Snail noodles go viral in China during the pandemic. But the dish is a bit ... funky
LIUZHOU, China – It's fermented. It's stinky. It's delicious. And during the pandemic, it's become a national sensation.
The dish is snail noodles, or luosifen.
"A lot of people were looking for crazy, smelly, ridiculous things to eat." says Mei Shanshan, a Beijing-based food blogger.
Slippery rice noodles are first bathed in a slow-simmering broth of laboriously peeled river snails. Then they're topped with odorous bamboo shoots that have been covered in salt and left to ferment for a few weeks, tofu and salty lemon vinegar.
Much of the preparation relies on fermentation, common in cuisine from southern Guangxi province where the noodles first began. Their malodorous reputation also makes snail noodles quite possibly one of the worst meals to make at home: The smell of the pickled toppings and the stewed snails can linger for hours.
In 2020, online influencers with tens of millions of followers began blogging about the disgustingly good snack.
"Eating noodles while pinching my nose was the most wonderful thing I have ever done in my life. So stinky, delicious, irresistible!", wrote Yang Xuemei, an influential technology editor and writer.
A combination of online guerilla marketing and word-of-mouth hype has made snail noodles an instant hit. Last year, dozens of snail noodle brands sold 1.1 billion packets of the make-it-at-home version.
Soon, millions were making the dish from their apartments under lockdown. And now the fermented snail dish is a viral Chinese snack – as well as an economic boon for the city of Liuzhou in Guangxi province.
Getting rich from river snails
NPR traveled to the lush city of Liuzhou, in southern Guangxi province, which is credited with coming up with the dish.
The city is proud of its obsession with edible river snails. Archaeological digs have even found snail fossils discarded by ancient humans in paleolithic caves dating back 25,000 years.
Several people claim to have created the first apocryphal bowl of snail noodle soup in the 1980s. Each origin myth ultimately boils down to the same story: combining snail soup and rice noodles, long been two independently popular dishes in Guangxi, in one bowl.
"I eat snail noodles at least once a day, really! The taste really suits Guangxi people. It's sour and spicy. Once you get used to the taste, you don't really notice the smell anymore," says Deng Rijie, a diner at Feng Zhang, one of Liuzhou's older noodle establishments.
The noodles' nationwide popularity has breathed new life into Liuzhou. The city was once economically reliant on the manufacture of industrial trucks and cars until the 1990s, when struggling state firms initiated a round of mass layoffs nationwide, including in Liuzhou.
In Liuzhou, many of the newly unemployed entered the food business, setting up small snail noodle roadside shops and food stands. By the 2000s, they had set up some noodle factories and chain restaurants. The pandemic was the lucky break they needed.
The hometown chow has now been standardized and rapidly scaled-up to meet national demand.
Liuzhou's state-managed snail noodle association sets specific flavor components each noodle maker must meet, to keep quality high. Other than acidity of the pickles and the spice of the chili, there's also the springiness of the noodles, the umami of the snail broth and the diversity of the toppings – which can include what tofu, bamboo shoots, fried chickpeas and snail meat.
Liuzhou hosts a dedicated industrial park for dozens of noodle factories, each one serving multiple food brands who in turn contract with the factories to develop customized recipes. The park pumped out $2 billion worth of noodles last year.
"The snail noodle supply chain is incredibly automated now. It used to be a very labor intensive process, but now human workers merely have to service the machines to do everything," says Mr. Tang, an engineer at one of the factory. He requested only his last name be used as provincial authorities hadn't approved the interview.
Without government support, snail noodles likely would not have become the viral hit that are today. The dozen or so noodle factories in Liuzhou's snail noodle industrial park enjoy initial corporate tax breaks and utility subsidies.
There's also a snail noodle vocational degree established in 2020 by the local government to train chefs to prepare the snack. On the outskirts of Liuzhou, the city also built a snail noodle tourist town, replete with a shell-shaped visitor hall and noodle-making demonstration site. There, the municipal government also hosts an annual snail noodle festival with noodle-making and noodle-eating competitions.
A short drove away, an army of professional marketers works out of a new office building designed specifically for livestreaming. But they face stiff competition – from each other and from up and coming specialty snacks from other provinces.
"The market is ever changing so if you don't keep up, you will be tossed aside. Money isn't as easy to earn these days with snail noodles," says Douya, a noodle livestreamer. Inside, she and her colleagues boil rice noodles while surrounded by sparkly iPhones and studio lights. They livestream nearly 24 hours a day, split into three shifts, to sell one particular brand of noodle.
But food bloggers are already shifting attention. They're searching for the next big thing in gastronomy — another snack that might keep China entertained for another year under lockdown. And maybe one that won't mean keeping the windows open to drive out the smell.
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