Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stinky Tofu Sauce (with postscript)

Kostya, one of the Chinese seminarians, came to lunch with a mysterious jar. As the rest of us stared at him spooning out some dark reddish stuff onto his food, he invited us to try some. I’ve been pretty adventurous in terms of trying new foods, so I gave it a shot.

The brand was called Wangzhihe (王致和), which, literally translated (using my knowledge of Japanese kanji) means “King Highest Harmony.” I opened the jar and took a sniff. It was somewhat pungent. I put some on my food. The dark sauce was mixed in with chunks of what I guessed was tofu. Looking at the label, my suspicions were confirmed. This was Chinese fermented tofu sauce! I took a taste of my seasoned potatoes. It was like a flavor explosion—an interesting mix of tastes. It was like a mix between miso and aged cheese, very heavy on the salty and umami side of things. There was also a strong wine taste.

At dinner, Kostya wanted us to finish up the sauce. I asked him if I could have the rest. He agreed with a wave of his hand, as if shooing the stinky tofu from his sight. I gladly took it, and was quite happy to have it. Misha, a regular visitor to Jordanville, remarked, “Gee John, you’re enamored. You’re looking at it like it’s a picture of your Matushka-to-be.”

King Highest Harmony.

After I took it back, I looked up the brand. Apparently Wangzhihe is named after someone named Wang Zhihe, a student in 18th century China. Apparently Wang took the grueling Imperial examinations in order to get into the civil service. He failed, so he had to go back to work with his family in the tofu business. He applied his intelligence to tofu preservation, and tried preserving the tofu in a mixture of salt and spices. The resulting concoction proved to be extremely popular, and it was even a daily snack in the Forbidden City. Which goes to show that if life stinks one should make stinky tofu.

Three centuries later, Wangzhihe is still a popular food brand, making an array of fermented tofu products, including the above rose wine tofu sauce. If you go to an Asian market, search out this brand. It will give a nice kick of savoriness to your meal, whether in a stir-fry, mixed in with spaghetti sauce, or even straight up. Just make sure to brush your teeth afterwards.

Postscript: Yesterday, I tried some actual stinky tofu after dinner. “How does it taste?” I asked Kostya. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Chinese tastes are different. You might not like it.” I tried some. It tasted like how it smelled, which was about 5x as stinky as the above-mentioned stinky tofu sauce. So, before you head to the Asian supermarket, make sure to get the sauce, and not the actual stinky tofu itself. Caveat emptor!

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