A bowl of luosifen, or river snail noodles.

Luosifen: The ‘smelly’ noodle dish that got me through quarantine

Sep 28, 2020

Famous for their pungent smell and taste, luosifen, or river snail noodles, are a specialty of Liuzhou in southwestern China. An instant version helped cure one writer of her homesickness.

They say there’s only one way to find a luosifen (螺蛳粉) restaurant: follow your nose.

Literally “river snail noodles,” luosifen is the local specialty of Liuzhou, a city in southern China known for its strong, spicy flavors.

For those who love it, the smell of luosifen is heaven, enough to make the mouth water. For others, its acerbic stench has been compared to a “chemical bomb.”

But the lovers might outnumber the haters. In 2019, sales of instant luosifen topped $850 million in China. For comparison, total instant noodle sales in the country came out to over $13 billion in 2018.

In the coronavirus pandemic, luosifen has become the top quarantine item. When China went into lockdown earlier this year, instant luosifen sales spiked on shopping platforms.

Instant luosifen is a popular product on Chinese shopping platforms.
Instant luosifen is a popular product on Chinese shopping platforms. / Photo: Simon Song/SCMP

On social media, influencers plug the best luosifen brands. There are luosifen livestreams and even luosifen parties where people try different brands.

Devotees say the instant versions taste almost the same as those served in restaurants, owing to innovations in packaging technology.

(Read more: Instant hot pot, ice cream puppies, and other Chinese food trends you might have missed)

Growing up in Liuzhou, many of my hometown memories are tied to luosifen. It was the go-to comfort food after a long day, best enjoyed with cold soy milk.

Years later, when I moved abroad for school and the coronavirus struck, instant luosifen would help me get through my homesickness.

I would bike with friends after school on humid summer nights in search of new luosifen spots. Every place made it differently, though the core recipe never changed. Whenever my mom didn’t feel like cooking, we would get takeout from our favorite luosifen restaurant.

Years later, when I moved abroad for school and the coronavirus struck, instant luosifen would help me get through my homesickness.

The origins of luosifen

Nobody really knows who cooked the first bowl of luosifen. Rice noodles and river snails have a long history in Liuzhou, but luosifen’s history only dates back a few decades, according to Ni Diaoyang, head of the Liuzhou Luosifen Association and director of the Luosifen Museum in Liuzhou.

In Liuzhou, luosifen is a popular street snack.
In Liuzhou, luosifen is a popular street snack. / Photo: Simon Song/SCMP

One widely accepted narrative is that luosifen started as a popular street snack in Liuzhou’s night markets during the 1970s or ’80s.

It soon swept through the city because of its distinct taste. Now, it’s possible to find a luosifen restaurant on nearly every block.

What does luosifen taste like?

The dish is an explosion of umami. Traditional luosifen calls for fresh rice noodles, which are cooked right before they’re served with seasonal greens.

Although luosifen literally means “snail noodles,” it’s not typically served with snails.

The soup is what makes or breaks the dish. It’s made with pork and chicken bones slow-cooked overnight with snail meat and multiple spices.

(Read more: The chef obsessed with Taiwanese beef noodle soup)

Although luosifen literally means “snail noodles,” it’s not typically served with snails. Rather, the snail meat dissolves in the process of making the broth and becomes part of the soup.

Toppings vary, but the usual suspects include sliced black fungus, fried yuba, salted peanuts, pickled cowpeas, and pickled bamboo shoots, which give luosifen its distinct smell and taste.

How the luosifen craze began

Around 2014, luosifen restaurants began popping up in different cities after it was featured in the documentary series A Bite of China.

The restaurants, however, did not last long. Though many people were initially intrigued by the dish’s novelty, complaints about the smell eventually forced many establishments to close.

But the people of Liuzhou were not ready to give up on their hometown dish. In 2015, food manufacturers began experimenting with vacuum seal preservation for noodles, soups, and other perishables.

A luosifen factory in Liuzhou. A combination of new packaging technology, government promotion, and social media hype helped boost the reach of luosifen.
A luosifen factory in Liuzhou. A combination of new packaging technology, government promotion, and social media hype helped boost the reach of luosifen. / Photo: Xinhua

Companies in Liuzhou eventually came up with a way to package luosifen without sacrificing taste. The local government was keen on promoting it.

At the same time, new online shopping and delivery platforms were being developed in China that made ordering instant food products seamless. This confluence of events expanded luosifen’s reach. Food influencers such as Li Ziqi began showcasing the dish on their channels.

By the time I moved to Chicago in 2018, the dish had become so popular in China that every day, more than three million packs of instant luosifen are shipped out of factories in Liuzhou.

It took on even greater popularity when the coronavirus forced people to stay indoors and subsist on takeout and instant food.

(Read more: With no customers, Chinese restaurants turn to live-streaming to make money)

I haven’t been home for almost two years, but the sudden popularity of luosifen has allowed me to order it online in instant form and try a taste of home in an unfamiliar city.

Whenever I heat up a bowl of luosifen, it brings back memories lost to the years—the heated debates between friends over which restaurant is better, the casual conversations between boisterous neighbors and family friends, the humidity of those southwestern Chinese summers, the sounds of cicadas buzzing, and the unmistakable smell of luosifen shops preparing next day’s soup.

NoodlesSpicyStreet foodCoronavirusPersonal essay