A deep-fried “stinky” street food is under threat as China tightens its food safety laws

When the authorities began to get critical about food safety in China, one suspiciously smelling street food obtained caught within the crosshairs.

The scent of chou doufu stays with you lengthy after consuming it. It lurks in your nostrils, in your arms, in your hair, and in your garments. When dunked right into a deep fryer, releasing the pungent odor of the brine through which it’s fermented, chou doufu (actually “stinky” tofu) has the identical bewildering impact as a extremely smelly blue cheese—it’s mildly off-putting, but intoxicating.

The historic metropolis of Shaoxing, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Shanghai by practice, is recognized in China for numerous issues—its literary heritage, its distinctive opera, a system of slender canals to rival Amsterdam’s. It’s additionally recognized for its most prized delicacy: pungent tofu.

Though the funky delicacy has been ingrained within the tradition of Shaoxing for greater than 2,500 years, its future is all of the sudden unsure. Stinky tofu, like different street food throughout China, is caught within the crosshairs as Chinese authorities strengthen the nation’s food safety laws. What’s under threat is extra than simply inexpensive snacks. It’s additionally the livelihoods of numerous street-food cooks throughout the nation—and a useful a part of China’s culinary heritage.

The origin of pungent tofu isn’t clear, however in keeping with one story, this predilection for odoriferous meals in Shaoxing is largely due to a shameful incident that occurred in the course of the Zhou dynasty from 770 BC to 476 BC. The Yue state (of which trendy Shaoxing is now an element) had simply misplaced a battle to the neighboring Wu State. The Yue king, Gou Jian, was made a prisoner of the Wu king, Fu Chai, and compelled to serve as his slave for years. During this time, Fu Chai turned unwell and Gou Jian paid him a go to. In an try to point out his fealty, Gou Jian supplied to make a prognosis about Fu Chai’s restoration by inspecting his stool. Gou Jian was eager to get on his rival’s good facet and made some extent to style it, as effectively. And with that, he proclaimed the king would recuperate quickly.

Suitably impressed, Fu Chai granted Gou Jian his freedom without delay. But when the individuals of Yue discovered of this shame, they had been mortified. According to the legend, they determined to mark their humiliation by consuming equally odorous meals, and the area developed a definite delicacies based mostly round smelly, fermented dishes, together with chou doufu.

Stinky Tofu has a infamous repute in China. Photo by: canghai76 / Shutterstock.com

Springtime is when amaranth shoots start to jut from the soil throughout China. Prized by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the bushy-looking plant with a dramatic crimson plume of flowers has additionally lengthy been a function of many Asian cuisines. The purple-streaked leaves of the plant are used largely in stir-fry dishes and soups in China, however in Shaoxing, amaranth stalks have additionally historically been fermented after which steamed to make a dish referred to as mei xian cai gen. Food author Fuchsia Dunlop has described the style of fermented amaranth stalks as “putrescent and wildly exciting at the same time,” and the brine that’s left over after the fermentation course of as smelling little higher than a “drain blocked by rotten vegetation.”

Revolting sufficient, in different phrases, for one more necessary use: to provide pungent tofu its legendary scent.

Even although pungent tofu is beloved, it has fairly a infamous repute in China. There have been sordid experiences within the press about unlawful tofu workshops utilizing industrial chemical compounds to provide a sure form of pungent tofu eaten in Hunan province its conventional black shade and others including revolting issues such as useless snails and rancid meat to their brine to chop corners—and make their product even stinkier.

Going again to the legend of Gou Jian, excrement was allegedly found at one in all these so-called “black workshops,” too. In 2003, an intrepid reporter for Shenzhen News, a web based information outlet within the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, went undercover at a workshop and was allegedly advised by a very callous boss, “If the stinky tofu isn’t stinky enough, we put a little feces water in it.” Whether true or not, the report despatched shockwaves via the nation, and the authorities had been fast to close the workshop down.

