Monday, August 22, 2005

Stinky Tofu

I love Chinese food. At its best it could rank right up there with the best cuisine in the world in terms of creativity and flavor. Sadly that is not the case in the Nanjing office cafeteria. The Nanjing office offers its employees free lunch, and if youre working overtime, free dinner. At first I found the food in the cafeteria kind of exotic. The presentation was nothing to write home about--they were served in metal mess trays--but they were ok. At first. But after about a week or 2 of tofu in all its shapes, sizes, and textures, after an assorted stew of eels, frogs, squid, all served in the Sichuan style, after star-anise flavored pork with 2 inches of fat on them, after an assortment of unidentifiables, I just want to throw in the towel. The lethal fat-and-MSG combination accumulates in my system such that after 2 weeks, my body says Enough! and I get bouts of headache and nausea which I can only remedy by skipping dinner in the caf and buying dinner elsewhere. Usually fruit, which the palengke near the office has in a rainbow array. They have pears in three different colors, peaches, plums, nectarines, dragon fruit, grapefruit, and kiwi fruit (the Chinese ones are cheaper, but arent as good as the New Zealand ones), melons, watermelons, etc.. These sustain me in a 'cleansing diet' until I could eat in the caf again without throwing up. And I swear the food in the cafeteria interferes with my body's ability to absorb Vitamin C because everytime I go to Nanjing, my gums swell up and bleed after 2 weeks which I could remedy by OD'ing on ascorbic acid. Sometimes up to one-and-a-half grams a day.

Not the height of culinary excellence. Posted by Picasa

Once, a Chinese colleague said something to me that under different circumstances would seem almost banal, but at the time she said it, seemed almost zen-like. She said, 'The food in the cafeteria is not very good.'

But the most profound culinary experience I had occured not in the office cafeteria, but in a restaurant near the Confucius temple, an area well-known for traditional Chinese cuisine and entertainment. The office treated us to dinner one day and it had the works. Multiple courses piled on the lazy susan in huge platters, plus individual bowls of soups, appetizers, sweets, and exotic victuals that arrived without the western pattern of courses. We had duck tongue with huge green chili peppers, black chicken tinola with ripe papaya, a shellfish that none of us could identify but was very delicious.

Dont know what this is but it's yummy Posted by Picasa

But the most lasting impression came from the stinky tofu.

'It doesnt smell good, but it's delicious,' a Chinese colleague said. Ive heard all about stinky tofu. And Ive smelled all about stinky tofu. It's one of the more popular street foods in Nanjing. It's made from fermented tofu. I guess you could call it the Chinese version of cheese. Cheese is made from curds usually treated with the stomach enzymes of whatever animal the milk came from and left to 'ripen' sometimes even left to fester til molds grow in it or til bacteria work on the milk proteins. I like cheese even if the process of making natural cheeses could be described as vile to someone who hasnt eaten cheese before. So I thought, Fermented tofu with chili sauce? Why not? So I took the plate of stinky tofu, noticing the texture as my chopsticks cut off a piece, taking a whiff of the distinctive smell, noting how the white tofu contrasted with the red chili paste quite nicely. I lifted it up with my sticks, and put it gingerly in my mouth...

... and it was the most horrid thing Ive ever tasted ever since I fell in a drainage ditch when I was five. Imagine a sewer in the dead of the Manila summer. How the heat evaporates the water in the canal, concentrating the organic material in the sewer water to a high degree. Imagine the fumes that emanate from that water and taking a good whiff of that. Imagine taking that sewer water and solidifying it with unflavored gelatine. That was the flavor explosion that burst into my mouth. Acquired taste? You bet! Although right now Im disinclined to acquire that taste.

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