Stinky tofu. It is, perhaps, the most divisive food in all of Chinese cooking. There is often no middle ground. People love it or hate it. For some, deep fried or grilled versions of this culinary oddity are impossible to resist. While for others, the pungent odor — akin to that of unwashed socks — is a clear signal to move as far away from the offending source as possible.
Most, if not all, provinces have their own versions of stinky tofu, and a single region may claim multiple different interpretations. Kunming is no different and residents of a small village in Chenggong District (呈贡区) recently decided their brand of the delicacy is worth protecting. To this end, denizens of Qibuchang Village (七步场村) are petitioning the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to acknowledge Qingfang stinky tofu (青方臭豆腐) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The variety of tofu villagers are attempting to protect has its roots in the murky grey space of Chinese history that combines reality and myth. Local legend tells that this specific fermented bean curd dish has been continuously handcrafted in the hamlet for more than 350 years. At some point in the late seventeenth century, goes the story, the emperor Kangxi stopped in what is today Chenggong and was so impressed with the local variety of stinky tofu that he gave it a new name, qingfang choudoufu.
Regardless of the story's truthfulness, the snack proved so popular across Kunming that in the 1980s, of the 360 households in Qibuchang, 300 were producing and selling it. The process is a laborious one, however, that includes soaking, milling and boiling beans and then waiting five to seven days for fermentation to occur and the proper "furry coat" of mold to develop. Only then is the delicacy ready to eat.
Because of the effort and patience involved in making Qingfang tofu, it has fallen out of fashion. Far fewer people know exactly how to pick the correct beans and then carry out the precise process required for proper fermentation. Those that do maintain the secrets are getting older and looking to retire, leading to them applying for UNESCO recognition.
UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage foundation was established in 2003 with the aim of "maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization". It pays tribute to unique knowledge and traditions from cultures around the world that are in danger of disappearing.
When seen as especially vulnerable to extinction, UNESCO works with local populations to protect such traditions by providing grants and access to non-government organization support. China currently has 32 practices and customs on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. If Qingfang tofu is awarded this status, Qibuchang villagers say they will build a museum to preserve their stinky tofu-making ways.
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