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Stinky Foods and their Customs

by Yu Weijie

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Spring Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(1) page(s): 18, 34, and 35

Eating rotten food was a dangerous means of survival in the initial stages of human evolution but one that became relatively safe after people learned to master fire. Stinky foods, sometimes called smelly foods, still exists. They are easily digested and easily stored, and they can taste delicious, be high in nutrients, and reasonably priced. Some like that eating these foods means no animals are killed or hurt. There are others who advocate not eating too much of them.

In the early years, fish was the most commonly consumed item that became a stinky food. That was followed by meat, and later still, vegetables and beans became more popular. Ningbo and Shaoxing, both in the Zhejiang Province, are typical areas where stinky foods were and still are popular. There was no term reserved for this type of food until now. There still are no differences made between rotten foods and those that simply smell bad.

Stinky food was probably eaten early on so people could survive. They were hungry and these smelly foods enticed, however, eating them could be dangerous because humans do not have lysozyme in their saliva to make them safe. Vultures and hyenas do have this enzyme. People have acid in their intestines and some enzymes that can lower toxicants, but bacteria in rotten food can infect and poison. If stinky food was consumed for survival, why do people still eat it when fresher foods are available?

The following may be why:

1. Rotten food in moderation can be helpful to digestion as the process of going rotten is a decomposition process recorded in A Guidance of Raising the Old, an ancient Chinese book. Some say it is not wise to have fish right after it is killed and cooked; is that a reason to eat stinky foods?

2. Some say moderately rotten food can be delicious as amino acids found in them, made by microorganisms during their decomposition, provides more nutrition; and they taste more palatable. These folk say the amino acids in stinky food are six times greater than those in fresh foods.

3. Stinky food often has more nutritional value as its amino acids function as do various branded health products made with them do. For example, fermented bean curd is a typical stinky food and it contains more soy isoflavones, less saturated fat, and no cholesterol. This so-called 'vegetarian cheese' has a higher nutritional value than most animal cheeses, and its vitamin B12 is low. In China, Vitamin B12 is considered something that triggers Alzheimer Disease. That is why Chinese people believe stinky food can prevent this disease.

4. Food storage was difficult before the invention of refrigeration, and stinky food preserves foods as does salted, vinegar-soaked, candied, dried, and other food preservation processes. Thus, making stinky food is an alternative way of storing food.

5. Eating stinky food may be a way to practice economy. Zuoren Zhou, a great Chinese writer and thinker, once said that some people laugh at the custom of eating stinky food but they practice an economy of eating rice with only salt and pickles. He speaks highly of this practice and says humble foods can make people better. That idea agrees with a Chinese saying about gods ready to place a great responsibility on someone by frustrating his spirit, exhausting his muscles and bones, exposing him to starvation and poverty, harassing him with troubles and setbacks, and toughening his nature; all of which enhance his capabilities. Zhou worries that young people are spoiled and cannot have cold food except ice cream and fruit. He wonders how they can safeguard his country?

6. Eating stinky food does not go against religious creeds or philosophical concepts, and so Zhou asks if milk and eggs are banned as violations of the rights of calves or chicks; and are Buddhists allowed to eat rotten meat picked in the forest rather than kill animals for their own interests?

Stinky foods do exist in many places in the world. There is natto in Japan, smelly goat-milk and other cheeses in Europe, fish and shrimp sauce in Southeast Asia, slices of fermented skate in South Korea, pickled herring in Sweden, and other foul smelling foods including some in China where many people still consume them. They and their folklore say stinky fish smells but tastes delicious. Some says that stinky fish and shrimp are edible but stinky meat is not; it can be fatal

Today, stinky food in China can be fermented mandarin fish in the Mill Hill area of Hubei Province, stinky tofu in Changsha in the Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces, and smelly tofu and fermented mandarin fish in the Anhui Province. There are other types of stinky foods liked such as a smelly tofu in Beijing called 'green square.' In Ningbo they like stinky tofu, beans, and green squares. In Shaoxing they like fermented long-finned herring. In Huizhou it is sesame seed cake with stinky tofu. In Fuyang, it is a steamed bun with stinky tofu. In Jinhua and Tangxi it is smelly Brassica juncea that they like. And, there are other smelly foods elsewhere in China that are liked.

Stinky products made from beans are specialties of many places, each having slight differences in flavor. Stinky food as a whole is popular with people in the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze River, perhaps because of the climate. There, preserved greens naturally ferment and develop a smelly odour.

Although stinky foods were made from animal foods, stinky plant foods are more popular now specially those made from from beans. These became popular during the Qing Dynasty as did stinky foods made from amaranth, lettuce, wax gourd, pumpkin, peas, young soybeans, bamboo shoots, hearts of taro, even watermelon skin. All of these are commonly found in parts of the Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces. They can be seen in urns in common peoples' homes.

