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Stinky Tofu Is the Unlikely Star of a New Children’s Book

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Illustration of a Chinese princess playing with her pet dog.
The protagonist of Ying Chang Compestine's new children's book, 'Ra Pu Zel and the Stinky Tofu,' is a spunky Chinese princess who loves eating delicious food above all else. (Crystal Kung/Penguin Random House)

In my years as the Bay Area’s most dedicated stinky tofu evangelist, I have preached the pungent virtues of fermented bean curd to anyone who would listen — in blog posts and glossy magazine features, on obscure internet discussion forums and live public radio. And in real life, I’ve wheedled friends, family members and random Taipei night market strangers into at least giving the dish a fair shake.

What I never expected, though, was for stinky tofu to be the subject — and the unlikely hero — of a children’s book published here in the United States.

But that’s precisely what East Bay author Ying Chang Compestine has created with Ra Pu Zel and the Stinky Tofu, her new riff on the classic Rapunzel fairy tale.

Cover of the children's book 'Ra Pu Zel and the Stinky Tofu' shows a princess with a long, black braid surrounded by many bowls of Chinese food.
Compestine’s book is a retelling of ‘Rapunzel.’ (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Compestine is no stranger to writing about Chinese food: She’s a seasoned cookbook author who used to be a food editor for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living, and her more recent pivot to writing stories for children has been almost entirely food-centric. And fried stinky tofu, specifically, was one of Compestine’s favorite childhood treats, sold by street vendors throughout her hometown of Wuhan, China.

Compestine explains that when she was growing up in Wuhan during the Cultural Revolution in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Communist Party had banned all Western books, including fairy tales like “Rapunzel.” But Compestine and her friends would read the stories in secret, then regale each other with their own retellings. She remembers especially loving Rapunzel’s dress: “We all had to wear Mao’s uniform,” she recalls. “I never had colorful clothes or long hair.”

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What Compestine found boring, however, even as a young girl, was the standard storyline about a princess falling for a handsome prince. In the “Rapunzel” stories that she improvised as a child, the prince was only ever able to win over his beloved through her belly, with a steady supply of candy and snacks — including, of course, stinky tofu, which remains a popular local delicacy in Wuhan.

“Food was on my mind at the time,” Compestine says. “I was hungry.”

In many ways, then, Ra Pu Zel and the Stinky Tofu is just a more fully realized version of those early retellings, brought to vivid life through Pixar character designer Crystal Kung’s delightfully expressive, watercolor-like illustrations. In Compestine’s version of “Rapunzel,” Pu Zel, the princess heroine, isn’t kidnapped by an evil witch. Instead, she locks herself in the high tower because it’s the only place where she isn’t burdened by the demands and expectations of the imperial court — and where she’s free to cook and eat what she likes.

As for the young street vendor who (spoiler alert) finally entices the spunky princess to come down again? Let’s just say that it’s a refreshing change from most portrayals of stinky tofu here in the West, where the pungent dish is still largely relegated to some category of extreme eating — something so gross and funky that only the most adventurous eaters would dare to give it a try.

But for Taiwanese Americans like myself, in particular, the night market staple is a point of national pride and, more simply, just a delicious everyday food. I often talk about what a radicalizing moment it was for me when a surprisingly weak-sauce Andrew Zimmern was so disgusted by stinky tofu on Bizarre Foods that he couldn’t swallow a single bite.

What I love, then, about Ra Pu Zel and the Stinky Tofu is how little Compestine dwells on the strangeness or stinkiness of the dish. “It smells like a sweaty ox!” exclaims one old man. But within the span of a few sentences, Pu Zel is admiring how delicious and “irresistible” the tofu is.

A spread from a picture book shows a young chef cooking a big pot of stinky tofu, as birds and squirrels flee from the dish's strong odor.
In the end, a delicious pot of stinky tofu is what saves the day. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Ultimately, Compestine says her goal wasn’t necessarily to convince every child who reads the book to eat stinky tofu. She finished the book during the pandemic, right around the time when Wuhan was receiving so much negative publicity — and when there was a wave of anti-Asian sentiment here in the U.S. “Through my book, I want people to understand my hometown,” she says. “And I wanted to portray a very strong female character. I wanted to change the perception that Asians are weak.”

And if readers feel inspired to eat a big plate of tofu after they finish the book? There’s a (non-stinky) recipe in the back.

Ra Pu Zel and the Stinky Tofu is available where books are sold. Compestine and Kung, the illustrator, will appear at Hicklebee’s (1378 Lincoln Ave., San José) on Saturday, Jan. 13, for storytime and a drawing demonstration.

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