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How one night of 'stinky tofu' forever changed my relationship with meat

Some say it smells like hot garbage, but in many ways, this dish changed my life.

Stinky tofu

Photo Credit: iStock

There are times in life when you miss something totally obvious, despite all the signs telling you exactly what you're ignoring. The first time I had stinky tofu was one of those times. 

Stinky tofu, or chou dou fu, is a form of fermented tofu popular at both Chinese and Taiwanese street markets. Its flavor is complex — savory, sour, and even a little sweet — but it's better known for its scent, which some liken to hot garbage or rotting meat.

The smell and taste, like cilantro, oysters, or any number of strong-flavored foods, are either delicious or completely confounding, depending on the person. But as for why I assumed something literally called "stinky tofu" wouldn't have a strong smell? That is beyond me. 

I missed what, in retrospect, was even more obvious than the smell: the fact that this single, smelly dish would completely change how I thought about food, especially how I thought about meat.

When I tried the tofu at Brooklyn's Win Son restaurant, I'd been a vegetarian for one month. It was sort of a trial run — I wanted to see how, and if, a plant-based diet worked for me. 

Three years later, I'd describe my eating habits as plant-first, or "plant-forward." I eat meat on special occasions — like during my dad's famous family grill-outs or when a trip to Texas demands a stop at La Barbecue or Terry Black's — but at a normal meal, my mind is on greens, legumes, grains, fruits, roots, soy, spreads, dips, curries, sauces, and of course, dessert

Other people might call this "flexitarian" or "climatarian," but to me, it just means eating a lot of really yummy food that also happens to be healthy, cost-effective, and better for the environment. 

Frankly, it's also more fun. Because the most surprising, mind-blowing part is that by limiting my meat intake, I massively expanded my palate. 

The most recent data shows that an average American eats almost 220 pounds of meat per year, about three times more than the global average. This makes sense, as Americans are historically great at growing, processing, and cooking meat. 

That's why, despite the increasing popularity of plant-based food products, so many of our meals — or dinners, at least — are still centered around some kind of animal protein. When I started toying with a plant-based diet, I had no idea what I'd cook for myself.

And then, I tried the stinky tofu.

My friends and I ordered it on a whim, deciding we needed one more meatless plate to appease the vegetarians. The result was one of the strangest, most fascinating food experiences I've ever had. The dish smelled hot and pungent, like a trash-scented Glade PlugIn. But the taste was complex, both disarmingly hot and addictively savory. I couldn't stop eating it. 

The last three years have been similarly bizarre. I've cooked, meal-prepped, and ordered my way through every genre of food imaginable — from sweet soba noodles and East African pastries to Salvadoran pupusas and kimchi fried rice. I've eaten tastier, higher-quality, and more surprising kinds of food than ever before. 

Could I have done all that with meat? Sure, but I didn't. By limiting my options, I expanded my appetite, forcing myself out of the mindset that nearly all dinners must feature a meat, a starch, and a veggie. 

There are lots of reasons to cut meat out of your dinners, even for just one or two nights a week. The health benefits are wide-ranging. Inflation has made meat extremely costly. And cutting back even a little can have a huge effect on the climate, considering that, worldwide, animal agriculture accounts for around 15% of the polluting gases that are overheating our planet. 

Flavor is a harder benefit to quantify, but would anyone argue that it's not important? In an interview with Bloomberg, dietician Dawn Blatner suggested that those looking to eat more plants should try cooking one meatless meal per week. 

By the end of the year, anyone taking Blatner's advice would have tried 52 new dishes. That in itself seems pretty worthwhile.

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