Stewed, braised, or deep-fried, stinky tofu comes in a variety of ways, but the essence is the same: the bigger the stink, the better the taste. This food is especially popular in Taiwan, where the dish comes garnished with pickled cabbage, congealed duck blood, and bamboo shoots. Mmmmm. Stinky tofu is said to have beneficial bacteria, similar to yogurt, and can take several days to a week to ferment. Every restaurant has their own fermentation recipe, but the stinky result is usually the same.
Fermented Baltic herring, or Surströmming, is a traditional dish in Sweden and Finland. It is so stinky that it is generally eaten outdoors. The fermentation process includes just a tiny bit of salt, a fish just before spawning, five weeks in a barrel, then up to a year in a tin can. In Sweden, the dish is usually eaten as a sandwich with thin bread and a pilsener. The smell has been compared to rotten eggs, vinegar, and rancid butter all in one. It even has its own museum called the Fiskevistet in Sweden.
The Japanese have some strong contenders for this list, but Natto is one of the heavyweights. A dish of fermented, slimy soybeans, Natto is a breakfast food typically eaten for breakfast in southern Japan. The putrid smell has been compared to rotten cheese and is known for its slimy strings once stirred. The food was reportedly discovered in 1087 AD when Japanese soldiers were attacked while making the beans. They opened the packet days later and enjoyed the taste, spreading it throughout Japan.
Fermented skate fish is considered to be a comfort food by many in South Korea. The fish is unique in that it urinates through its skin while alive and therefore comes soaked in uric acid. The smell has been described as akin to rotten fish found in the dumpster wrapped in spoiled Indian food. The fish is left fermenting in room temperature for several days and is served almost completely raw, eaten with garlic, kimchi, and ginger – all of which fail to mask the powerful taste and extremely pungent smell.
Another fermented Japanese fish? Don't turn that page just yet since what makes Kusaya special (and disgustingly stinky) is not just the fish – it's the salted brine that the fish is fermented in. The brine, which is essentially salty fish juice, is passed down from generation to generation and is usually centuries old. It’s like never cleaning the tea pot. The fish is soaked in the brine, then dried in the sun. Kusaya comes in pre-grilled packages and is said to smell worse than Natto. Hard to believe, I know.