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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Shūdōfu in the news 臭豆腐

Why Compass Magazine continues to annoy me, even though it's free - in its January issue, there is an article on the hot spring resort of Kukuan (Guguan) 谷関, the opening paragraph of which states that:

"In the early 1900s, the Heiji Emperor was sight-seeing around Taiwan, visiting the island from Japan. When he came across the hot springs in Guguan, he hopped right in and sat for quite a while. After he returned to his home country, the emperor quickly fathered a son. Many people attributed this luck to the Guguan hot springs and the emperor's story spread like wildfire."

First of all, it's MEIJI 明治天皇 (Mutsuhito 睦仁), not "Heiji". And second of all, the story is just that, a story. Had the writer bothered to do a little research, they would have learned that the last of Emperor Meiji's 15 children was a daughter (not a son), who was born in 1897. Meiji's successor, Emperor Taishō 大正天皇 (Yoshihito 嘉仁) was scheduled to visit Taiwan in 1912 while he was still Crown Prince, but the trip was canceled when Meiji died. If I was able to find this out after just a few minutes of checking on Wikipedia and Google, then why couldn't have Compass' writer?

There's also a short article in the magazine about the experiences of a Japanese translator during the Asian Championship baseball tournament in T'aichung (Taijhong) 台中 a couple of months ago. It's all in English, except for the poor woman's name, which is written only in Chinese characters - 丸尾啓太. I went to the WWWJDIC website, and came up with "Maruo Keita". Again, if I could do it...

No wonder Compass is given away free of charge.

In a change of pace from the recent depressing news, the Daily Yomiuri ザ・デイリー読売 has an article today on Taiwan’s notorious Ch’outoufu (Choudoufu) 臭豆腐, aka “Stinky Tofu” (“The sweet stink of success”).

The story introduces us to Peng Tian-rong, a stinky tofu seller in Hsinchuang (Sinjhuang) 新荘, a city in T’aipei (Taibei) County 台北県. Business is good, but:

“…the distinctive odor of his chodoufu has seen him fall afoul of the authorities, who have ordered him to pay a fine of 100,000 New Taiwan dollars (about 350,000 yen) for polluting the air. The fine, equivalent to two months' wages for an ordinary worker, is the first ever imposed on chodoufu deemed too stinky. But Peng remains unbowed. The flap over the chodoufu he makes with a special recipe that gives his curd its pungent punch has brought in more customers than ever, all keen for a taste, and a whiff, of his law-breaking delicacy. Chodoufu's smell is similar to that of fermented nattō 納豆 soybeans, but is stronger because it is fried before being served. It is a popular snack in southern China and Taiwan that, the locals say, is best washed down with a beer.”

I can say from personal experience that stinky tofu does have a distinct “aroma” to it. Not everyone in Taiwan, it seems, appreciates the bouquet:

“In Taiwan, this smell is part and parcel of bustling entertainment districts, and steamed chodoufu is often served at banquets…But while customers were lapping up (Peng’s) chodoufu, the neighbors were less enamored with the constant stench pervading their premises, and their nostrils. They complained to the environment bureau of the Taipei (county) government, which last autumn determined that Peng's eateries were polluting the air and fined him. The bureau, which is tasked with dealing with foul odors emanating from factories, used a ‘scientific’ device to measure the offensive odor and declared that the stench exceeded acceptable levels.”

The article’s author, Toshinao Ishii, decides to sample some of the stinky tofu, despite his stated dislike for the smell:

“I gingerly put a piece in my mouth. The chodoufu gave off an aroma and had a light sweetness, but steam with an (indescribable) smell spread through my mouth, a flavor chodoufu lovers cannot resist.”

This is a very Japanese way of saying he couldn’t stand it. The article concludes thusly:

“(Peng’s) fine has become a badge of honor that is drawing more customers, some of them traveling from afar to sample his wares. Some businessmen have sensed an opportunity to cash in on the stink by selling air freshener to chodoufu vendors, saying authorities might crack down on restaurants selling the curd. But not everything has come up smelling like roses for Peng. Strangers, he said, often ask him if he has stepped in some dog droppings because of the way he smells.”

Stinky tofu is one of my wife’s favorite dishes, but it’s an acquired taste that I have been unable to obtain even after being in Taiwan for several years. I find it impossible to ignore the stench while trying to force it down my gullet. And what a stench it is! Just the other week at one of my workplaces, a staff member brought in a 臭豆腐弁当, and the smell permeated almost the entire floor of the building.

On a more serious note, the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ ran an editorial today on Saturday's elections for the Taiwanese legislature ("Taiwan votes for change"). The column starts out by looking at things optimistically:

"The results could be good for Taiwan if all parties recognize the message in this ballot and adjust their policies accordingly. If, however, it is seen as just another swing in the political pendulum and another excuse for settling scores, then the KMT (Kuomintang/Guomindang) 中国国民党 will face the very same humiliation the next time it goes to the polls."

The editorial then analyzes why the Democratic Progressive Party 民主進歩党, under the chairmanship of President Chen Shui-bian (Chin Suihen) 陳水扁 took such a drubbing:

"The elections are in many ways a referendum on Mr. Chen's administration...The KMT campaign focused on the island's economic troubles, arguing that Mr. Chen's agenda aggravated Taiwan's ills — erecting barriers to trade with (China) was thought to be particularly damaging — and diverted government attention from matters of real significance to voters. The DPP was also hurt by several corruption scandals that involved members of Mr. Chen's family, and undermined the party's longtime claim that it was clean, unlike the KMT."

Next, the article looks toward the upcoming presidential elections:

"The question now is whether the DPP candidate in the March ballot, Mr. Frank Hsieh (Sha Chōtei) 謝長廷, can correct the party's image and tack back toward the center by the vote. Hardliners worried that Mr. Hsieh was not a true believer and tried to lock in their pro-independence platform to ensure that Mr. Hsieh would not be able to move back to the center. Last weekend's vote suggests staying the course would be political suicide but ideologues prefer purity to victory and are ready to give other reasons for the DPP shellacking in the poll."

And one of those reasons seems to be my homeland:

"One ready scapegoat is the United States. Pro-independence activists denounce U.S. President George W. Bush ジョージ・W.ブッシュ as ready to do China's bidding to ensure Beijing's support on other international issues, such as the denuclearization talks with North Korea or dealing with Iran. Washington's failure to back Taiwan's independence agenda is seen as a failure of will and a readiness to sell out an ally. In short they argue, Mr. Chen, the DPP and Taiwan as a whole have been the victims of U.S. perfidy."

The JT's editorial staff, however, is buying none of this:

"Many Taiwanese were unnerved by the negative U.S. reaction to Mr. Chen and his agenda. The downturn in relations between the island and its most important backer turned many voters against the DPP. But Mr. Chen only has himself to blame. He has pushed his pro-independence program knowing full well that it was alienating his biggest supporter. The backlash has now alienated voters as well."

The editorial concludes by saying:

"While the KMT was expected to best the DPP, the size of the victory was a surprise and represents a repudiation of the party...Indeed, the most important lesson from this election is the need to focus on governing, not politics. Had Mr. Chen made good on promises to improve the lives of Taiwanese and not been distracted by the virulence of politics as usual in Taipei, he would have left a far more positive legacy — for Taiwan and his party. Last weekend's vote is a warning to all of Taiwan's politicians to put their people first."

Even with a new, revamped legislature, I don't think this is going to happen anytime soon.

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