My family’s summer was unexpectedly rerouted when my grandmother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her first weeks in the Beijing hospital, she mostly slept. Then she started feeling stronger. She grew more lucid and she had an appetite, which meant that she began to hunger for something good to eat. However, the doctors restricted her to cabbage soup (minus the cabbage) and rice gruel. She told us that she envied us for our ability to move around and to have something greasy sliding through our healthy stomachs.
Before I came to Beijing, I had already had a blog post planned: stinky foods. In particular, the durian and chou doufu (translated: stinky tofu). I had eaten durian before, though only in America, where its aroma was totally neutered. I had only smelled stinky tofu, which is cooked on the side of the road all throughout Beijing, in inconspicuous metal carts. The carts bear no signs or ornamentation; the smell seems to sell itself.
For me, stinky tofu has always been most embodied by one phrase, yiguchouwer, or, a swell of bad smell. The only time I hear this phrase is when my mother and I walk down a street in Beijing. We’ll be making our way through an innocuous alley, when all of a sudden, as brief and arresting as a seizing of the heart, there will be yiguchouwer. Amazingly, the smell is always incredibly concentrated so that two steps away, there is no stink at all.
Here is what stinky tofu smells like to me: fecal, pungent, like fried manure.
To make my grandmother’s meals, my mother boils a pot of rice in water, with tomatoes, bok choy, and scrambled eggs, until the grains of rice soften, swell, and burst. From this starchy mess, she skims off the top, most watery, level and carefully picks out the vegetables. From the initial pot, she can only salvage a small bowl of gruel, which she blows on gently until the temperature is just below lukewarm. Then she carries the plastic-wrapped bowl to the hospital. She makes a fresh pot three times a day and throws out the leftovers. My grandmother cannot stomach more than a few spoonfuls of the gruel, this after she mixes in even more water, and often the only sign that my mother has been back at the apartment we’re staying in is a cold bowl of congealed porridge sitting on the kitchen counter, thick like vomit.
Nicknamed, “the King of Fruits,” the durian looks like a living weapon, or a fossilized porcupine, eternally curled up into itself. The thorn-covered husk has shades of brown and green and the spikes are geometric and sharp enough to draw blood. Once its armor is dismantled, the durian opens up to a cream-colored interior, which houses a number of circular chambers, each with a smooth, chestnut-sized seed inside. Surrounding the seed is a creamy pulp that goes against everything I thought I knew about fruit. There are no fibrous strands to floss my molars, no translucent skin to chew through, only a flesh that gives away like clotted cream. The mousse-like texture demands that I eat the durian with a spoon, and unlike the grapefruit, no acid spray threatens to squirt out when I dig in; the durian surrenders completely after its first wall of defenses is breached.
The unscented durian that I am familiar with is a hybrid creation, crossbred by Songpol Somsri, a Thai government scientist, in 2007. Another Somsri hybrid develops its characteristic scent three days after its been picked, allowing for odorless transport and odorous consumption. The need for such a specific hybrid makes sense to me. Taste and smell are so intrinsically linked that when I eat the scentless durian, I can’t help but feel that the wildness has been bred out of the King. The taste is tame and slightly sweet, like lard. I get tired, quickly, of the endlessly creamy center.
The rice gruel is purposefully bland. The only flavor my grandmother gets to sample is extreme bitterness, courtesy of a sack of medicinal brown liquid. More often than not she can only be persuaded to rinse out her mouth with the medicine, gargling the liquid in the back of her throat. The nurse will pour the medicine into a small bowl and hand both the bowl and a spit basin to my grandmother. Though we tell her not to, she always spits the medicine back into the bowl, ruining the rest of the batch. She wants to know when she can go home. She recites the doctor’s promise that if she finishes an entire serving of gruel and keeps it down, she will be discharged. When she throws up meal after meal, she blames the tastelessness.
“Put some fish broth in it,” she tells my mother. “You cook worse than your sister.” Then she yawns like sleep is pinching her hard and waves us away.
I eat the stinky tofu on my second day in Beijing, passing up two metal carts before finally biting the bullet at a stand in Wangfujing. I hand over ten kuai and watch as the vendor first deep-fries the tofu, and then ladles the golden cubes into a grey gravy—the chou, I presume. Then he scoops the wet tofu into a cup, spoons a dollop of hot chili paste on top, and presents the nightmare sundae to me with a long toothpick as my only utensil. When I finally take my first bite, I am startled by how fleeting the odor is once translated into taste. In fact, the stink sears out of my nasal cavity in the same way that wasabi does, leaving only a slightly bitter and (for lack of a better word) poopy aftertaste to accompany the bland, chewy tofu. Taste combined with smell transforms the stinky tofu into something delicate and transitory. I keep trying to seek out that teasing stink, stabbing cube after cube of tofu, and sponging the fermented sauce that has pooled at the bottom of the cup. I throw away the cup, still half-full of tofu, not because I am sickened, but because I plainly can’t get enough of the stench. This tofu is much too fresh and overcooked, not the real deal at all.
The durian, my mother brings to me. She carries the spiky fruit, bigger than her head, in a tote bag for an hour before she is able to drop it off at the apartment.
“So stinky!” she exclaims as she comes through the door.
Whereas the stinky tofu gathers its smell into a, bluntly put, shitstorm, the durian has a more fragrant odor, musky like rotting flowers and as pervasive as expensive, old-lady perfume. The odor doesn’t come from the husk, and when I put my nose close to the spikes, I only smell fresh grass. In fact, the scent seeps out from the flesh of the fruit, like bad breath.
After I finally manage to saw open the durian, its smell truly unfolds. Hunched over the kitchen sink, one finger bleeding from an accidental spiking, I use my other hand to scoop out the fatty pulp. Combined with the living scent, the durian turns animate and I feel like I am digging around a freshly killed carcass. The sweetness I had encountered in America turns vaguely alcoholic as the fermented smell spikes the flesh with a brandy tang. I am intoxicated. And a little allergic, as my lips start to itch soon after my first bite. The durian is too alive for me.
Because my grandmother cannot eat, a clear bag of nutrients hangs above her, connected to her stomach by an IV drip. She gets everything she needs from this bag, and food has been reduced to a colorless liquid. The stomach has no tastebuds, no salivary glands. Yet she is still left wanting.
When I first came up with this blog topic, I had wanted to explore why people seek out rotten foods, why every culture has at least one dish that resists refrigeration—kimchi, bleu cheese, sauerkraut, etc. What is it about that stinking bloom of fermentation that deserves a category of its own? Why eat what’s dying?
Of course, now I see that food alone can sever the human association of decay with death. With stinky foods, their fans always say, “You get used to the flavor. It’s an acquired taste.” Surprisingly, what we can’t handle, at first, is the animation of the rotting, and the taste that we are acquiring is that for concentrated life.
So I wish that I could bring the remaining half of my durian to my grandmother’s sterile, scentless hospital room and prop it up by its spikes next to her bed. I wish that I could open her window for a gust of wind to bring the smell of chou doufu twelve stories up. To taste either would be too much for her, but the stinking perfumes of both might soothe her with their ripeness.
Lillian Li is a graduate of the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program. Her novel, about an upscale Peking duck restaurant outside D.C., is forthcoming from Henry Holt. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Guernica, Granta online, and Jezebel. Follow her @ZillianZi
The University of Michigan Library's Michigan Publishing maintains an electronic archive of past issues of Michigan Quarterly Review. To search through the complete electronic text of this archive you can use the search facility set up by Michigan Publishing