Just a 1.5-hour train ride south of Shanghai’s bright lights and 20 minutes east of Hangzhou’s West Lake is one of the area’s most charming river towns. Seemingly paused in time, Shaoxing is home to a network of canals, 4,000 stone bridges, and traditional white houses with gray slate roofs. But there’s another reason to visit: The sleepy city is a bastion of humble, fermented foods—you can practically smell the stinky tofu from Hangzhou airport. Here are a few of the must-try staples (tofu included!): the pedestrianized Lu Xun Middle Road has it all.
Rice Wine (Shaoxing jiu)
You’ve probably seen Shaoxing rice wine on dinner menus—as it’s commonly used as a cooking wine—but you can actually drink it too. Usually, the fermented rice wine is poured into stone containers and buried underground. The longer it ages, the better the quality: among the best varieties is Huadiao, so ask for that. In many restaurants in the city, this brown, nutty wine is served in adorable metal pewters.
Aniseed Beans (huixiang dou)
Nothing goes better with Shaoxing rice wine than a handful of salty broad beans. The variety you’ll find around town have a strong aniseed flavor as well as an overall umami effect. Their lasting popularity is thanks in part to 19th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun, who writes about a humble scholar who dines on Shaoxing wine and broad beans in his story ”Kong Yiji.”
The broad beans of your dreams
Braised Pork Belly and Fermented Greens (mei cai kou rou)
Take streaky, layered pork belly and shower it in Shaoxing wine, onion and ginger then surround it with fermented—but surprisingly tasty—veggies and you’ve got this beloved local dish.
Pig out on braised pork belly
Drunken Chicken (zui ji)
Though widely eaten across China and Hong Kong, drunken chicken originates in Shaoxing. The chicken, served cold, is extra tender thanks to its long bath in Huadiao wine, which also creates an ultra-quaffable broth.
Stinky Tofu (chou doufu)
Yep, you will smell it before you see it. One of the city’s best dishes is its fried fermented tofu that’s served crispy on the outside, silky on the inside. Cut into bite-sized cubes, the tofu here is usually served alongside a bright red spicy and sweet pepper sauce. And it is indeed delicious, despite smelling like rotting garbage.
Stay here: It’s slim pickings in the area but I had a great experience at the Old Xianheng Hotel in the heart of the cultural district (from $1,280. 179 Lu Xun Middle Rd., Shaoxing, (+86) 575-8511-6666), where the rooms wrap around a traditional-style courtyard. Though little English is spoken, staff are friendly and the location is impossible to beat, just outside of the cobbled pedestrian streets. It’s also home to the famous Xianheng Restaurant, which aforementioned writer Lu Xun chose as the setting for his ”Kong Yiji” story. Be careful when booking though: there’s lesser Xianheng Hotel not too far away.