Wouldn’t it be great if there was a scratch-and-sniff app for blog posts like this?
Or maybe not. You’ll have to be the judge after you finish reading. This post is inspired by a comment I made to my husband just a few minutes ago. The conversation went something like this, “It smells like someone is cooking squid for lunch next door.” “They probably are, ” he replied. Only in China.
Having our friends around this past week reminded me what it’s truly like to experience China through new eyes, er, I mean, noses. The unusual smells (both good and bad) are one of the more palpable experiences of feeling like a foreigner here.
One of the infamous smells includes the stinky tofu that students love to pick up as a snack off the street from the vendors on the corner. It’s a completely overpowering, putrid one, although everyone will tell you it doesn’t taste nearly as bad as it smells (not really the overwhelming vote of confidence you’re looking for when you’re venturing into new food territory!).
Here in Southwest China where the popular cuisine is rice noodles, my friends noticed a sweet or sour smell in the air, probably to do with all the pickled vegetable varieties local Chinese like to add to their noodle bowls.
There’s even a Chinese saying for the whiff of hot peppers when they’re being stir-fried that gets caught in the back of your throat and makes you cough: qiang! If you’ve never experienced it, you really should get to China and start cooking with fire (literally).
When I walk into candy shops here, I always have to prepare myself for the unfortunate odor of dried fish that comes along with it (yes, they sell the dried fish in the same shop as the candies!). It was even worse in Hong Kong, where the shops selling a wide variety of dried seafood were open to the air, and I learned to hold my breath as I walked by in order to avoid having to breathe in the fishy fragrance.
We tend to cook Chinese more often than not, simply because we shop at local markets, and it’s not so easy to cook Western food with Chinese ingredients. However, today after the unpleasant smell of something squid-like from next door, we decided to go all-American: bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch.
After all, nothing in the world smells quite as good as bacon. Am I right about that?