The van’s doors open, the crowd applauds, and cameras flash, lighting up Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as if in a late spring thunderstorm. Korean variety show hosts Jin Jun-rong and Jin Gen-xiu jump out of the van, and in a blink of an eye the two are on the stage and dancing to the music that has become Korea’s most beloved export– the hit song Nobody.
After the performance, when asked by a Taiwanese TV-presenter what they find most impressive about Taiwan, the foreign stars shout in unison: “Stinky tofu!”
Stinky tofu is tofu that stinks and is a popular dish in Taiwan. It is made by marinating fresh tofu in brine produced by fermented ingredients, e.g., dried shrimp, Chinese herbs, or bamboo shoots. Stinky tofu is often sold by roadside vendors on night markets, and the smell of the delicacy is usually perceptible in a radius of ten to twenty meters.
“Taiwanese stinky tofu is magic”, declares Jin Jun-rong, the Korean celebrity. “It makes your body shiver”, elaborates his colleague Gen-xiu, who shares the same last name, with a gesture that resembles the movements of his hands in theNobody dance.
Taiwan’s public holds stinky tofu in high esteem, and if there were a referendum on the choice of a national dish, the smelly snack would stand a good chance of winning. The island’s media often reports on people making money selling it and on physicians weighing stinky tofu’s pros and cons.
According to Taipei Medical University Professor Dr. James Chen, the bacteria in stinky tofu can improve constipation and can also strengthen the immune system. However, he points out that since most consumers prefer the dish deep fried, stinky tofu’s healthy attributes are lost. He recommends people who are overweight, people who suffer from high blood pressure or whose bodies produce too much uric acid not to eat the smelly treat.
It is said that stinky tofu heals wounds when externally applied. Regarding this folk belief, Professor Chen guesses that the tofu secrets antibiotics but warns that even so, the risk of wound infection is likely to be much higher than without tofu.
Last year’s arrival numbers of Korean tourists have dropped significantly compared with previous years. To lure the visitors back, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau engages celebrities like Jin Jun-rong and Jin Gen-xiu, whose task is to make Koreans curious about Taiwan’s sights and sounds.
To experience Formosa, the beautiful island, as Taiwan is often called by the travel industry, international visitors have to come and see for themselves. In the case of stinky tofu, they also have to come and smell for themselves, since the Taiwanese delicacy is unlikely to be exported. The diversity of production methods and brine recipes makes it too difficult for authorities to regulate, and apparently no stinky tofu producer has ever been officially licensed.