My earliest memory of street food was pushing through a crowded night market in Hong Kong, holding tightly onto my dad’s hand. The sensation was one of being 100% enveloped in the sweet-salty smell of roast pork, noodle soup and a variety of dim sum. But there was one smell in particular that my dad was sniffing out, that of stinky tofu. It is, most certainly, an acquired taste. The smell is instantly repulsive. It is earthy, fermented, inedible, repugnant and distasteful, and it has a way of sinking into the depths of your olfactory glands in a way that is unforgettable. It can easily be likened to the odor left behind on the sole of one’s shoe, post canine fecal matter encounter. However, once you overcome that initial hurdle, you’re rewarded with a greasy wax paper bag of deep fried cubes of tender tofu smothered in chili sauce. You eat it with toothpicks, and the tears initially brought on by that godawful smell are forgotten. Stinky tofu is wonderful.
In fact, in all my travels, I have yet to meet a taste or smell that has deterred me from at least a single nibble. Sure, there are the valid concerns of hygiene and cleanliness, but what’s a little discomfort in the name of culinary adventure?
In contrast to the stinky tofu is the fragrant, delicate lázeňské oplatky of Czech origin. From a block away, you can smell the warm vanilla scent of these crisp wafers in the making. Each wafer is only a few millimeters thick, but as big around as a dinner plate. I can still remember the distinct sound of the first bite of a freshly made oplatky, and the mouth-happy sensation of tiny granules of ground hazelnut and sugar dust dancing lightly on my tongue after the oplatky itself dissolved away.
However, it is not foreign mystique that makes street food so irresistable. Personally, I have always had a weakness for hot dogs. Not the chargrilled ones, but the ones that have spent many an hour hot tubbing in a street vendor’s pushcart. I actually experience irrational pleasure hearing the sound of stainless steel tongs briskly rapping aginst the side of the cart, a vendor’s habitual motion to rid the weiner of excess moisture. Slid into a perfectly fresh, warm bun, and topped with yellow mustard and onions, and I’m in heaven. Chicago, DC, New York, all street dogs have a place in my heart.
So while some gourmands may turn up their nose and sniff, “Uncouth!”, this foodie is perfectly happy slummin’ it in the streets.