Stinky Tofu

Kane Xu
5 min readMar 28, 2021

A stinky, fermented aroma wafted into my nose as I waited at my grandmother’s kitchen table. The sizzling sound of Chinese firecrackers struck my ears as it ricocheted across the small apartment walls.

The bowl of fried stinky tofu settled onto the dinner table. Upon meeting this uncanny dish, I immediately retracted in repugnance. The revolting odor yanked my appetite out of my stomach and reduced my salivary glands to an arid desert as I pushed the foul dish away.

“It’s supposed to stink, just give it a try!” my grandmother exclaimed.

I inhaled the last bit of fresh air, pinched my nose, and reluctantly took a bite. Surprisingly, the tofu underneath the crisp, fried skin was warm, soft, and welcoming. Although stinky, the tofu’s soft, mouthwatering texture and warm welcome delighted me. Every time I visited my grandmother’s house and smelled the fermented aroma of stinky tofu, I would sprint to the kitchen with excitement. As a result, stinky tofu became a household tradition and staple. It became my favorite dish.

But what is it? Stinky tofu is a traditional Chinese dish prepared by first marinating the tofu in a fermented brine mixture, then deep frying it. The dish is notorious for its stinky aroma yet delicious taste, which makes stinky tofu an extraordinary Chinese classic.

Along with the stinky tofu, I would meet my uncle on every visit. As a young, immature child, I never understood my uncle’s condition of Down syndrome. My knowledge about my uncle was limited to a patchwork of assumptions, portraying him as a hostile creature. His skin sagged from his bony cheeks to his jaw. The dark abyss under his folded eyelids stared straight into my eyes. He constantly strolled around the house, grumbling and murmuring everywhere he went as if he lived in another world as distorted as himself. As a young child, his presence terrified me. Whenever my uncle was within my view, I would retreat in fear. I knew he was sick, but I often wondered when he would heal and become normal like the rest of us.

However, one day, my view of my uncle suddenly changed. I was just getting out of my bed when I heard soft steps approaching; it was my uncle. My muscles twitched, then froze. He slowly slumped next to me and touched my face gently, as a mother would stroke an infant. My fear began to subside, and my muscles relaxed. For the first time, I didn’t see cold hostility in the dark abyss of his eyes, but softness and warmth. Though I still did not completely understand my uncle’s condition, I came to accept him as he came to accept me.

When I sat leisurely on the living room couch, my uncle deliberately settled next to me like a faithful companion. He stared at me in silent observation as I stuck out my hand for a handshake. I grabbed his hand and fastened it to mine, and we shook. A wide smile emerged from his blank expression. How beautifully his smile radiated! This was perhaps his most memorable trait. His smile engrossed me in a joyous warmth and was truly contagious; I could not help but smile back. Although my uncle has physical limitations, his happiness withholds no boundaries. Sometimes, I am burdened with a bittersweet feeling, for I wish that he could speak to me in person. Through his eyes, I see a whole world of his own, and I am glad to be part of it.

My uncle very much resembles stinky tofu. Stinky tofu smells noxious on the outside, yet feels warm and soft on the inside. Like stinky tofu, my uncle’s Down syndrome made him unappealing on the outside, yet in reality, he is harmless and has a loving nature. My uncle rarely spoke to me in words; he usually referenced me with a tap on the shoulder or a simple nod. However, his silent gestures spoke for him, and were enough for me to understand that my uncle loved me.

As much as I enjoyed stinky tofu, my grandmother offered me a different sort of dish: the dish, I observed, was love. She clothed, fed, bathed, and cared for my uncle with utmost patience and tranquility. On the warm, quaint kitchen table, I would often see my grandmother feeding spoon after spoon to my uncle. Her hands never cared to stop, for her love towards my uncle never ceased. I can imagine fifty years ago, in the same apartment and on the same kitchen table, my grandmother feeding my infant uncle with the same tenderness and care. Under the beaming rays of the sun, I can hear the laughter and giggles of a baby boy with Down syndrome, which in recent years has not subsided, but perpetuated. Even now, it is common for Chinese households to abandon their children if they had disorders. Perhaps that’s where my unfathomable respect for my grandmother is rooted. For her, caring for my uncle was not an obligation out of necessity, but an obligation out of love. Through the warming thoughts of my grandmother’s actions, my view on people with Down syndrome changed.

Our society tends to see disabled people differently. People immediately look down upon disabled people and deem them unfitting for a regular life. As I was unable to see through the crispy outer layer of the tofu, society is unable to see through the layer of prejudice. As a result, people judge the disabled upon whiffing their stinky presence.

The exterior and interior of the stinky tofu exist as two extremely distinct worlds. Perhaps that is what makes the dish such a delicacy. Not only is it delicious, stinky tofu offers a valuable lesson: never judge people at first glance, for genuine beauty comes from the inside. My grandmother’s benevolence towards my uncle conveys the same message: to value intrinsic beauty rather than external appearances. Stinky tofu will forever be a faithful reminder that only with a compassionate heart, can one break the barrier of prejudice and discover hidden beauty.

Grandma’s stinky tofu has always been there with me when I visited China. No matter where I go or how long I am gone, the taste of my grandma’s stinky tofu and what it represents are always in my memory. Now, it is my duty and responsibility to uphold the values that my grandmother has taught me -compassion and tolerance- so that I can encourage others to take their first bite of Stinky Tofu.