Editor’s note: Chinese symbols in the original write-up may show up as square symbols in your display depending on your graphics capability.
Last Saturday found me at the 埔心(Puxin) night market. It all started the week before when a couple of students with whom I had played something like “rock, scissors, paper” at a BBQ at a student’s house came to the English office at lunch. Not to lose my dignity, I immediately stood up and clenched my right fist, “Hei bai cei, nansheng, nusheng, pei…!” followed by a quick wrist flip and I looked down. A few more rounds and my dignity vaporized in a cloud of high-school girl giggles.
In part English and part Chinese, with some stutters and some help from a nearby translator, the mists of the message gradually cleared. There were inviting us to the night market (夜市yeshi) this weekend.
While being brave and willing to try new things has the advantage of impressing the natives when the activity is agreeable, it can also lead to substantial embarrassment. Since everything I’ve done here has been great fun, the thought of even a possibility of the latter never entered my mind.
After some deliberation we set a time, and Saturday it was. The student’s mother would pick us up at 8:00 in front of the dorm, and all fun would break loose as we basked in the warmth of the generosity and culture of this wonderful people, and of course, the spice of oh-so-tasty squid on a stick.
Squid on a stick was perhaps my favorite part of outdoor markets in Taiwan. Along the roadside it was easy to spot the orange signs above the small carts boasting 烤肉 (kaorou, something like barbeque). If you stopped at the cart the seller would reach into a bucket of water in the bottom of the cart and produce a squid. Without hesitation, a wooden skewer would be thrust up the squid’s – well, whatever you call that in a squid – and the freshly impaled hunk of fresh meat would be laid on the table and opened with a pair of scissors. At your request (or lack of refusal), the seller would paint on a thick coating of some spicy sauce and lay the squid on the grill. Within a few minutes you had a spicy squid popsicle in your hands just waiting for your teeth to sever its tentacles. Very tasty.
One of my goals for the evening was to pick up a t-shirt or two sporting some seriously bad English, and I had heard the yeshi was the place for that. Aside from that and squid on a stick, I had no particular ulterior motives. I’m usually pretty easy like that – which is exactly what bit me in the ass last week when I went to SOGO with five other teachers (ahh yes. The night I got swindled into spending an evening alone with five women in a 7-floor department store that made Macy’s look like a 7-11).
At the appointed time the proverbial, and in this case literal, black car pulled up in the front of the dorm, and a cute smiling girl beckoned Whitney and I to get in.
Our first stop in the market was a bunch of big plastic bins on the ground, filled with all manner of cheap, made-in-Taiwan, stuff – the cheapest of the cheap. Everything from decorative short swords to injection molded McDonald’s food play-sets to rain ponchos to plastic dishes beckoned, “Buy me, buy me! I only cost 13 cents!”
As we continued into the market, we met up with “Dad” and the other student. Together we made an interesting group: the first girl is about 4’10”, and her mom is about 4’11”. The other student towered over them with a 5’9” slouching frame, matching Whitney 5’10”, and myself 6’. Dad alone held the middle ground, standing a nice, respectable 5’4”. Ever since meeting these students who are best friends, I had secretly chuckled at their severe height difference.
All wore smiles, even if they were at the height of my chest, and my lips were burning with the spice of squid-on-a-stick, which I had ordered 大辣 (“da la” extra spicy).
Suddenly something jumped me and smashed me in the face. In shock I reeled back. The sensation of a plastic bag on my face came simultaneously with the inability of my lungs to inhale. As my abdomen tightened I was powerless to even open my mouth. I squeaked out in disgust, “What is that?”
The smiles the tall and short pair had been wearing had been replaced… with bigger smiles. Their eyes jumped with joy and sang along with their voices, “臭豆腐! Chou doufu! Chou doufu!”
Still in shock, and beginning to run out of oxygen, my mind raced to decode. “Doufu” I knew. “Chou” I knew. I had heard of stinky tofu before. I had heard of smelly cheeses before. I had eaten smelly cheeses before – they weren’t too bad. Instantly I recalled the first time I had ever heard of stinky tofu.
Four or five years ago in an undergraduate Chinese class I read the book “Six Stories of a Floating Life” by Shen Fu. It was the story of a man and his perfect wife. All parts of the book were more evidence of the perfection of his perfect wife, the depths of their intimacy, and their perfect marriage – except for one story. This one story detailed a fight they had, over stinky tofu. She loved to cook it and he complained that he couldn’t stand it; it made the whole house stink for days. At the time I remember thinking to myself, “Dude, don’t be a weenie! You have the perfect marriage! Just eat the dumb stinky tofu, strap on a set of balls and deal with it!”
