I’m so ashamed.
My Mandarin speaking skill is failing me. Ever since I’ve moved out west to Los Angeles, I’ve had little chance to speak conversational Mandarin. When I was living in Northern Virginia, where I attended my dad’s Chinese church, I would at least have the chance to speak Mandarin every Sunday at church.
You would think being a double-major in Chinese (East Asian Language and Cultures) would improve my Mandarin, but nope. All I’ve taken so far are English-speaking East Asian culture classes because I skipped all the Chinese language classes with my supposedly “advanced” skills.
I never really realized how much it had worsened until I called an old family friend yesterday and stammered throughout our conversation in Mandarin. Aiyah!
It’s actually not at all hard to find Mandarin-speaking people here in Los Angeles. All I need to do is drive out east to San Gabriel Valley, and hello Little Taipei!
Tourists, a little advice: If you want to absorb real authentic “Chinese” or “Asian” ambience, Los Angeles’ Chinatown is not the best place to visit. Drive out east to Alhambra or Monterey Park in San Gabriel Valley (SGV), where it’s roughly 60% Asians.
It’s wonderful, because whatever crazy obscure Asian food I’ve craving, I’m sure to find it in that area. It’s my go-to place for a super Asian adventure. Pity I don’t venture out to San Gabriel often because it can take forever to get there with L.A. traffic.
So. My 2012 New Year resolution #28: Go out to San Gabriel more often and practice my deteriorating Mandarin relentlessly. And in the meantime, award myself with Asian dishes I wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere.
Like stinky tofu.
Yes, it’s actually, literally, called stinky tofu. I normally wouldn’t drive out 40 minutes out just for that, but it was for my school’s column on weird Asian tofu dishes so I dragged my good buddy Jordan out with me to slurp up some authentic Taiwanese food.
Our destination was Lee’s Garden, a small Taiwanese deli-style cafe in Alhambra. It was tucked in a shady strip mall and we almost missed it. But that’s part of the fun of venturing out to SGV. You never know what kind of awesome hole-in-the-wall you’ll stumble into.
We visited Lee’s Garden earlier in the evening to avoid traffic, so the lack of customers made the place seem even more forlorn.
There was one lone guy wolfing down his early dinner though. Hm. I wonder what he’s looking at. Surely not the interior decor.
There was no “formal” menu; it was scrawled onto a whiteboard in Mandarin. Some dishes had English translations next to them that were relatively unhelpful.
I knew what I wanted. Stinky tofu. But being in that place, staring at the menu and the cheap, cheap, cheap prices made me wanna go crazy. So I did and ordered four dishes.
The owner was a nice, chatty middle-aged dude who welcomed us in Mandarin, staring curiously at Jordan (cause she’s probably one of the few white people who visit). I’m guessing he and his wife are the owners of this little eatery from the way I heard them bickering loudly in the kitchen.
As you can tell…it was all very low-key and chill.
When I ordered the stinky tofu, the owner gave a little start. “You sure you know what stinky tofu is?” he said in Mandarin. “It’s stinky!”
“I know! And I still want stinky tofu!” I replied in my accented Mandarin. To be honest, the only time I had stinky tofu was in Hong Kong and it wasn’t particularly stinky. But I was overly confident that I could eat it and enjoy it.
Our dishes came to us in a flood, swift and quick. First dish was a dinner “set” J (油豆腐):
This is as Taiwanese as it can be, apparently. It’s exactly the way a Taiwanese luncheon place would serve their meals—in sets. With a bowl of simple, savory soup:
This soup was based from a pork broth. It was clear and very clean-tasting.
Our set “J” meal had different variations of tofu. Like this fried spongy bean curd:
And a sauce-drenched tofu cube braise:
Some kind of soy-sauce braised pork:
And an egg and onion stir-fry:
Dang. This was good. I hadn’t had such basic home-style Chinese cooking in a long time and it really hit the spot. Shamefully, although I recognize the taste, I cannot properly name any of these dishes. Anybody wanna help me out?
Our second dish was something I had never tried before, at least not in this kind of Taiwanese style. It’s called “O-a-chian” (蚵仔煎) in Taiwanese, but I got it with shrimp instead of the typical oysters.
Basically, it’s an oyster (in my case shrimp) omelet that is thickened with some kind of starch to give it almost a gluey, chewy consistency. This particular dish was served with stir-fried vegetables and a sticky sweet-and-spicy sauce.
I’ve tried many oyster omelets before. Growing up in Singapore, I’ve had many an oyster omelet in the hawker centers. My mother frequently makes oyster omelet too. But this Taiwanese style was totally different, which was why I was so surprised to find myself chewing on some gummy paste saturated with savory flavors. Once I got over the texture, I started appreciating it more.
Okay, third dish is also something somewhat familiar yet different to me. It’s called Oyster Mee Sua (蚵仔麵線):
Mee Sua is a noodle dish made with thin rice vermicelli drenched in a starch-thickened intense broth. Lee’s Garden’s mee sua came with fishballs, oysters, Chinese vegetables, carrots, bamboo shoots and some kind of fried shallot bits.
It’s again a very popular street food dish in Taiwan. It’s also widely available in Singapore but I always avoided it because I don’t like skinny noodles.
Jordan liked this dish more than I did.
Okay, final dish! The star and stink of the night’s meal!
Stinky tofu!! Yeah! With some kind of cabbage thingy! And sweet hoisin sauce thingy! Woo hoo! I can do this! Never mind that it smells like the rotten socks of a pubescent boy!
You know, I used to think that I could eat anything deep-fried. I mean, seriously. What doesn’t taste good deep fried? Well, apparently fermented tofu cubes.
What stinky tofu is bean curd, left to ferment until it’s like a whooping punch of pig-killing stenches, sliced into cubes and then deep-fried to a golden crunch. Doesn’t that sound appealing?
I thought I could overcome the odor. After all, I’m able to enjoy cheonggukjang, one of the most odious soybean stew known to mankind. So why not stinky tofu? It’s deep-fried to a crisp, so obviously it should be less painful than a steaming, noxious bowl of goopy stew.
I was wrong. Oh so wrong. Thanks, Jordan, for capturing the moment.
Smart Jordan refused to touch that thing. I dug in, sans sauce, and utterly failed to even taste anything except cat’s piss and gym socks. I was stupid and thought maybe the second stinky tofu would fare better.
It didn’t. The two measly stinky tofu cubes I ate ruined my palate for the night. My appetite was destroyed. Walloped. Bulldozed. Gutted, maimed, and vaporized. All I could taste after that was…well, you get the idea.
Aiyah!! I’m so ashamed. I guess I am not Asian enough.
I packed the rest of the stinky tofu home. I tried to douse it with tons of sauce, mix it with rice, but I just couldn’t enjoy it at all! In the end I tossed the leftover stinky tofu out, feeling guilty as I always do for wasting food. I thought of the starving children in Africa, but I couldn’t help thinking even they would not want this.
Don’t take my word for it though. I have friends who love this stuff. Please, if you have the opportunity, give it a try. Apparently once you get used to the offensive odor, you’ll start to crave it for its crunchy exterior and custardy interior.
As for me, I’m just a wimp. I’ll stick to just practicing my Mandarin from now on, and leave the hard-core stuff to others.
Question of the Day: Stinky tofu…would you try it?