Monday, December 01, 2003

Food That Makes Even Fearless Robb Walsh Gag

Fermented Stinky Tofu.

I ask the restaurant's owner how he would describe that smell. "Sewage" is his one-word reply. In my new book, Are You Really Going to Eat That? Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker, I make some bold claims about my willingness to eat weird stuff. Now I find news of nasty snacks everywhere I go.

Legend has it that tofu was invented by a Chinese feudal lord named Lu An during the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to 8 AD). Tofu is made by separating soy milk into curds and whey in a process very similar to the way cheese is made from cow's milk. Fresh tofu spoils quickly, and it was long a Chinese tradition for tofu-makers to work through the night to provide fresh tofu by breakfast time.

Stinky tofu was originally fermented as a preservation method. "Old grandmothers claim that tofu was fermented to last through winter, and that deep-frying it removed whatever bacteria that might have developed," according to the article "Joy of Soy" on "Some Taiwanese even offer that decades ago, stinky tofu was devised by cooks in military camps as a cold-resisting, yang-boosting staple for soldiers patrolling China's borders." There isn't any reason to ferment tofu anymore, but a taste for stinky tofu persists among the Taiwanese. If you love sauerkraut, as I do, you immediately recognize the parallel. What is sauerkraut or kimchi but stinky cabbage? These are foods that became important when fermentation was a prime method of food preservation. And now their stinky flavors are imbedded in their respective cuisines.

el - a little like the taste of pinesap in Greece - originally the method to make wine bags leak-proof was to use pine-tree resin. The people developed a taste for pine-flavored wine - retsina.

The Taiwanese party with funky tofu; Laotians love incredibly pungent fermented fish sauces made from whole fish; and other Southeast Asians crave durian, the fruit that smells like rotten eggs. The Eskimos relish a putrefied whale blubber that no one else can stand.

If you think Western cuisine is different, you're quite wrong. A friend of mine who was born and raised in Thailand confessed to me that he had been trying for years to eat Roquefort, the stinky French cheese. But try as he might, he can never get it past his nose. To him, it's the most disgusting-smelling food in the whole world. He says it smells like vomit.

Taiwanese Cuisine 9338 Bellaire Boulevard, 713-773-0888. Hours: daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Good things to eat include "sautéed chicken with basil," which I try on a subsequent visit. It sounds innocent, and the chunks of chicken look normal enough. But what a shock when you bite into it! Those things that look like half-peanuts turn out to be huge slivers of garlic. And every bite seems to contain a leaf or two of pungent basil and a big flat slice of fresh ginger root. Thanks to the unabashed seasonings, this is one of the most flavorful chicken dishes I've ever had.

The excellent mussels come swimming in inky fermented black bean juice and thoroughly coated with garlic and chive slices. The same profusion of garlic and chives coats the salt-baked pepper shrimp, this time with big slices of jalape?o added. The shrimp are served unshelled with the heads on. It may be the best thing on the menu. My dining companions choose to peel them, but I eat them Chinese-style: heads, shells and all. (Chew carefully -- they're sharp.)

The shrimp appear on a special menu section called "Drinker's Appetizers," along with smoked duck, sautéed oysters, roasted sardines, crispy intestines and pork tripe with pickled greens. Despite its offerings for drinkers, Taiwanese Cuisine doesn't serve alcoholic beverages, so I'm compelled to walk to the grocery store a few doors down and pick up a six-pack of Heineken to complete the experience.

The beer goes especially well with the cold appetizers. We try marinated cucumbers, which taste like freshly made pickles; "roasted" beef, well-done beef slices served cold in a mild sauce and marinated seaweed; and a crunchy seaweed salad with a slightly funky fermented tang.

Duck with mushrooms and dried bean curd skin is very interesting, although the presentation of hacked meat still on the bone makes for slow eating. My tablemates immediately wolf down the giant brown mushroom caps. None of us knows quite what to make of the dried bean curd skin, which looks like unopened flower blossoms and tastes like chewy pasta. It's not an easy dish to love, but it's certainly not boring.

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