Years later, within the steamy port metropolis of Wenzhou, one other scandal went viral, additional diminishing the delicacy’s good identify. A man recognized solely as Mr. Su had turn into critically unwell after consuming a plate of chou doufu he purchased on the street. After experiencing signs resembling food poisoning, Su’s organs mysteriously shut down and he slipped right into a coma. Miraculously, he survived the ordeal and wakened per week later to a hefty hospital invoice and nationwide notoriety. The most stunning declare got here from a information report saying docs “speculated” Su’s sickness had been brought on by tofu fermented in human feces. Local well being specialists later discounted the report, however in terms of pungent tofu, tales like this refuse to die in China.

“The Most Fragrant Old Man Wang’s Stinky Tofu” stall within the historic coronary heart of Shaoxing. Photo by: Justin Bergman

For pungent tofu distributors like Zhao Baoxian, this is problematic. Zhao, a form, grandfatherly man who has a small scar above his lip that curls when he smiles, runs a massively in style tofu stall referred to as “The Most Fragrant Old Man Wang’s Stinky Tofu” within the historic coronary heart of Shaoxing. It comes extremely really helpful by diners on Dianping, the Chinese model of Yelp! “This is the best stinky tofu I ever had! Nothing else comes close to it,” one reviewer gushed. But simply as Zhao’s enterprise was taking off a number of years in the past, his life was turned the other way up. A new nationwide food safety legislation got here into impact in 2015, and a noose started tightening on street-food distributors like him throughout the nation.

When I arrived at Zhao’s stall, the odor of frying chou doufu hit me within the face like a backed-up sewer. Zhao’s spouse, Chen Caijuan, was cooking out entrance in a smudged pink apron, wielding outsized picket chopsticks that regarded extra like drumsticks. As the oil in her wok bubbled and hissed, she plucked cubes of white tofu cubes from a basket and dunked every into the raging liquid, giving it a fast stir so the items wouldn’t cling collectively.

I seen tiny brown scars lining her arms and arms—an occupational hazard, evidently. Chen smiled broadly and motioned for me to go contained in the small restaurant, which was little greater than two tables with blue plastic stools, a fridge, and a tiny kitchen no larger than a closet. Oddly sufficient, there was additionally a big portrait of Joseph Stalin on the wall, gazing out imperiously on the model new Starbucks throughout the street. It appeared an unfortunate spot for his enterprise—a tiny pungent tofu stall having to compete with a world espresso goliath—however Zhao mentioned the alternative was true. The two had been really fairly complementary.

“When the Starbucks first opened, people would take their stinky tofu inside to eat. They say ‘Starbucks goes well with stinky tofu,’” he defined. “After some time, increasingly more individuals began to convey pungent tofu into Starbucks. And Starbucks began to stink. That was when the employees banned it from the store.”

Starbucks goes effectively with pungent tofu

The Starbucks was additionally an indication of higher days for Shaoxing. More vacationers meant extra individuals desirous to strive Zhao’s chou doufu. His enterprise had not been as brisk when he joined his brother-in-law within the enterprise in 2005. His brother-in-law—recognized as “Old Man Wang,” therefore the identify of the stall—had a tough upbringing. His dad and mom had drowned in a river accident when he was younger, and he began making pungent tofu to help himself when he was 16, utilizing a household recipe courting again greater than a century to the Qing dynasty. Old Man Wang had made ends meet for years, however enterprise didn’t begin to actually choose up till vacationers trickled into Shaoxing within the mid-2000s. And the brothers had a literary determine to thank for that: Lu Xun, a Shaoxing native extensively regarded as China’s finest author of the 20th century.

In current years, Shaoxing’s outdated metropolis has turn into a mini-Disneyland dedicated to his life: Hordes of vacationers descend on weekends to walk down Lu Xun Middle Road and tour the ancestral residence of Lu Xun’s household, the backyard the place Lu Xun performed as a baby and the college the place Lu Xun studied. Against this backdrop, Zhao and his brother-in-law ultimately constructed a thriving enterprise fermenting tofu for large lodges and eating places, whereas additionally frying up their very own of their tiny stall. Their model turned so well-respected, they had been featured on “A Bite of China,” a well-liked food TV collection, gaining nationwide consideration.

