Stinky tofu, a strong-smelling form of fermented bean curd, might be one of the most divisive Chinese foods.
Sold at roadside stands across China as a widely popular snack, its pungent odor may put off even the most adventurous eaters.
For Li Yong, who has been making stinky tofu for nearly four decades, the food might smell bad, but its taste is unbeatable.
“Like the food itself, producing stinky tofu might be painstaking, but it has been a successful business that has supported my family over the years,” the 55-year-old said.
Li lives in Qibuchang village on the outskirts of Kunming, capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan province. The village boasts a long history of producing stinky tofu that dates back to the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Li decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a tofu maker when he was 20.
“At that time, my two elder brothers went to do other work,” he said. “I didn’t want to see my father’s craft of making stinky tofu fade away.”
Since then, he has been making stinky tofu by hand using his father’s old-school method, although many of his fellow villagers have started using machines to produce the specialty in large quantities.
Before dawn, Li walks into his workshop to soak soybeans and grind them into small bits with a hand-powered stone mill. The little bits are then mixed with a coagulant called gypsum, and simmered in boiling water until the mixture separates into soy milk and blobs of curds.
Using a ladle, Li scoops the curds onto a table and spreads them flat with his hands. Then, he lays a porous cloth and a wooden plank on top of the curds, and puts stone weights on the plank to squeeze out the extra liquid.
“Within a few hours, the curds will be firm enough to be cut into squares of fresh tofu,” Li said.
It takes even more effort to “stink up” fresh tofu. “Fermenting the tofu is like raising a child. It requires a lot of care,” Li said.
Li lays pieces of fresh tofu on wooden racks, where it will sit for five days, slowly fermenting into blocks of stinky tofu. Li needs to flip the pieces over twice during the fermentation process to fully ferment the tofu.
White fuzz will form on the surface of the tofu, as it starts to give off its unique, pungent smell, which will grow stronger day by day.
Li said the time-consuming process of making stinky tofu by hand is worthwhile because market demand for the product is higher.
He sells his handmade stinky tofu to more than 20 small restaurants in Kunming, where it is steamed or deep fried and served with spicy sauce.
In a family restaurant run by Li’s son, the stinky tofu is made into a tofu feast, which includes a wide variety of tofu dishes such as stewed fish with tofu, and crab roe with tofu. The restaurant has attracted many food lovers since it opened in 2014.
“The taste is so good. I love these tofu dishes,” said Song Liming, a frequent visitor to the village.
Stinky tofu has become Qibuchang’s biggest attraction in recent years. The village now receives more than 5,000 tourists a day who are interested in visiting the village’s tofu workshops and learning about the local tofu culture.
Tofu and other bean products produced by the villagers have also been sold to other parts of the country as well as foreign countries such as Zambia and Tanzania in recent years. “Our village has built a tofu museum and launched a tofu culture festival,” Li said. “It’s the best time for my family.”