What Does Stinky Tofu Smell Like?

Stinky tofu is a dish found in China. It is mostly sold in outdoor food vendors and street snack stalls. Most Chinese restaurants would not dare serve this on their menu. As the name suggests, stinky tofu is, well, stinky. This dish is characterized by a strong, pungent smell, similar to rotten garbage, smelly feet, or old blue cheese. A unique thing about this dish is that despite its smell, it has a mild, sweet, and salty taste. It is one of the most popular Chinese street foods. This article explored what this dish is, its origin, how it is made, if it is a healthy snack option, and more.

What is stinky tofu

black stinky tofu

Stinky tofu, also known as Chou Doufu, is a type of tofu that originates from China. As the name suggests, it has a pungent smell and a strong odor. It is usually sold at roadside stands and night markets. It is a popular snack since it tastes good, despite its strong smell.

What is stinky tofu made of

Tofu is known as bean curd in English and originates from China. It is prepared by coagulating soy milk which forms curds. The curds are then shaped into blocks of varying softness. They range from silky soft to super firm. Therefore, stinky tofu is tofu that has been fermented in a brine with meat and vegetables.

Brine is a solution with a high concentration of salt mixed with water. Traditionally, stinky tofu is fermented in a brine with meat and vegetables as mentioned above, for several months. Industrial tofu is fermented in brine for one or two days which enhances its odor.

What does stinky tofu taste like

Stinky tofu has a milder taste than most people think, despite its strong smell. It is quite salty, likely contributed by the brine it’s fermented in. It is also earthy, mildly sweet, and has a tangy undertone. Most people compare its taste to aged cheese.

What does stinky tofu smell like

Stinky tofu, as the name suggests, actually stinks. Its smell has been compared to that of smelly feet, smelly socks, rotting cheese, or rotten garbage. Others have suggested that it smells like feces or manure.

Its pungent smell is mostly due to the long periods the tofu is fermented. The ingredients used during the fermentation process vary. Some people will use fermented milk, meat, and vegetables. Others may even add Chinese herbs, amaranth greens, and bamboo shoots. During this fermentation process, various bacteria such as Bacillus sphaericus, break down the tofu proteins into amino acids and peptides. Two important amino acids that contain Sulphur, degrade during this process to produce sulfides responsible for the strong odors stinky tofu has.

After fermentation, it can be barbecued, braised, or deep-fried. Most people prefer it to be deep-fried. With all these factors combined, stinky tofu has a distinct, strong, and pungent smell. Stinky tofu also has a volatile flavor compound called indole, which is known to associate with animal waste and human fecal odors.

Types of stinky tofu

This section contains the various stinky tofu available. The ingredients and elements used during the fermentation process are what differentiate these types of tofu.

Changsha stinky tofu

changsha stinky tofu

This type of stinky tofu originates from Changsha, which is a city found in the southern part of China.

It is also known as Changsha-style stinky tofu, stinky dry food, or Changsha chou doufu. The local Changsha people call it chou ganzi which translates to smelly jerky.

It is made as stinky tofu is made, but it is black and has a spicy flavor. The brine that it is fermented in has soybean meal, shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and koji.

It is mostly served with Xiangtan lotus seeds and Yongfeng chili sauce. When served with these two spices, it is known as the ‘three treasures of Hunan’.

Shaoxing stinky tofu

Shaoxing is a city in Zhejiang province, that is located southwest of the Shanghai.

The brine used to make the Shaoxing stinky tofu consists of woody amaranth stalks that have been soaked in cold water, covered, and started to rot. This process takes about 2 to 4 days. After this, the amaranth stalks are taken out and the water is used to make the brine. The brine consists of fermented milk, Chinese herbs, bamboo shoots, and mustard greens. The tofu is soaked and fermented in this mixture for several days or months.

The tofu is then removed, deep fried, or steamed. In households, it is served steamed with green beans. In food stalls, you will find it mostly deep-fried and served with hot chili sauce.

Gaochun stinky tofu  

This type of stinky tofu is found in Nanjing. Nanjing is the capital city of Jiangsu province. Gaochun stinky tofu is similar to the Changsha stinky tofu, in that it also has a black crackling.

It is different from the Changsha stinky tofu, in that its brine has rotten pickles. In addition to that, the brine has bamboo shoots, Chinese herbs, and mustard greens.

After being fermented for several days or months, the tofu is deep fried and served with hot chili sauce or soy sauce.

Stinky tofu history

There are various theories available to explain the origin of stinky tofu.

One legend explains that it was invented during the Zhou dynasty, from 770 BC to 476 BC. The Yue state had lost the war to the Wu state. Therefore, the Yue king known as Gou Jian was made a slave to the Wu king, known as Fu Chai. He was a slave for many years, during which at one point Fu Chai fell ill and Gou Jian visited him. In a bid to show his superiority, Gou Jian sought to make a diagnosis of his disease by testing Fu Chai’s stool. Gou Jian was so keen on getting on Fu Chai’s good side, that he tasted his stool to make a correct diagnosis. Upon tasting it, he said that Fu Chai would recover soon.

