Stinky tofu, made by soaking fresh tofu in a brine of fermented milk, meat or vegetables (recipes vary and are somewhat secretive) is something of a national obsession in Taiwan. Known affectionately as the blue cheese of tofu, stinky tofu can be served barbecued, stewed, braised, steamed or deep fried. Each method is distinctive in odour, taste, texture, and colour, and an entire afternoon could be spent sampling the different styles.
One of the best places to try this often misunderstood delicacy is on the Shenkeng Laojie (Shenkeng Old Street) in the town of Shenkeng, just a few kilometres east of Taipei. The Taiwanese have been identifying this narrow street (and its dozens of shops and stalls) with stinky tofu for many years. And after a newly complete three-year restoration project, the street is now as big a draw as the food. Imagine rows of late 19th- to early 20th-century red brick shops with lattice windows, hanging eaves, arcade-style walkways, all interspersed with ornate temples or European-Chinese fusion-style mansions. And of course almost all serving one just thing: variations of stinky tofu!
Begin the tour with barbecued tofu on bamboo skewers at Jin Da Ding (金大鼎), reportedly one of the oldest stalls on the street, dating back around five decades. Order skewers of what they call “traditional recipe tofu" served with pickled spicy shredded cabbage, sit under the nearby banyan tree and dig in. The dish is delightfully fragrant, with a tender exterior and creamy centre, and the pungent and spicy cabbage topping contrast well with the nutty tofu flavour.
For the next taste test, stroll 50m up the road to number 140, Gu Zao Cuo (古早厝), a three-storey mansion fronted by roiling woks of tofu and a rack of succulent yellow chicken. The signature dish of stewed stinky tofu with spicy duck's blood is pleasantly odorous, with a mild peppery bite and varied textures (think gelatinous duck blood, spongy tofu and crunchy dried fish).
The next stop is at the Mansion of the Six Aunties (六嬸婆), almost directly across the road at number 139, known for its creative fare. Try the Six Aunties Tofu, a layered slab of chewy stewed tofu with hints of wild mushrooms and shrimp, served in a thick green soup of creamed Chinese mustard.
For something uniquely Taiwanese, Wang Shui Cheng (王水成) at number 122, sells what is rumoured to be the original mala (an oily spicy sauce) tofu shop on the street. The stewed tofu is the colour and shape of a small baked abode brick, topped with pickled mustard leaves and red chillies. Its melt-in-the mouth spongy texture and peppery rather than spicy flavour fades onto hints of stewed tomatoes and Sichuan peppercorns.
As a final treat, buy some soft swirling tofu ice cream from one of the ice cream shops at the end of the street to help settle stomachs that, though highly satisfied, just can’t take any more heat and spice.
Most shops are open from around noon to 7 pm.