Luosifen: The ‘smelly’ noodles that became China’s biggest food craze

Nov 06, 2020

Luosifen, or snail noodles, have been compared to a “chemical bomb” because of their smell. But the instant version became a hit during the Covid-19 lockdown.

A humble noodle dish from southwestern China became the country’s national dish during the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to a spike in demand for instant food.

Luosifen, or snail noodles, is a specialty of Liuzhou, a city in the mountainous region of Guangxi.

Typically served as an inexpensive street snack at hole-in-the-wall shops, the noodles first became known outside the region when it was featured in a 2012 show called A Bite of China.

But they really gained popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, when demand for instant food spiked as people were stuck at home.

A bowl of luosifen, or snail noodles, in Liuzhou, southwestern China.
A bowl of luosifen, or snail noodles, in Liuzhou, southwestern China. / Photo: Wu Congwen

“Annual sales of instant luosifen will soon surpass 10 billion yuan [$1.4 billion], compared with 6 billion yuan in 2019,” Ni Diaoyang, head of the Liuzhou Luosifen Association, said in May.

It was an enterprising manager at an instant luosifen factory in Liuzhou that caused the current fervor.

(Read more: Inside a rice noodle factory)

Earlier this year, when much of China was under lockdown, the manager did a live-stream on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, showing how they made the noodles. He also took live orders from viewers.

Over 10,000 packets were sold in two hours, according to local media. Other luosifen makers quickly followed suit, creating an online craze that has not stopped since.

How luosifen is made

Luosifen is famous for its pungent smell, which some Chinese people have compared to that of a “chemical bomb.”

The stock is made by stewing river snails and pork or beef bones with cassia bark, licorice root, black cardamom, star anise, fennel seeds, dried tangerine peel, cloves, sand ginger, white pepper, and bay leaf.

The snail meat disintegrates, merging with the stock after the long boiling process.

Soup is spooned into a bowl of noodles at a luosifen shop in Liuzhou.
Soup is spooned into a bowl of noodles at a luosifen shop in Liuzhou. / Photo: Wu Congwen

The rice noodles are cooked in the soup and served with peanuts, pickled bamboo shoots and green beans, shredded black fungus, bean curd sheets, and green vegetables.

Luosifen’s unique smell comes from pickled bamboo shoots, a traditional ingredient in many Guangxi households.

“Without the bamboo shoots, the noodles have no soul.”

Zhou Wen, chef

“The taste comes from fermenting the sweet bamboo shoots for half a month,” says Zhou Wen, a luosifen chef from Liuzhou. “Without the bamboo shoots, the noodles have no soul.

“Liuzhou people love pickled bamboo shoots,” Zhou continues. “They keep an urn of it at home as seasoning for other dishes.”

From street food to food fad

Luosifen dates back to the late 1970s, when vendors at night markets started cooking rice noodles with river snails.

The first instant luosifen company was set up in Liuzhou in 2014. By 2017, sales of instant luosifen reached 3 billion yuan, according to a report by Chinese online media company coffeeO2O, which analyzes dining businesses.

A luosifen factory in Liuzhou.
A luosifen factory in Liuzhou. / Photo: Xinhua

Now, there are more than 10,000 mainland Chinese companies selling instant luosifen online. Last year, over 28 million luosifen packets were sold on Taobao, China’s biggest shopping site, making it the most popular food item on the platform.

(Taobao is a product of Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post, which owns Goldthread.)

Food vloggers post reviews of different instant brands. There are even video channels dedicated to luosifen.

One such channel on the Chinese video site Bilibili has more than 130 million views on its more than 9,000 videos.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

NoodlesStreet foodTaobao trends

Credit

Producer: Gavin Huang

Fixer: Qi Linghua

Videographer: Wu Congwen

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Joel Roche