Fu Chai was so impressed by Gou Jian’s methods, that he granted him his freedom. This disgraceful occurrence spread all around, and the people decided to mark their humiliation by eating similarly odorous foods. The region became distinct and popular for serving pungent-smelling foods, such as chou doufu, otherwise known as stinky tofu.

Another theory suggests that a certain scholar turned food vendor accidentally made the dish in Anhui, during the Qing Dynasty. The scholar stored a large amount of unsold tofu in jars and forgot about them. After some time, he noticed a green substance that was smelly but tasty. Its taste was so good that he decided to sell it, and it became popular. This is known as the modern-day stinky tofu.

Another theory suggests that a monk named, Zhu Yuanzhang, who came from a poor family came across some old tofu left outside someone’s home. He was very hungry and thus did not care if it was cooked or not. Despite the tofu being old, it was delicious and he never forgot its taste.

Later on, he became a military commander and led his army to many successful battles in Anhui province. To celebrate, he made his entire army eat stinky tofu and his name became popular thereafter.

How is stinky tofu made

Stinky tofu is made by fermenting normal tofu in brine, which is a mixture of a high concentration of salt and water. The brine is accompanied by vegetables and either meat or fish. Other ingredients that can be added to the fermentation process are fermented milk, bamboo shoots, amaranth shoots, cabbage, and Chinese herbs.

The mixture is fermented in containers for several months. The longer it is fermented, the stronger the odor and the more distinct the taste of the stinky tofu. Stinky tofu is grey before fermentation, but white fuzz forms on its surface.

After the fermentation process, the stinky tofu is either deep-fried, barbecued, or braised. The stinky odor enhances during the frying process. The color darkens and the surface swells, thereafter it can be removed from the pan. Stinky tofu is served with various spices and elements such as garlic paste, pepper, and sesame oil. These spices and elements can help to neutralize the pungent smell.

How to make stinky tofu brine

Brine is referred to as a mixture of a high concentration of sodium, otherwise known as salt, and water.

Public food vendors in Yilan, Taiwan, add shelled shrimp, Chinese green cabbage, bamboo shoots, and saltwater in wide-mouth jars. This mixture is then left open for several months. The exposure to air allows the brine to undergo a natural microbial fermentation which results in its strong, pungent smell.

The brine can also be made at home. This is done by using 15 ml of shrimp paste, 400 ml of water, and ½ a teaspoon of salt. This mixture is placed in a container and stored for two days while stirring occasionally.

Does tofu smell bad

Tofu, in and of itself does not smell bad. Plain tofu doesn’t have a distinct smell. It’s odorless. Stinky tofu has a very strong and pungent odor. Most people say that it smells like rotten garbage, smelly feet, smelly socks, and even old cheese. Its pungent smell is due to the bacteria at work on the tofu protein during the fermentation process.

The bacteria break down the tofu protein into peptides and amino acids. Some of the amino acids produce sulfide compounds that produce strong smells. There is also a volatile substance known as indole, produced during the fermentation process, that has a pungent smell.

How to eat stinky tofu

Stinky tofu can be eaten steamed, cold, braised, barbecued, or deep-fried. It is mostly enjoyed while deep-fried. It is also mostly accompanied by chili sauce or soy sauce.

Is stinky tofu safe to eat

It is relatively safe to eat. However, there are food safety and hygiene concerns due to the conditions in which it is made. Stinky tofu is mainly served by outdoor food vendors, therefore there is concern about hygiene due to the external environment.

Also, during the fermentation process, the brine is left open for a long time, therefore there are hygiene concerns due to that.

Is stinky tofu vegan

It is not always vegan. This is because some people use fermented milk, meat, or fish in their brine mixture. Therefore, to stay on the safe side, vegans should avoid eating it.

Is stinky tofu healthy?

It contains probiotics got from the fermentation process, which promotes gut health by improving digestion. It also has isoflavones which provide several health benefits. Stinky tofu has isoflavonoid equol which promotes healthy skin. It can also help women going through menopause, have an easier time dealing with the symptoms.

However, stinky tofu contains a large amount of sodium, contributed by the brine it is fermented in. as earlier mentioned, most people enjoy stinky tofu when deep-fried. Deep frying increases the number of calories thus it is not the healthiest method of cooking. If you want a healthier form of stinky tofu, it is best to enjoy it steamed or boiled.

Stinky tofu calories

A bowl of 12 stinky tofu pieces contains about 205 calories.

Is stinky tofu halal

hunan stinky tofu

Yes, it is, but it is best to practice discretion before ordering it. This is because some vendors may have used non-halal ingredients in making the stinky tofu. For example, they may have used pork during the fermentation process, or lard when deep frying. Before ordering, it is best to ask the food vendor if they used any non-halal ingredients in the making of the stinky tofu.


Stinky tofu is a unique and different food. It can be characterized as an acquired taste, since most people may be put off by its smell before tasting it. As long as you can get past the smell, it can be a great food or snack to enjoy for an adventurous spirit.

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