Of course part of the reason that I felt so strongly at the time was because the word “stinky” just doesn’t seem to really have much strength as an adjective for things that smell bad. You might fart in the car, and it is “stinky” for a few minutes. Or maybe you go for a weekend camping trip and you are “stinky” when you return. The scope of meaning of this word generally calls to mind mildly unpleasant odors. But at that instant, I realized that if this truly was stinky tofu, it might actually be worth a divorce. Stinky is far from honest. “臭死了Chou sile” (stinky to death) is almost a start. Words do not exist to describe either the fragrance or the magnitude of chou doufu. It was so indescribably putrid that my lungs blatantly refused to inhale, in the same way that my hands refused to put contact lenses in my eyes, the same way that my nose refused having cauterizing needles shoved deep into my sinuses, and the same way that my anus refused to allow the doctor perform a physical exam. The human body is designed to protect itself. Just try cutting a splinter out of your arm with a razor blade. Your body hates it like nothing else. In this case, it knows that stinky tofu belongs far, far away from it, and certainly not in it.
In my short 26 years on this planet, I have only ever come into contact with two odors which have provoked such a reaction from my body’s defense mechanisms. The first was the inside of a chicken farm in Turkey. Rows and rows of hundreds of chickens squawking away, and hundreds of pounds of chicken shit. WOW that stinks! I barely made it out of there with my food still in my stomach. The second odor found me in California on a field trip for a geology class. As we walked toward a cliff to hike down to a beach we were assaulted with a similar odor; it turned out to be a 3-week dead, 80 foot long beached whale (really made me reconsider perfume). As horrific as both of these fragrances were, stinky tofu beat out the chicken shit and gave the beached whale a tight race for the gold.
“Mom” pulled me out of my reverie by asking the dreaded question, “Would you like to try some stinky tofu?” Kind of a stupid question. I almost fainted at the stench. Why on earth would I want to eat it? I would rather shovel cow manure with my bare hands and smear it on my face than smell stinky tofu. Why would I put it in my mouth?
With all the politeness I could muster and the last portion of air in my lungs I politely motioned to my squid on a stick and said that I would try it later, when my hands were not full.
Finally we passed through the cloud of stench and comparatively fresh air rushed into my lungs. Two hopes filled my heart: 1) We would not see or smell any more stinky tofu tonight 2) Mom and company would forget about it and I could escape the torture of having to put that nastiness in my mouth.
Time and time again, hope number 1 was dashed. It seemed like every third street vendor sold the stuff! Every time I saw a vendor table that I wanted to check out, it always happened to be just downwind of Mr. Stinky.
My lungs responded violently to the clouds of stench. At first inhalation, my diaphragm would freeze, and my jaw and fists would clench as though I was about to be tortured by some medieval fiend. My stomach churned and threatened to put the squid back on the stick. As we walked, my lungs would gingerly inhale, enough to tell if the coast was clear. I felt like a man with a Geiger counter, taking samples of air, and reporting back to the lab whether the toxin levels were safe to breathe. All night, the black shadow of mom’s promise, “We’ll try some later” chilled and petrified me.
Finally we sat at the last stand at the edge of the market, with a short and a tall smiling face gleefully unwrapping chopsticks as toxic steam wrapped around their heads. A large platter of putrescence cubes jiggled menacingly when my hand bumped the table as I sat down. There was no way out.
I sat steeping in irony. I’m the man who tries everything. I ate fish eyeballs, pig brains, chicken feet, fern, fish heads, pig ear, 1,000 year old egg, cow intestine, …. “都可以dou keyi (anything’s good)” was my motto. But I did not want to eat this. I did not want to be on the same block as this. And there was no way out. My shaking chopsticks grasped a piece and drew it toward my face. Silently and desperately holding my breath I closed my teeth on the soft, square blob of nastiness.
How stupid of me to be so quick! The fried tofu seared my tongue and I was forced to open my mouth and… inhale. My lung-lock override button had been pushed, and the alarms all over my body were wailing as the steam carried the stench deep into my sinuses and lungs. What could possibly be worse than stinky tofu? Scalding hot stinky tofu. My gut wrenched and bile rose in my throat; my eyes flashed panic and Whitney quickly hit my leg under the table. “Swallow it! Swallow it NOW!” she whispered. “If you don’t swallow it you’re going to lose it!”
As the tofu cooled, its flavor washed over my tongue like a nuclear blast. It tasted like… SHIT. And I don’t mean that it tasted horrible, I meat it tasted like actual shit. Hot, steamy, fresh shit, straight from a pit toilet at a camping ground. Visions of a nasty old woman with three-inch hairs growing out of a mole on her cheek pouring restaurant sized buckets of diarrhea into a giant boiling wok of tofu danced in my head (This image taken from Andy. I must give credit for an incredible description of the thoughts that go through one’s mind while eating stinky tofu). It took a ridiculous quantity of willpower to swallow the mixture of bile and stinky tofu which now swirled around my mouth (incidentally, the bile tasted better). Miraculously I did it. Through the tears in which my eyes swam I could see a mixture of bewilderment and joy in the tall and short eyes: bewilderment that anyone could possibly not love stinky tofu, and joy that there would be more for them.
Without further ado, I rose from the table and quickly made my way to the nearest drink stand to wash out as much of the residue as possible from my burning mouth.
But I am still appalled that people love this stuff so much. It is a national treasure or something in this country. Perhaps I can get a meal of beached whale cooked in a nice aromatic red-wine-chicken-shit sauce next time I go to the night market.