Zhao and Old Man Wang used to have a license for his or her enterprise, however it expired a couple of decade in the past and as a consequence of modifications within the nationwide food laws, had turn into extraordinarily troublesome to resume. Because they purchased tofu from one other provider and solely did the fermentation course of of their workshop, he didn’t suppose they wanted a food manufacturing license. The value was greater than RMB 1 million (about $148,000) and required a facility geared up to correctly check the chemical compounds within the tofu to make sure it’s being made safely. Zhao’s workshop was tiny by comparability. And as lengthy as he adopted the correct sanitation tips for fermentation, he’d by no means had any issues.

That is, till one morning in March 2016, at exactly 7 a.m. when the native food inspection company paid him a go to and demanded to see Zhao’s license. When he couldn’t produce one, he was fined the equal of $63,000—5 instances his income over a two-year interval. It was effectively past what Zhao, who makes about RMB 1,000, or $145—on a superb day—may afford to pay.

Tourists on the Shaoxing Lu Xun’s Memorial Hall in Shaoxing. Photo by: Dan Hanscom / Shutterstock.com

Food safety has lengthy been a priority in China, however it wasn’t till the melamine milk scandal in 2008 that it reached a disaster level. Six infants died and 300,000 others had been sickened as a consequence of powdered milk tainted with melamine, a chemical usually present in plastics. That incident created such a panic in China, individuals started binge-shopping for milk powder in Hong Kong and skyrocketing demand for Australian milk earned it the nickname “white gold.” Public confidence within the food business has by no means recovered.

Once the floodgates opened, there gave the impression to be an never-ending stream of disturbing information tales about unscrupulous food producers, poisonous farms, and dodgy street-food distributors within the Chinese media. Cadmium ranges greater than 200 instances the nationwide well being commonplace had been present in rice in Hunan province, then arsenic and lead began displaying up in assessments, too. Fields of watermelons really exploded in Jiangsu province after farmers sprayed them with an excessive amount of progress accelerator. And meat merchants in southern China had been caught promoting tons of of thousands and thousands of dollars’ price of illegally imported beef, rooster, and pork, a few of which had been frozen since the 1970s. When it got here to street food, nothing did extra harm than the “gutter oil” exposés that shook the nation a number of years in the past. The headline on this Washington Post story says all of it: “You May Never Eat Street Food in China Again After Watching This Video.”

It’s a Sisyphean activity making an attempt to say one step forward of the cheats in a food business the scale of China’s—there are simply too many producers within the provide chain and an infinite variety of eating places, informal food spots, and street distributors making an attempt to feed 1.38 billion hungry individuals. No matter what the federal government did to crack down on food safety violations, the issue by no means appeared to get higher. In want of a brand new strategy, the federal government lastly got here up with one in 2015—a top-down revision of the nationwide Food Safety Law. The revamped legislation imposed stricter controls over massive sectors of the business—from on-line procuring platforms to dietary dietary supplements—and, most dramatically, instituted a lot harder punishments for violators, together with heavy fines, the revocation of enterprise licenses and even jail time. It was thought-about the hardest food safety legislation ever enacted in China. Hotlines had been additionally set as much as permit individuals to make complaints about suspicious food suppliers. In Shanghai, rewards of as much as RMB 300,000 ($43,500) had been supplied for tip-offs that turned out to be true. The hotline obtained practically 15,000 complaints in March 2017 alone, when the brand new hygiene guidelines took impact within the metropolis.

