In Geylang, A Shrine To The Stink

This story was first posted on T: The New York Times Style Magazine (Singapore) on 1 April 2021.

When it comes to eating stinky tofu (or chou dou fu), there can only be two outcomes. You either like it, or you don’t: There’s no in-between. The smell of stinky tofu lingers long after you eat it. For a few hours, the smell stays in your mouth, in your nostrils, on your fingertips, and even remains on your clothes. Its stench is often compared to that of sewage or smelly feet, while its taste has been likened to blue cheese — or rotten meat.

Despite its strong odour, stinky tofu commands a huge following in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. They are commonly sold by street food peddlers at night markets, where the stench is palpable even from a distance away. Although Singapore does not have many stalls proffering the snack, there is one that has withstood the test of time.

Residing near the cross-junction of Guillemard Road and Geylang Road, within the infamous Geylang district, Mini Star (HK) Fermented Beancurd has sold stinky tofu for close to 25 years. It was founded by Stephen Ong Shui Sing, a Hong Konger who had migrated to the sunny island with his family, and first made its mark on the local culinary scene in 1997 at Chinatown Complex Food Centre, formerly known as Chinatown Hawker Centre.

“There’s a reason why we had to relocate,” Ong says. The stench, he recalls, would make people leave the hawker centre entirely. “This affected the livelihood of other fellow hawker vendors. We have had many complaints. Our stall was even wrecked at night too.”

The Mala Stinky Tofu is a signature dish at Mini Star (HK) Fermented Beancurd.

But Ong never wavered. In fact, he wears these slights like prized medals. In his diner at Geylang, old Chinese newspaper clippings adorn the mustard yellow walls within the premises, which resembled the likes of a typical cha chaan teng (tea canteens in Hong Kong). The headlines of these old newspapers read: “Disturbance at Chinatown Cooked Food Centre: One person sells stinky tofu and 25 people jointly complain”, “Chinatown’s Stinky Tofu Stall’s Signboard Gets Vandalised At Night”, or “Stinky Tofu Stall In Chinatown Forever Gone.”  

Ong first learned the ropes of making the fermented street snack from his mother, who would peddle her food cart along Temple Street or within Tsuen Wan district in Hong Kong. “When I first came to Singapore, I realised there wasn’t a single stall selling chou dou fu,” says Ong. “That inspired me to open one here.”

The stinky tofu is made in a variety of ways. The most common method involves steeping sliced tofu in a specially made brine comprising fermented milk, herbs, dried shrimps and amaranth greens (a bushy-looking plant with red floral plumes that is widely used in Chinese cuisine) for long hours. The exact recipes vary with each household and across different restaurants. It can be deep-fried, boiled or steamed; in terms of odour, the steamed variant is often the most potent.

Having submerged the tofu in a brine solution for three and a half hours, Ong then began slicing the tofu chunks into smaller pieces.

Ong brings me to the back of his restaurant, past his kitchen, eager to show me how the tofu is fermented at his place. He takes the lid off a brown plastic tub, revealing a murky brine solution, and the stench hits me. I have smelled stinky tofu before, but never up close and never when they are steeped in brine. The smell reminded me of the aftermath of a perspiration-filled gym workout on a sweltering afternoon; to me, it was bearable. Ong reaches into the chalky white solution and brings to the surface a tofu cube that has been immersed for three and a half hours.

“Chou dou fu gets its name because it smells when you fry or cook it. The brine solution infuses that peculiar scent into the cubes of tofu,” Ong explains. “When I dunk them into a wok of oil, that pungent scent is released.”

At Mini Star (HK) Fermented Beancurd, fried stinky tofu comes in three distinct forms: Thin slices, a single thick slab, or in a claypot with mala gravy (a Sichuan seasoning with spicy notes and numbing properties) — all of which boast the legendary scent.

Ong nudges me to try the dishes as he hands me a wooden chopstick. Obliging, I dip one into the diner’s chilli sauce and place it in my mouth. Crunchy and slightly tart, each mouthful is filled with that funky odour, a scent that will grow on you (in both good and bad ways), and signature wok hey. For stinky tofu fans, the smellier the tofu, the better.

“I have had many comparing my chou dou fu to that of a durian,” Ong laughs. 

The different variants of stinky tofu at Mini Star (HK) Fermented Beancurd and a side of fried pork intestines.

Ong also proffers a fourth option to patrons: Stewed stinky tofu with mala gravy. Off the menu and only available to true aficionados, the stewed variant, which is even more malodorous of the lot, is only made known to some. “We do sell them, but not many appreciate it,” reveals Ong.

With travelling banned due to the pandemic, more people are flocking to Mini Star (HK) Fermented Beancurd to have a whiff of the exotic. The dish, Ong says, is after all a street staple in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

“There have been more younger customers patronising the restaurant,” Ong smiles, noting how having a brick-and-mortar outlet in the Geylang district makes it easier for customers to find them now. “We also deliver now.”Interestingly, in the pre-pandemic era, Ong has never ventured into the street market scene, or pasar malam, in Singapore. The events that transpired at Chinatown Food Hawker Centre have taught him a valuable lesson: To steer clear from crowds. “I don’t want to impose the stink onto others,” Ong says. “We make real chou dou fu, the ones with robust flavour and smell, and we’d rather people come to us.”

Situated at Geylang, Mini Star (HK) Fermented Tofu is managed by a family of three. From left to right, Rhoda Lai Kwan Ho, Ong Ka Yi, and Stephen Ong Shui Sing.

While there are people who consume the iconic street snack for a taste of the exotic, there are also others who consume stinky tofu for its numerous health benefits. According to Ong, the dish is known to help the digestive system. One research highlights the presence of S-equol, a form of soybean isoflavone, when consumed at a certain amount is known to alleviate menopausal symptoms. Stinky tofu also contains nutrient components that can help prevent osteoporosis, reduce cholesterol, and lower the risk of breast and prostate cancer. In another, fermented food, like stinky tofu, contains probiotics that can help strengthen the immune system when consumed, though other studies have highlighted how cooking the tofu kills the lactic acid bacteria.

“It’s definitely a healthy snack,” Ong, who turns 58 years old this year, says. “My customers have told me that I still look young despite turning 60 soon.”

Not everyone who patronises Mini Star (HK) Fermented Beancurd comes out satisfied. Stinky tofu is, after all, a contentious dish. Ong is not bothered by the naysayers — nor is he bothered by those who pinch their nose when they walk past his restaurant. The family-run business has withstood the test of time and is here to stay. Delicious smelly tofu may sound like an oxymoron, but that is exactly what has kept people coming back to the restaurant. As one Google reviewer enthused: “For a taste of home, there is nowhere I can find similar stuff.”

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