The sunny provincial capital of Kunming, in China's southwestern Yunnan province, is known for its favorable climate. What should be the city's real draw, however, is the near-magical variety of stinky tofu that's made just outside its city limits. The special hairy tofu, which has recently been submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage item, is manufactured in the same way it's been for more than 350 years. In its own fetid way, it's also delicious.
Squeezed in between a noisy freeway and a ghost town of empty condominium high-rises, Qibuchang village is to stinky tofu what Lockhart, Texas is to barbecue. There are several operations there, but the most legit is that of the Chang family, the original producers of the piquant curd. The Changs have been stinking up tofu for five generations. Though some in the village have started modernizing their production line, such as substituting an industrial steamer for the traditional wok-over-flame method, the Changs still do it all in the old-school, no-bullshit way from beginning to end. Grandma Chang, the friendly patriarch of the tofu clan and local pride, shows me and my photographer Zhao Jie how it's done.
The first step is to mash the soybeans. They don't use modern technology for this, instead employing a 200-year-old, hand-powered stone mill, which is operated outdoors. In homage to the ancient method of her tofu-making, Grandma Chang's outfit is also old-school—she dresses as if China's Communist Revolution never happened, and this makes me like her even more.
After the soybeans have been reduced to little bits, they are steamed in a wok until tender and then boiled in water in a dark, damp room. The mixture separates here into blobs of curd and soy milk, and the curds are strained out and put into a big ceramic pot. Using an ancient-looking ladle, Grandma Chang spoons the curds from the pot onto a depressed table and spreads it flat with her bare hands. Then she lays a porous cloth on top of the tofu, covers it with wooden planks, and lays stone weights on top to keep pressure on the wet curds. A drain at one end of the table funnels the remaining soy milk into a bucket. In two hours the mixture will be firm and ready to cut into squares.
The squares are each laid onto racks made of thin bamboo sticks, encased in drawers made of a special wood from southern Yunnan. (G. Chang wouldn't tell us the type because it's a family secret.) In these stacked racks, separated by green mahjong tiles, is where the tofu sits for six days, fermenting into hairy little mounds of sour earthiness.
Grandma Chang's product is known affectionately throughout the village as the "humpback tofu" because of her husband's deformed back. She tell us that during the Qing Dynasty the tofu was made especially for the royal family in Beijing and was exclusively reserved for their imperial mouths. What makes it so special is the climate, water, and soil of Kunming, all of which hold favorable feng shui properties, according to Grandma Chang. Now we are extra-eager to get a taste of the revered moldiness. Though the stuff sells like hot-cakes in the local market, Grandma Chang luckily has some for us—and freshly stunk at that.
We walk into a storeroom where tofu racks are lined against a wall. The air is stinky, and only growing more so by the day. Grandma Chang lifts off the top of one rack and places a few squares of the tofu into a plastic bag. She gives it to us free of charge with a wide smile, and we walk off to find a restaurant to cook it for us.
Down the street we find a Sichuan joint, a dingy, greasy place, and sit down on tiny stools in the back dining room. Much to our relief, the chef prepares the six-day-old tofu masterfully.
It is served deep-fried in rapeseed oil with a light dusting of dried pepper flakes and chopped green onion so as to keep its natural flavor center stage. The tofu's hair has crisped into little chips that melt in my mouth. I never thought mold could taste so good. The center of the browned square is tender and surprisingly moist. Its taste is slightly sour, though not as pungent as one would imagine, and with sly, earthy undertones.
Stinky tofu is all about appreciating the subtleties. Sitting in this moldering restaurant in the middle of this backwater village on the outskirts of Kunming, Zhao Jie and I feel like dynastic royalty as we enjoy the tofu's rotten goodness.