L.A. Now

Reporter's Notebook: Tofu makes for one stinky night at the market

I must have screamed like a giddy schoolgirl when I first read the news that the folks behind the popular 626 Night Market were bringing the event to the Orange County Fairgrounds this month.

My abnormal enthusiasm about the event stems from its eclectic atmosphere and great food, and is the reason I've gone to all but one of the Asian-themed food and merchandise events since it started two years ago in its namesake area code: the 626.

After all, I was raised and still live in the 626, also known as the San Gabriel Valley, and it would be a sin not to attend what has now become the biggest event in the region.

The first Night Market I went to was the event's second in July 2012. This one was staged on the street in front of Pasadena City Hall, and I was overwhelmed by the smell of various savory foods being fried or grilled, the flashing lights from the vendor booths, the thousands of people walking around and the thumping of electronic music.

Then I caught my first whiff of it — the foul, eye-watering, vomit-inducing smell that fans of the 626 Night Market have come to know: stinky tofu, fried tofu soaked in fermented meat brine and milk.

I decided during the third Night Market at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia that I would try the concoction just for the sake of telling others that I had done so.

It was the worst food I've ever tasted in my life.

Imagine drinking the putid liquid at the bottom of a trash bin that contained a leaky bag and was left out in the sun. That's what it tasted like.

I swore to myself that I wouldn't eat stinky tofu for the rest of my life after that horrific night. But I changed my mind when I found out that the Night Market, to be called the OC Night Market, was coming to Costa Mesa in May. It was the perfect time to share this dish with my colleagues and for me to conquer my fears.

I had bugged county reporter Jill Cowan to try stinky tofu with me at the event. She was skeptical, but as the adventurous eater that she claims to be, she told me she was on board, kind of.

Jill was more excited about the dozens of other food vendors scheduled to be at the fairgrounds, like Miniyaki (which sell takoyaki and okonomiyaki) and Oh Thit! (which sell grilled pork skewers).

If you go to the right vendors, you can get a lot of food for not that much money. The Tea Bar Starry booth was selling large pieces of fried chicken cutlet for $6 and eight pieces of takoyaki for about $5.

Neither of us could contain our excitement when Saturday rolled around. Jill and I planned our attack route, identifying which vendors we had to visit.

Those plans were quickly thrown out the window when we entered the fairgrounds, paying $7 for parking and $5 for admission. We entered with a larger-than-planned group. Jill's boyfriend, along with online editor Kelly Parker and her friend and metro editor Jamie Rowe and her fiancé, joined us as we weaved through the hoards of hungry people.

While we waited in line to pick up our food at one of the vendor booths, I tried to figure out a way to convince everyone to try some stinky tofu with me.

I eventually settled on begging — as well as trying to convince them it wasn't so bad. Three brave souls — Jill, Kelly and Chris, Jamie's fiancé — took the bait.

Oddly, I wasn't bothered by the smell of the tofu this time, probably because I had built up a tolerance to it after going to so many Night Markets. On the other hand, my colleagues were dying.

I happily skipped over to the vendor with a large grin on my face, but I was sure every step my colleagues took toward it was one they would regret.

I paid $5 for about eight pieces and walked over to the group, fear written all over their faces.

The four of us grabbed a piece of tofu, looked at each other and threw the revolting food in our mouths.

Chris and I were crazy enough to put an entire piece in our mouths and swallow. Jill managed to take a bite and was on the verge of vomiting. Kelly barely placed the tofu in her mouth before quickly spitting it out.

Watching the horror and panic on everyone's face was like watching an episode of "Fear Factor."

I threw away the rest of the tofu after realizing that no one else was going to eat it. As I walked back from the trash bin, I saw that everyone but Jamie and Chris had run off.

We would later reconvene at The Hangar, where we found some much-needed sweets to cleanse the palate. Everyone looked miserable, but I still had a dumb grin on my face.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World