In many locations, the brand new legislation had speedy and dire penalties for street-food distributors—these on the underside rung of the ladder with out the guanxi (the all-important social networks and relationships that dictate the whole lot in China) to combat again. As bureaucrats in cities from Beijing to Hong Kong started scrubbing their streets of something that smacked of poor sanitation, distributors all of the sudden confronted tighter restrictions dictating how they did enterprise, from procuring licenses to the place they may arrange their stalls. The feared city administration officers who hold order on China’s streets, recognized as the chengguan, additionally appeared to have free rein to ramp up their aggressive campaigns to close them down. Stalls making xiao lengthy bao (soup dumplings) started disappearing in Shanghai, whereas carts promoting steamed buns and jianbing (a well-liked breakfast crepe) had been chased out of Beijing’s working-class neighborhoods.

“We’ve seen a drastic reduction of street-food vendors, especially in the last three years,” says Kyle Long, the American co-founder of UnTour Food Tours, a well-liked street food tour operator in Shanghai, Beijing, and different cities. “Near tourist areas, for sure, it’s completely gone—it’s laughable at this point to even think of finding one.” Some street food distributors nonetheless function in authorized grey zones, he says, however they’ve been pushed to the margins. In Beijing, as an example, some arrange pushcarts in clusters under bridges, believing there’s safety in numbers. “But when you hand over the money and they’re looking both ways to make sure there’s no one scoping them out,” Long says.

Those who’ve moved into small storefronts just like Zhao’s additionally stay in a perpetual state of worry. Many have flown under the radar for years and are all of the sudden anxious about whether or not they have the correct licenses and are in compliance with the brand new laws. Long says one established Sichuan street food chef on his tour abruptly closed up store in 2017 with no discover as a result of he didn’t have the fitting license. He was merely there sooner or later, gone the subsequent. “You never know who’s going to be the next target,” he says.

Zhao Baoxian frying pungent tofu. Photos by: Justin Bergman

Zhao believes he was made a scapegoat to point out that the authorities in Shaoxing had been taking food safety significantly. He was a high-profile goal because of the consideration he had obtained from the food TV collection. Other pungent tofu distributors in Shaoxing went to the native authorities workplace to protest the superb on his behalf, however then they, too, began to face harassment for missing the identical license. Not understanding what else to do, Zhao employed a lawyer and sued the inspection company.

“The license was never seen in our industry,” he argued. “Nobody ever will get it. Since my superb, the chengguan have pushed quite a lot of pungent tofu distributors away.”

As he talked about his authorized troubles, a darkish cloud handed over his face. It’s clear how a lot the case has weighed on him.

“My first lawyer lost my case. Now I have a second lawyer who says our scale of production is at best at the workshop level. The fine should be within RMB 30,000 to 50,000 (about $4,400-$7,300). The administration had never given me any notice or warning about this so-called illegal activity. They just fined me.”

His eyes filling with tears, he mentioned that when his punishment made the information, many individuals on-line suggested him to pay a bribe to make the issue go away. Instead, he determined to make his case to the general public.

Keen to point out me simply how hygienic his chou doufu is, he took me into the kitchen the place a batch of tofu cubes had been soaking in a plastic tub of amaranth brine because the morning. Without hesitation, he rolled up his sleeves and dipped his arms within the murky liquid to scoop out a handful and place in a basket. The liquid had the colour of soiled dishwater, and after I leaned in, it positively reeked like rotten greens in a drain. The cubes normally keep within the brine for a number of hours, Zhao defined, however it is dependent upon numerous elements, together with the standard of the tofu, the freshness of the brine, and the skin temperature. (October is one of the best month, he mentioned, following the amaranth harvest.) He’s a tofu grasp by now; he is aware of the precise period of time wanted to supply the optimum stench—and do it safely. He has a secret ingredient, too: a splash of baijiu (Chinese grain alcohol) that is added to the brine simply after the amaranth stalks have reached the right stage of putridness.

Zhao insisted I’ve a style, handing me a container of piping-hot tofu that had simply come out of the fryer. I’d had pungent tofu earlier than, however his was a revelation. The funky odor combined reasonably pleasantly with the residual style of the cooking oil and the marginally bitter, umami notes of the tofu. The outer layer had a tough, craggy look, however inside, the tofu was nonetheless comfortable—the right counterbalance. Before I noticed it, I had eaten half the field.

