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Snacking on Stinky Tofu Near the Grand Canal in HangzhouThere's no avoiding some level of culture shock as an American on your first visit to China. Even for me, a guy who grew up hanging out in the Asian part of Flushing, Queens, the most accurate microcosm of Asia in the U.S., the sights, sounds, and most of all, the smells took my sensory system on a wild ride--like my encounter with stinky tofu.
Like most wild rides, this too involved a brush with nausea, but luckily it didn't last. After my first bout with it, I endorse stinky tofu as a must-try. Here's why:
On top of earning bragging rights for being someone who feasts on the funkiest of foods, it lets you test if your mints are as strong as advertised. But no joke, this stank street food has a milder flavor than you'd ever expect from its undeniably off-putting odor, and it turned into a pleasing mix of textures after that guy smoking a cigarette and wearing a Heisenberg-style hat gave it a dip in a wok acting as a deep-fryer.
Smell-wise, it deserves its own category for olfactory oppression, as it's like nothing familiar, save for a variant of the summer garbage air that wafts through NYC.
But pop a piece into your mouth, and suddenly the flavor of lightly burnt popcorn from the crisp exterior combines with subtle earthiness from the soft-but-firmed-up center -- nice! Holding your nose helps (since gag reflex may be unavoidable your first time), and hot chili sauce is recommended.
When hungry in Hangzhou, follow your nose to this bizarre, surprisingly tasty snack.