Ningbo people say that that a meal cannot be eaten without one stinky dish. They have several including stinky amaranth, a different kind of tofu known as Qianzhang, a stinky wax gourd, and stinky heart of taro. The key to making these stinky foods is to prepare them in an urn first washing and drying the urn, then putting brine in it. They add leftovers such as bamboo shoots, young soy beans, and other vegetables, then seal the urn. The fermentation process takes several days. If no brine is available, already-fermented vegetables or old amaranth with no leaves are put in the urn. These are best dried and cut into pieces, soaked in fresh water for a night, or until a layer of white foam appears, then drain the amaranth, sprinkle it with salt, and put some clean vegetable soup on it. The older the brine, the better the taste. Making the famous stinky wax gourd in Ningbo requires washing this vegetable, cutting it into two- by one-inch pieces, and cooking it until somewhat soft. They cool it completely, then salt the vegetables for a day covered with gauze. This prevents them from getting dusty.

Wax gourd goes in the amaranth-flavord brine next. After a day or two, it is ready to be enjoyed. These fermented vegetables will taste better soaked longer because the more stinky they are, the more delicious they will be. Attention should be paid to temperature, amount of salt, and the hygiene of the food; these control the microorganisms.

Ningbo is the main origin of fermented taro, the most famous in the province from the city of Fenghua. Stinky heart of taro is now replaced by stinky tofu which some say tastes more delicious. People in Ningbo make use of the upper stem and leaves of taro rather than the succulent corm. In modern times, stinky tofu has gradually taken the place of fermented taro. It is used in one famous dish there called: Black Stewed with White. This is stinky tofu stewed with fresh hairtail fish, namely the black and white, respectively.

Shaoxing people, in About Stuff in Shaoxing written by Fuyuan Sun says there are three characteristics of this food. They are dry texture, foul flavor, and that they be steamed. Stinky tofu here can be divided into red and white groups; the white ones further divided into those with a foul flavor called: moldy tofu, and those with no smell called: drunken square. Besides tofu, they make moldy bamboo shoots, grass roots, and moldy stems of amaranth to eat with their staple food.

People in Shaoxing like to name foul or fermented food moldy but not all of them taste as if they are. Some moldy vegetables and tofu smell fragrant, while moldy ones are in the majority. Here, they eat several kinds of stinky tofu including fermented black square tofu, moldy stems of amaranth, moldy beans, moldy Chinese long-finned herring, etc., and the most famous ones are made with amaranth and tofu. Recently, many people have changed the Chinese character for moldy, which is mei because it means 'bad luck.' They and use another character with the same pronunciation, but one meaning 'wintersweet.' In Shaoxing, they steam their stinky amaranth stems with stinky tofu. Local people usually extrude the inside of the stem with their incisor teeth, making the jelly-like material linger on their teeth as they slowly savor the fresh and salty flavors. Most non-locals put the stem of the amaranth directly in their mouth and have a bite, making the stinky jelly extrude out of their mouthes, leaving little to savour.

The specific steps of making stinky tofu in Shaoxing is to prepare tofu made with gypsum. Southern tofu is mainly made with gypsum, while northern tofu made with salty brine. In summer they cut the tofu into small blocks and soak them for about six hours in juice made from stinky amaranth stems. They so this, but for two days in winter, then drain the juice, wash them with fresh water, and cool before frying them crisp, golden in color, and tender within. They dip theirs in either a spicy or a sweet sauce.

Stinky Qianzhang tofu means one thousand-layer-tofu, and is the main raw material for a famous specialty called Steamed Stinky Qianzhang. This white fluffy Qianzhang, is cut into slices, covered with a little salt, sugar and red pepper, then steamed. The taste is glutinous, tender, and fresh. Moldy long-finned herring is made from fresh fish salted until hairy and moldy. Then, it can be cooked with a paste of fresh meat or eggs. Both are both famous in Shaoxing.

Anhui people like Stinking Mandarin Fish, a dish several hundred years old. Here, they put the fish into wooden barrels and add lightly salted water. They need to turn the fish frequently, and after seven or eight days, the gills are still scarlet, the fish scales do not fall off. This fish can have a strong aroma, but after washing and frying, its taste will be good and very delicious.

People do get addicted to stinky food. Those who are not fond of it change their thoughts when they are ready to try it. After they do, they gradually accept it. One does need to know that modern science advises it better to have as little stinky food as possible. Why? Because the process of making it can add toxic or allergic substances to these fermented foods, and it is not necessary to risk eating stinky food. Many people still do, because they love it!
Weijie Yu is a Professor at the Social Culture Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Zhejiang Province. She majored in Chinese agricultural history and Zhejiang prehistory and her main publications are: Rice and Clothes of Liangchu People, and the History of Raw Materials of Food in China.

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