Stinky tofu and amaranth stalks at Xianheng Tavern. Photo by: Justin Bergman

Across city, Mao Tianyao empathizes with Zhao’s plight. Mao is a longtime chef, Shaoxing food historian, and supervisor of the Xianheng Tavern. Opened in 1894, Xianheng Tavern was made well-known as the setting for one in all Lu Xun’s hottest quick tales, “Kong Yiji,” a couple of scholar who fails the imperial exams and spends all his time consuming huangjiu (yellow rice wine) on the tavern. These days, it’s mobbed with vacationers wanting the modern-day Lu Xun vacationer expertise—snacking on chou doufu in an enthralling historic teahouse setting.

Mao retains a watchful eye over the preparation of the Shaoxing specialties at his restaurant to make sure their authenticity and, after all, be sure that his cooks are following the correct safety tips. The restaurant hasn’t had any points with its personal pungent tofu. “We have to ensure the quality is good,” Mao mentioned. “It’s on every table.” When it involves food safety, he believes the authorities are doing their finest to scrub up the pungent tofu business, even coaching less-skilled distributors on the correct methods of fermentation. It’s a problem, however the way forward for the delicacy is dependent upon making certain it’s made effectively—and safely.

“I don’t think people will intentionally add poisonous or hazardous additives to the brine because our food safety law is quite severe,” he mentioned. But he acknowledges how troublesome it is to police a freewheeling business of small-scale producers like Zhao Baoxian.

“The issue of standardization is where Chinese cooking differs most from the West,” he mentioned. “It’s the shortcoming of Chinese cooking—and its charm.”

Making issues much more troublesome for pungent tofu distributors in Shaoxing is their lack of cohesion—they haven’t been capable of manage and self-regulate their manufacturing strategies to keep at bay bother with the authorities. An effort had apparently been made by one proactive service provider to type a pungent tofu business affiliation within the mid-2000s, however the metropolis’s fiercely impartial operators refused, citing an unwillingness to share their secret recipes.

So, the neighborhood stays a freewheeling meeting of bit gamers at the moment—one-man and -woman bands powerless to face as much as the federal government or impact change in coverage. If they’re all put out of enterprise sometime, the one place left to indulge on this age-old delicacy will likely be on the menus of upscale eating places like Xianheng, catering to vacationers.

Fried pungent tofu. Photo by: By Marco Tjoanda / Shutterstock.com

Fortunately for Zhao, the well being authorities lastly relented final 12 months and agreed to scale back his superb. “They asked me how much money I was willing to pay. I said a thousand (RMB) or two is fair,” he mentioned. The authorities wished a bit extra, so, final May, it froze Zhao’s Alipay account (just like Apple Pay), containing RMB 30,000 (about $four,500). The case towards him was then suspended, and Zhao dropped his lawsuit.

Since then, Zhao has tried to adjust to the brand new food safety laws by making use of for the correct license—he went to the bureau twice final summer time to use, with out success. Now that the case towards him has been dropped, he’s afraid to return and check out once more, believing it is going to convey new scrutiny of his enterprise—and maybe extra bother.

“Food inspectors only come when people apply for licenses or they get tips of food safety complaints,” he says. “Whenever senior government officials state the importance of food safety, the inspectors act upon it. In my case, this only happened once. It never happened before.”

He hasn’t had any complaints not too long ago, both. In reality, his enterprise is doing higher than ever. “Even people from the court now buy my stinky tofu,” he says. “The head of the court wants it, too.”

With highly effective individuals like this on his facet, his worries could also be behind him. But there’s nonetheless the larger concern concerning the pungent tofu business itself, and whether or not it could possibly recuperate from the food safety crackdowns of current years. “Shaoxing is the best place to get stinky tofu,” Zhao says. Sadly, nonetheless, there are fewer and fewer individuals making it.

Xi Shen contributed analysis to this report.

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