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All things smelly and delicious

  • These delicacies have unique smells to match their complex flavours
  • From fermented beans to aged meats, stinky foods have many fans

A rare durian recently created a tempest at a supermarket in Tasikmalaya, West Java, Indonesia, where the odoriferous fruit—known to famously “smell like hell but taste like heaven"—was sold for a record $1,000 (around 71,000) each. This is over three times the archipelago’s average national monthly wage. No sooner did the so-called “J-Queen" variety—created by a student who cross-bred two different Indonesian varieties—hit the shelves than locals and tourists scrambled to get a glimpse of the fruit. Considered a delicacy across much of South-East Asia, the durian’s smelly reputation has made it globally notorious.

But why do people gravitate to such malodorous foods in the first place? According to one theory, the phenomenon—called “backwards smelling"— occurs when the brain links the pungent food item with the comforting taste it simultaneously helps experience. The comfort factor is so overpowering that odour takes a back seat.

James Wong, host of PBS channel’s Food—Delicious Science, is quoted as saying in BonAppétit magazine why a cheese that may be an assault on one’s olfactory sense tastes so delicious. “The sulphur-like, stinky-sock-smelling, volatile aroma molecules from stinky cheese stimulate a unique combination of receptors to help us identify the smell. But when you eat it, something magical happens: The aroma compounds are released in your mouth and they waft up the back of your nose...but weirdly your brain perceives them as very different than if you lean forward and sniff them up the front of your nose."

Here are some other popular foods that are not for the faint of nose.

HÁKARL: The late chef Anthony Bourdain dubbed it the “single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing", while British chef Gordon Ramsay threw up after eating it! Hákarl, or fermented Greenland shark meat, which happens to be the national dish of Iceland, emits an overwhelming smell of ammonia. Yet the Viking delicacy is well-loved across swathes of Scandinavia. The Greenland shark that has rotating, razor-sharp teeth and thick spiky skin is known to live up to 200 years. Fermentation for weeks, followed by months of open-air curing, whittles down the fish’s deadly toxin levels, making its taste irresistible to fans.

STINKY TOFU: The fermented soybean curd may smell putrid but it still has a staunch fan base. Legend has it that it was discovered by a Chinese vendor who absentmindedly left some tofu in an earthen jar, only to find it in a rotten greenish avatar weeks later. When he tasted it, he loved it so much that he thought there might be a market for it. He was right. Customers started flocking to the vendor to buy the stinky stuff. The dish is sold as a Chinese delicacy across Asia, usually at night markets or as a roadside snack—restaurants eschew it because of its assaultive smell. Vendors are known to guard their secret recipes zealously, with the precise fermentation process varying. Sometimes, tofu may even be marinated in a brine of fermented milk, meat, vegetables and the occasional seafood for so long that it can become infested with maggots!

A stinky tofu dish. Photo: iStock
A stinky tofu dish. Photo: iStock

SURSTRÖMMING: Swedish for “sour herring", the fish for the dish is plucked out of the Baltic Sea just before it is set to spawn. It is then fermented for months in its own bacteria, with just enough salt to prevent it from rotting. This carefully calibrated method produces rancid acids and is a traditional fish preservation method that has been around for thousands of years. Such is surströmming’s stench that the Swedish government has ordered that its tins be opened only outdoors—and never inside formal dining establishments.

CENTURY EGG: Some call it a hundred-year egg, others insist it’s a thousand-year egg, but there’s no denying that the Asian dish stinks enough to send you scurrying for a kerchief. Its beguiling appearance—akin to a shiny gemstone—notwithstanding, a century egg is a real egg (chicken, duck, quail) buried deep in a paste of clay and salt (with tea water, ash and lime), then rolled in rice hulls and left to sit for three-five years. When it is finally unearthed—colourful, semi-gelatinous, with a pungent odour of hydrogen sulphide—it is known to send its fans into raptures.

‘nattō’ with rice. Photo: iStock
‘nattō’ with rice. Photo: iStock

NATTŌ: Sticky? Check. Slimy? Check. Smelly? Check. Nattō, or fermented soybeans, may reek of sweaty undergarments but the Japanese love to slurp it up with miso soup, fish or rice. What distinguishes nattō from many other soy foods is that it is fermented, a process that bestows upon it greater longevity and gut-friendliness. Crafted from soaked whole soybeans with the rod-shaped “Bacillus" bacteria added to them, nattō is fermented for months before the potent health-boosting dish is ready to be consumed.

TOE FRUIT: The fruit of the West Indian locust tree—or the “stinking toe fruit"—gets its moniker from the stubby pods that mimic the shape of human toes. Luckily, its tough outer shell prevents its volatile smell from leaking out. Native across much of the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the fruit’s pulp has a rich creamy mouthfeel. Its sweetness also makes it an ideal ingredient for baking, blending, or as a base for smoothies. Jamaicans typically blend toe-fruit pulp with water, sugar and spices to make a flavour-charged drink. Brazilian bakers use its dried powder to make broinha, a biscuit-like pastry. The fruit is rumoured to be a great aphrodisiac—and address digestion woes.

HONGEO: Its scent has been dubbed “a delicate mix of outhouse and ammonia" by The New York Times. But what really has fans of hongeo—a South Korean dish—salivating is the taste. When the flesh of skate fish (a cartilaginous fish resembling a sting ray) is fermented, the uric acid in its skin intensifies into ammonia. This chemical process releases a nauseating stench that lingers on clothes, skin and hair for days. But for hongeo aficionados, the smelly, dark-pink fish steaks are like manna from heaven. Chefs usually stock skate in a refrigerator for weeks, sometimes as long as a month, for the fish to acquire a distinct “aroma". When the smell becomes unbearable, the skates are pulled out, chopped up and served raw, sashimi style.

STINK BEANS: Displayed proudly at food stalls across Asian supermarkets, stink beans, or twisted cluster beans, are a favourite with many across South-East Asia. While recipes may vary across Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, stink beans are usually stir-fried in curry paste or bunged in with garlic, chillies and shrimp paste to make a savoury side dish. In Bangkok’s markets, the beans are usually cooked with rice and served hot off the pan. But their strong smell and rustic look ensure you will rarely find them on spiffy eatery menus. The health-boosting beans—believed to cure everything from diabetes to depression—are also a popular hangover cure.

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