Fermentation is all the rage among some of the world’s leading chefs. In New York, Momofuku’s David Chang is making fireworks with his interpretations of kimchi, the chilli-laced Korean pickle. He’s also the inventor of the “pork bushi”, a meaty version of the Japanese katsuobushi, the fermented bonito used in traditional broths.
Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, René Redzepi’s Nordic Food Lab has been cooking up experimental versions of the yeast extract Marmite flavoured with juniper ash. Yet with all the focus on the culinary possibilities of fermentation, China’s rich heritage of pickles and preserves has largely escaped attention. And one place where no one is looking is the eastern Chinese city of Shaoxing.
Shaoxing lies just an hour’s drive from the popular tourist destination of Hangzhou. Outside China, it is known mainly for the rice wines that have been produced there for more than two millennia; locally, it is revered as the cradle of Zhejiang culture and the birthplace of the great modernist writer Lu Xun. It is also well-known for its “stinky and rotten” (chou mei) delicacies. While many parts of China have notable fermented products, Shaoxing stands out for its eccentric and extreme variations on the theme of what anthropologists have called “tastily rotten” legumes and vegetables.
My own first encounter with the fermented foods of Shaoxing was disconcerting, to say the least. Some Hangzhou friends of mine had taken me on a tour of a local wine factory, and afterwards we dropped in for lunch at the famous Xianheng Restaurant. Some of the dishes we tasted were familiar to me but the rotted vegetable stalks were not: laid on a bed of innocent white tofu, they had a weird, heady aroma, and looked like some old rubbish you might find blocking a drain in your garden. Chef Mao Tianyao, Xianheng’s manager, encouraged me to try one. And so, with some trepidation, I put a piece of stalk into my mouth, sucked off the decomposing skin and squeezed out the pulp, before gently spitting out the husk. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted, disturbing and yet utterly delicious, its strange mix of stink and umami richness reminiscent of an oozing farmhouse cheese.
Rotted amaranth stalks – mei xian cai gen – are exactly what their name suggests. The overgrown stalks of amaranth, too woody to be eaten as a vegetable, are harvested, chopped into sections, covered in cold water and then left in a clay pot until they start to go off. They are then rinsed and allowed to ferment in their pot for another couple of days. Finally, they are covered in brine and left for another day or two – by which time the jar will emit a revolting smell – and the stalks are ready to be eaten after a quick steaming.
Locals say that the rotted stalks were first eaten out of desperation more than 2,000 years ago, when war had impoverished the region and people had to grub around for wild vegetables to survive. One old man, so the story goes, picked some amaranth stalks that were too coarse to eat but he couldn’t bear to throw them away, so he stashed them in a clay crock. After a few days, he noticed a strange smell at the mouth of the jar, and, hungry as he was, decided to steam and eat the stalks. He found them unexpectedly tasty, and so a strange custom was born.
I was offered the rotted stalks only after passing what I later realised was an initiation test, by eating the delicacy described on the Xianheng menu as “mildew and rotten” tofu skin. Rolls of fermented tofu skin (the protein-rich layer that gathers on simmering soya milk) had been steamed on top of a patty of minced pork. The tofu had a fierce, stinging, fetid smell, like old socks that had been stuffed with Camembert and left on a radiator for a week, but I thought I’d give it it a try. It was surprisingly, fabulously delicious, reminding me of both Roquefort and salted anchovies. And so Chef Mao, when I’d proved my mettle, proceeded to feed me more of Shaoxing’s infamous fermented delicacies.
The amaranth stalks turned out to be the mother of a whole family of stinky foods, because the leftover liquor from their fermentation is used to cure many other ingredients. Chunks of tofu, steeped in it, become the stinking tofu that is sold at street stalls and can infect the air at a distance of about 50 metres. Young rape shoots are briefly infused in it and then stir-fried with fresh greens to give an extraordinary mix of flavours, fair and foul. Chunks of squash develop a fishy aroma after a spell in the murky liquid; bamboo shoots reveal their darker side.
On first encounters, these foods tend to be as disgusting to outsiders as rotted milk (otherwise known as cheese) is to a Shaoxing native but their rich umami flavours are similarly compelling.
Originally, Shaoxing’s stinky delicacies were poverty foods, cheap ingredients transformed into exciting relishes that would make palatable a subsistence diet that was largely meatless. These days, with rising living standards, they are falling out of favour with the younger generation. They may, however, be among the foods of the future, because, as the anthropologist Sidney Mintz argued in a paper at the Oxford Food Symposium, the “humble tools” of fermenting foods to unlock their nutrients and umami flavours will once again become invaluable in a world in which booming populations and dwindling resources pose new challenges to food security. Where tasty animal proteins are in short supply, fermented foods made from vegetables and legumes can fill the gap, as they have done in agrarian societies such as China’s for thousands of years.
Shaoxingers explain their predilection for stinking foods by recounting an appalling legend. Two and a half millennia ago, when Shaoxing was the capital of the state of Yue, it was defeated in battle by the neighbouring state of Wu, and its king was taken there as a slave. During his three years of captivity, so they say, the Wu king succumbed to a mysterious illness. No one could work out what was wrong with him until the Yue king offered a diagnosis after tasting his captor’s excrement. And so the Wu king was cured, and in his gratitude he released his prisoner. But when the Yue people heard about the disgusting task their king had been made to perform, they wept bitter tears, and decided they should eat their rice with stinking foods to mark their humiliation.
I realise that this revolting tale gives a poor impression of the pleasures of Shaoxing’s stinking specialities but, believe me, they are utterly addictive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they are probably the most thrilling foods I’ve tasted in nearly 20 years of eating my way around China. They have the dark, dirty complexity of a well-hung game bird; the mesmerising depth of flavour of a ripe durian fruit. For adventurous eaters blasé about ripe cheeses, tripe and intestines, stinking vegetables might just be the new frontier.
The Xianheng Restaurant, 179 Lu Xun Zhong Lu, Shaoxing, tel: +86 575 8511 6666
Fuchsia Dunlop’s new book, ‘Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking’, will be published by Bloomsbury in June