Can food smell terrible but taste good and be good for your health? If you can muster the courage and get your nose to agree, you may end up developing a taste for these six stinky foods that deliver plenty of nutritional benefits.
1. Stinky Tofu
If you've been to Chinatown and noticed a smell similar to a garbage dump, it was probably stinky tofu, a fermented tofu dish that's a popular street food throughout China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most of the world's Chinatown districts.
Regular tofu is made from soybeans and is a prime ingredient in Chinese cuisine and a staple in vegetarian and vegan diets. The first step to make regular tofu stinky is to prepare a brine using milk, meat, and vegetables — fish or shrimp is sometimes added — and then set it aside for several months for the fermentation process.
After fermentation is completed, blocks of regular tofu are soaked in the brine for up to six hours. Stinky tofu is prepared in a variety of ways; the most popular is deep-fried, but it's also served cold, steamed, and in stews and hot pots.
If your appetite somehow survives the aromatic assault resembling rotting garbage, there's a good chance you will actually enjoy the flavor of stinky tofu. Your diet will get a boost as well from tofu's high nutritional value and the beneficial aspects of fermentation.
Tofu is a low-calorie, high-protein food that has no cholesterol and is naturally gluten-free. Its mineral-rich content makes tofu one of the best food sources of calcium, iron, and magnesium.
The fermentation process creates bacteria, known as probiotics , that promote healthy digestion. Fermentation may also improve insulin secretion and strengthen insulin resistance. Research studies comparing fermented and non-fermented foods have shown that, when soybeans are fermented, the process produces naturally-occurring compounds that may prevent type 2 diabetes or slow the progression of the disease.
Durian is a fruit that originated in Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. But Thailand is arguably the global durian capital, since the country is the world's #1 durian exporter and the home of over 300 durian varieties. Chanthaburi Province, located about 300 km. east of Bangkok, is the country's most prolific region for growing durian.
The inside of the durian contains several large seeds coated in cream-colored meaty flesh. From the outside, the durian is similar to a football in size and shape, but its smell is much worse than any football. The pungent odor is the kind that hangs around for several days, so you can understand why durian has been banned by airports, airlines, hotels, and public transportation systems in Thailand and across most of Southeast Asia. If you aren’t able to head outside to eat it, then at least make sure the windows are wide open first.
People who like durian describe its flavor as sweet and a bit savory, similar to almonds, and with a custard or pudding texture. Those who aren’t fans of the fruit might say it tastes like rotten meat.
There’s a common misconception that eating durian delivers an upward spike in cholesterol, but in actual fact, durian fruit contains the so-called "good" monounsaturated fats that can reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol and help maintain healthy blood pressure .
Durian is also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber . A one-cup serving (about 250 grams) contains 13 grams of fat — but no saturated fat , no cholesterol, and almost no sodium. One serving also delivers 4 grams of protein, almost 10 grams of dietary fiber, and a good portion of the daily recommended intake of vitamin B6, vitamin C, iron , manganese, potassium , and thiamin.
A note of caution: It is important, especially for diabetics and others following restrictive diets, to be aware of durian fruit’s high concentration of calorie-rich glucose. With such a high density of calories, its consumption should be limited to a serving size of two tablespoons.
Surströmming is a Swedish canned fish that translates roughly as "fermented Baltic herring". It is similar to the Japanese fermented fish called kusaya — which literally means "smells bad" — widely considered to be the most pungent-smelling food in Japanese cuisine. Surströmming is made by fermenting herring for up to six months and storing it for as long as a year in tin cans.
Surströmming has an aroma that might best be described as rotten-cheese-meets-perspiration-sweat. Herring itself doesn't exactly smell pleasant when it's not fermented, so you can imagine how much more pungent the odor is after the fermentation process. Better yet, think of the worst odor you’ve ever encountered in your life that was not surströmming, and then multiply that smell by infinity.
The odor is nearly strong enough to burst through the metal cans that surströmming is packaged and sold in. The fish has been banned by a number of airlines, citing it as a potential explosive hazard. Some Swedes are able to eat it despite the smell, but others opt to rinse it off with soda water first to help dull the acidic taste before serving it on buttered flatbread with onion and potatoes.
Herring is categorized as an oily fish — salmon and trout are in the same category — which makes it an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. Herring is also protein-rich; a 100-gram serving delivers over 15 grams of protein, along with significant quantities of vitamin B12 and the mineral phosphorous .
Indonesia has over 250 million people, nearly 18,000 islands, and one really stinky food. Tempeh is a popular but foul-smelling soybean product that originates from the main island of Java.
Tempeh is made with whole soybeans that are soaked in water to make them soft. They are then dehulled and cooked partially before they are stored for one or two days to go through the fermentation process. That process binds the soybeans together in a cake-like mass, and gives tempeh its pungent odor.
After fermentation, tempeh is typically prepared by first cutting it into small pieces, then soaking it in brine or salty sauce before pan-frying it. Cooked tempeh can be eaten by itself, and it is popular as an added ingredient to chili, soups, salads, sandwiches, stews, and stir-fried meals. People who have eaten tempeh describe its flavor as similar to nuts, meat, and mushrooms.
Tempeh and tofu are both made from soybeans, but tempeh uses the whole soybean, so it possesses different nutritional and textural characteristics compared to tofu. Tempeh typically has contains more protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins than an equivalent amount of tofu.
5. Harzer cheese
Harzer is a German sour-milk cheese with a brilliant nutritional profile and a distinctively horrible odor — imagine a sun-baked garbage dump landfill site built on top of an old locker room floor covered in dirty socks.
Similar to cottage cheese, Harzer cheese is nearly fat-free, is relatively low in calories, and is a good source of calcium and protein. Some Harzer cheeses contain 30 percent protein, so it’s especially popular with athletes, sports enthusiasts, and people on high-protein diets.
Harzer also happens to be among the lowest-priced cheeses on an equal weight basis; but no matter how good a value it is, you must still contend with one of the world’s most offensive smells.
6. Thai Pla ra (Pala)
No matter how long or short you’ve been in Thailand, if you’ve smelled something bad, chances are it was pla ra. Pla ra is the fish sauce originating from the northeast of Thailand that is added to many popular Thai dishes — like som tam pla ra, Thai green papaya salad — and sold on its own at every supermarket and convenience store.
Pla ra is made using the whole bodies of tiny fish, including anchovies. The fish are put in containers, salt is added, and then the container is put aside for several months to allow for fermentation.
When that is completed, the resulting mixture is strained to leave a clear brown liquid that is packed with nutrients and an incredibly pungent aroma. The fish sauce is full of the vital nutrients and minerals contained in fish and fish organs, including iodine and other substances that nourish the thyroid, and vitamins A and D. Pla ra is also naturally gluten free .
If you're on a low-sodium diet or concerned about your sodium intake, you may want to limit your pla ra intake, as the sauce has a high sodium content. And if you prefer to weaken the fish sauce smell, adding lime juice is your best option.
If you have questions or concerns about your diet, nutrition, or hormonal imbalances, please visit the Endocrine Clinic, located at Counter A on the 19th Floor of the International Clinic Building. For more information, or to make an appointment , please call +66 2066 8888, or send us your inquiry via the Bumrungrad website
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