserved egg," is actually a duck or chicken egg preserved in a mixture of lime, rice hulls, ash, clay and salt for months. It's well known for its dark gray-green or black color and odor of sulfur and ammonia.

Preservation turns the yolk from golden yellow to dark gray, from fluid to creamy. The egg white turns to jelly-like translucent dark brown.

Many Westerners find the pungent smell disgusting., a division of CNN, ran a story two months ago about the world's most disgusting foods, and pidan topped the list. Thousands of Chinese egg lovers complained.

If you eat it the right way, you will probably fall in love with this delicacy (my view).

Chinese don't eat it directly but soak it in mixture of soybean sauce, vinegar and chilli, which helps cover the smell and bring out the flavors of the egg.


Among thousands of cheeses, washed rind, blue cheese and goat cheese are among the stinkiest. Washed rind cheeses are those whose surface rind is ripened by washing throughout the aging process with various bacteria.

"The stink of the washed rind depends on the aging time and what kind of bacteria are injected in," according to chef Steve from The Portman Ritz-Carlton who introduced me to Italian Tellogio cheese in his restaurant Tables.

The smell is strong and unpleasant, very moldy and somewhat like the air in closed spaces during the plum rain season.

The smell has also been compared to that of dirt, earth and animal waste, the chef said.

Fourme d'amber, an old French blue cheese with a cylindrical shape dating back to Roman times, is another stinker.

With a stink of ripe wet socks and a damp cellar, it has a pleasing, salty taste, a dense and supple texture and goes well with wine, the chef said.


Douzhi, or mung bean milk, is a famous Beijing beverage with a strong, stinky sour smell from those tiny green mung beans. The grayish-green drink is actually the fluid remnants of the process of making mung bean noodles. The odor is generally described as that of swill.

Old Beijingers have drunk it for more than a thousand years but some newcomers cannot endure it. Liang Shih-chiu (1903-1987), a famous writer and educator, praised the drink and said only those who are addicted to douzhi can be called real Beijing people.

It's definitely an acquired taste. I still remembered the first time I tried it. The repellent smell turned me off but my friends told me to hold my nose and taste, saying the flavor is quite different from the smell. It's a blend of the unpleasantly sour, plus almond and sweetness. For those trying for the first time, we recommend serving it with jiaoquan (a fried flour-made snack with a crunchy texture) and pickled vegetables to balance the flavor.

Stinky wax gourd with amaranth

This is a famous Ningbo dish featuring large cooked wax gourd (it's a long green gourd, white inside and often sold in slices), with amaranth, a green, purple and red leafy vegetable. It smells rotten, but has a pleasant salty taste and rich texture.

The cooked gourd and amaranth are preserved for several months with stinky brine made of fermented vegetables, fermented fish or fermented tofu until they completely absorb all the flavors.

The wax gourd turns yellow after being preserved. Though it stinks on the plate, it melts in the mouth and becomes fragrant, with a slightly sweet taste.

The amaranth has a unique texture, crunchy outside and jelly-like inside. The flavor varies, from a strong and salty first bite to a long and refreshing finish.

Cindy Zhang, a food lover from Ningbo, said the period of preparation, from preservation to serving, reflects the expertise of the chef.


Unwashed socks, rotting fish, decaying flesh and animal excrement are some of the descriptions for tropical durian fruit. But some people call it sweet, fragrant and ice cream like.

Whatever, the smell is so strong that it is not allowed to be served or taken into some hotels, public transport and hospitals.

Known in Southeast Asia as the "king of fruit," durian is large, some are 12 inches (30.48cm) or longer, and covered with a thorny rind. It is when the durian is cut open that the odious smell emerges.

In writing this article, I tried durian for the first time. The taste is not as intense as the smell and is actually pleasant. Its pulp has layers of texture, from firm to soft and mousse-like.

The more you eat, the less disgusting it is. The flavor becomes like vanilla ice cream and sherry wine in the mouth. There's a rich and long aftertaste, it leaves an unpleasant breath, so don't socialize afterwards except with other durian eaters.


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