Shenkeng Old Street has all the characteristics of a classic tourist trap except for one minor difference: most storefronts sell stinky tofu, and stinky tofu only. Its outskirts offer a looking glass into traditional Taiwanese folklore and culture.
It’s an overcast day in Taipei, and our group is on the hunt for one of the pride and joys of Taiwanese cuisine: stinky tofu, or 臭豆腐 chou dou fu. The dish, made by fermenting tofu in brine and spices, is notorious for its pungent aroma and the mixed emotions it inspires. I, for one, genuinely think stinky tofu smells and tastes good. Lenza, on the other hand, has a very different opinion. “It tastes like it’s rotten,” he sputtered after his first time trying it, looking confused and distressed as I cackle maniacally.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who you talk to), much of Taiwan shares my opinion. There are stinky tofu street stalls on every corner in most Taiwanese cities. To find one, all you have to do is visit a Taiwanese night market and follow your nose. The smell is hard to miss — that at least everyone can agree on.
Like many iconic foods in Taiwan and China, there are differing opinions on how stinky tofu came to be. Some are stories of accidental discovery, like food vendors forgetting about their tofu inventory for a while then resurfacing it to much fanfare. Others are more colorful, like a Shaoxing myth that details one imprisoned king of Yue, one royal stool of the enemy Wu king, and an unthinkable act necessary to earn one’s freedom. (For all the gory details, click here.) With a history that many believe traces back to the Qing dynasty, established in 1636, it’s understandable why details surrounding stinky tofu’s origins are murky.
In Taipei’s Shenkeng district, otherwise known as the “Tofu Capital of Taiwan,” we didn’t just find gold at the end of the rainbow, we discovered the entire mine. Located on the eastern edges of Taipei, Shenkeng Old Street, the district’s historic center, has all the characteristics of a classic tourist trap except for one minor difference: most storefronts sell stinky tofu, and stinky tofu only.
According to local vendors, the tofu served on Shenkeng Old Street is “the best in the world,” a truth made possible by the area’s sweet, natural mountain water, perfect for grinding soybeans with. And it seems that Taiwanese people agree. People flock in from all over the country specifically for this fragrant delicacy. I like to call it “stinky tofu tourism.”
Stinky tofu is cooked in many ways. Most frequently, it is fried and served on skewers with a lovely accompaniment of pickled cabbage. Sometimes it is boiled in a deep pot of fragrant broth or featured as the star attraction of an individual-sized hot pot. It can be braised, stir-fried, or even eaten raw. This last trip to Taiwan, I discovered a new reincarnation of the familiar dish: stinky tofu french fries served with a variety of dipping sauces. (They are really good, by the way).
The version we settle into at a small restaurant on Shenkeng Old Street is ma la stinky tofu and duck blood soup 麻辣鸭血臭豆腐, an ingredient pairing far more common than you may think.
The porous pieces of tofu act as a sponge, releasing a flood of savory broth into your mouth with each bite. The cubes of duck blood are the texture of soft jello, silky-smooth and melt in your mouth good. A garnish of chopped cilantro adds a crisp freshness that balances the numbing spice of chili oil. The stinky tofu barely packs a punch in this context — it merely provides a light, fermented flavor that adds a pleasant acidity to the soup.
Our friends Sonia and Elliot considered it the best thing they ate over their 5-day trip in Taiwan.
After finishing our meal, we decide to wander outside Shenkeng’s main touristic area for a glimpse of local life beyond tofu. Unlike its bustling old street, the rest of Shenkeng looks more like a humble Taiwanese town, with multi-story cement and brick buildings that appear much older than they are, worn by the unyielding tropical humidity.
The name Shenkeng, which literally translates to “deep pit,” is inspired by local geography. Shenkeng is fully surrounded by mountain ranges, and they encircle the town so it resembles the shape of a…deep pit (it sounds more poetic in Chinese, I promise).
Way past Shenkeng Old Street, up a lush green hill, we end up stumbling upon a beautiful temple overlooking views of the city below.
The predominant religions in Taiwan are Taoism and Buddhism, and colorful, ornate temples of all sizes seem to be everywhere. They add a pop of color between grey concrete buildings in Taiwanese cities, stand alone in the middle of green rice fields, or balance precariously on the edge of a cliff high in the mountains. As a kid, I would go to the small temple behind my grandparent’s house to burn incense and watch live performances of Taiwanese opera — they are very much part of everyday Taiwanese life.
This particular temple, we find out, is dedicated to Mazu, a Taoist and Chinese Buddhist sea goddess widely worshipped in Taiwan, southern China, and parts of Southeast Asia. If you are to believe local Shenkeng legend, you may come to the conclusion that this patron saint of sailors and fishermen is a highly sensitive woman, or at the very least has a cruel sense of humor.
According to a local worshipper, a hundred years ago, a local boy felt an urge to pee while watching cattle and decided to do so on a nearby rock. Shortly after, he lost the ability to move his legs, becoming paralyzed from the waist down. The rock, it turns out, was a naturally formed statue of Mazu, and she was immensely angered by his carelessness. The boy was rushed back to the rock by his parents to beg for forgiveness, and they constructed a straw hut around it to honor Mazu, promising to build a proper structure once they had the money to do so.
And so the majestic temple that exists today came to be. The stone the unfortunate boy relieved himself on has since been carved in the shape of Mazu and is displayed prominently in the main shrine.
We walk back towards Shenkeng Old Street feeling amused by this imaginative piece of folklore. Taiwan, a country that I spent my youth in and thought I knew so much about, continues to surprise me with its quirky layers and pique my curiosity even deeper.
And to think that stinky tofu was the catalyst of all this adventure!