I am incapable of drinking butt.
I didn’t always know this about myself. One day I walked into Papaya King with a friend. I ordered two hot dogs and a smoothie.
After watching me take a sip of my smoothie, my friend asked me, “You got the papaya?”
Then, he raised his eyebrows and said, “That stuff tastes like butt.”
Almost instantly, my gag reflex turned on me. It’s funny how readily my taste buds identified the flavors of butt despite the fact that they, at least as far as I knew, had never previously been exposed to the taste of butt. That moment drew a fine line between instinct and intolerance and begged the question, “Why does my body reject certain foods?” As I threw my smoothie into the garbage, I suspected that maybe my gag reflex acts more as a psychological barrier than a biological defense.
I got a chance to test that suspicion when another friend of mine invited me to Flushing to try stinky tofu. For those of you who’ve never heard of it, stinky tofu refers to dishes that ferment tofu in a brine of milk, vegetables, and meat for up to several months before being served in a variety of ways.
Alternate translations that friends of mine have offered for chou doufu include “homeless tofu” and “fucking nasty.” But stinky tofu is essentially a comfort food. It’s a lot like Japan’s natto or Korea’s kimchi — I have yet to meet a Taiwanese national who doesn’t absolutely love stinky tofu. Only in the guise of a foreign substance does it trigger a warning.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t stink. The tofu set on our table was clouded in funk, with an aroma comparable to a garbage can filled with gym shoes steeping in five gallons of foot sweat. By the time I picked up my chopsticks it was too late for me to push the image out of my mind, but I tapped a chunk of the deep-fried bean curd against a pool of soy sauce… and took a bite.
The opening of that bite was surprisingly mild, with crisp edges and a soft, springy body. A slightly briny flavor colored what would otherwise be a neutral bite of tofu in a way that was totally enjoyable.
Then, I noticed that I wasn’t allowing the tofu to reach the back of my mouth. My gag reflex had actually been pre-empted by my tongue reflex, which until that point I didn’t know was something that existed. It was as if my nose has sensed something so foul that it alerted my tongue to the fact that my hands were abetting some damn fool idea that my stomach had managed to hawk to my brain.
Before my mouth could demand a refund, my pride stepped up and declared, “TOO LATE! TRANSACTION MADE!” And I swallowed.
I’d like to say something eloquent here tonight, as most of us would, about broadening my palate and transforming the intimidation of exoticism into a craving for cultural authenticity — but the fact is, I haven’t made another attempt to turn the fermented page of stinky tofu since that day.
And as long as I’m incapable of eating butt, I don’t know if I ever will.
Because that shit is fucking nasty.