Turning Crisis Into Opportunity: Stinky Tofu

Storm clouds.

There is a Chinese saying; 'There are unexpected events in Heaven, misfortunes, and blessings can happen to people at any time.'  (Image: phtorxp via Pixabay)

In the eighth year of the Kangxi reign in the Qing Dynasty (1669), Wang Zhihe traveled almost a thousand miles from Anhui Province to Beijing to attend the imperial national examination. Little did anyone realize that stinky tofu would be born from this journey.

Wang Zhihe was born in the rural area of Xianyuan County, Anhui Province. He lost his mother when he was a child and grew up with his father, who sold tofu in a tofu shop. From a young age, he studied hard and learned to make tofu from his father. Wang not only excelled academically, but he was also very talented at making tofu. After successfully passing the local and provincial examinations as the top student, he set off to Beijing to attend the national examination.

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Prior to the exam, Wang settled in the Anhui House on Yanshou Temple Street outside Qianmen in Beijing. Unable to acclimate to the local environment, he suffered from dysentery unexpectedly. On the day of the exam, he didn’t perform as well as he should and as a result, he failed to pass the imperial national examination.

Prior to the exam, Wang settled in the Anhui House on Yanshou Temple Street outside Qianmen in Beijing.
Prior to the exam, Wang settled in the Anhui House on Yanshou Temple Street outside Qianmen in Beijing. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

Depressed, Wang lingered at the Anhui House for more than a month. Although he wished to return to his hometown, he had no money to make the journey of nearly 1,000 miles from Beijing to his hometown in southern Anhui, and worse yet, he was running out of money for food and lodging.

Out of desperation, Wang remembered the skills he had learned as a youth: making tofu and selling tofu. He decided to leverage this skill to make a living. He bought many pounds of soybeans, borrowed a stone grinder from the Anhui House, rented a shop nearby, and opened his tofu shop.

Wang had an extraordinary talent for tofu making. His tofu was white, tender, delicious, and full of fragrance. As soon as his tofu launched in the market, it immediately received rave reviews and was sold out. The tofu business was profitable and allowed him to gain a firm foothold in Beijing.

Stinky tofu is born

While Wang’s tofu business was thriving, the weather in Beijing became unusually strange. Summer days were overcast and it rained for days on end, which greatly impacted Wang’s business. The leftover tofu turned from white to yellow, from yellow to gray, and finally smelled stinky like sewage water. Wang was in a panic.

Looking at so much stinky tofu, Wang was at a loss for what to do next. He took a piece of stinky fermented tofu and tasted it, and he surprisingly found it delectable with a refreshing flavor inside his mouth. Wang excitedly shared the stinky tofu with his neighbors, and the neighbors enjoyed the stinky tofu instantly.

Wang excitedly shared the stinky tofu with his neighbors who enjoyed it instantly.
Wang excitedly shared the stinky tofu with his neighbors who enjoyed it instantly. (Image: LWYang via Flickr)

He then cut the stinky tofu into small pieces, added spices and salt, put it into a water tank, and sealed it. After half a month, stinky tofu, one of the most popular Beijing side dishes, was born.

Translated by Joseph Wu and edited by Angela

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