Villager smells success in stinky tofu

KUNMING (Xinhua) – Stinky tofu, a strong-smelling form of fermented bean curd, might be one of the most divisive Chinese foods. While it is usually sold at roadside stands across China as a widely popular snack, its pungent odour may put off the most adventurous eaters.

For Li Yong, who has been making stinky tofu for nearly four decades, the food might smell bad, but its taste is unbeatable.

“Like the food itself, producing stinky tofu might be painstaking, but it has been a successful business that has supported my family over the years,” said the 55-year-old.

Li lives in Qibuchang Village on the outskirts of Kunming, capital of southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The village boasts a long history of producing stinky tofu that dates back to the early Ming Dynasty.

Li decided to follow in his father’s footsteps to be a tofu maker when he was barely 20 years.

“At that time, my two elder brothers went to do other work. I didn’t want to see my father’s craft of making stinky tofu fade away,” he said.

Since then, he has been hand-making stinky tofu in his father’s old-school way, although many of his fellow villagers have started to use machines to mass-produce the specialty.

Before dawn, Li walks into his workshop to soak soybeans and grind them into small bits with a hand-powered stone mill. The little bits are then mixed with gypsum, a coagulant, and simmered in boiled water until the mixture separates into soymilk and blobs of curds.

Li Yong lays pieces of tofu on wooden racks, where the fresh tofu sits for five days, slowly fermenting into blocks of stinky tofu
A wide variety of tofu dishes are included in a tofu feast, such as stewed fish with tofu and crab roe with tofu. – PHOTOS: XINHUA

Using a ladle, Li scoops the curds onto a table and spreads them flat with his hands. Then he lays a porous cloth and a wooden plank on top of the curds and puts stone weights on the plank to squeeze out the extra liquid.

“Within a few hours, the curds will be firm enough to be cut into squares of fresh tofu,” Li said.

It takes even more efforts to “stink up” fresh tofu. “Fermenting the tofu is like raising a child. It requires a lot of care,” Li said.

Li lays pieces of tofu on wooden racks, where the fresh tofu sits for five days, slowly fermenting into blocks of stinky tofu. Li needs to flip the pieces over twice during the fermentation process to fully ferment the tofu.

White fuzz will form on the surface of the tofu, as it starts to give off its unique, pungent smell, which will grow stronger day by day.

Li said the time-consuming process of hand-making stinky tofu is worthwhile as he believes that the more time he spends making tofu, the less time it would take him to sell it.

His handmade stinky tofu is sold to more than 20 small restaurants in Kunming, where it is steamed or deep-fried and served with a spicy sauce to its many aficionados.

In a family restaurant run by Li’s son, the stinky tofu is made into a tofu feast, which includes a wide variety of tofu dishes such as stewed fish with tofu and crab roe with tofu. The restaurant has attracted many food lovers since it opened in 2014.

“The taste is so good. I love these tofu dishes,” said Song Liming, a frequent tourist to the village.

Stinky tofu has also become the biggest attraction of Qibuchang Village in recent years. The village now receives more than 5,000 tourists every day who are interested in visiting the village’s tofu workshops and learning about the local tofu culture.

Tofu and other bean products produced by the villagers have also been sold to other parts of the country as well as foreign countries such as Zambia and Tanzania in recent years.

“Our village has built a tofu museum and launched a tofu culture festival,” Li said. “It’s the best time for my family.”