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A 'loved and hated' noodle star in the pandemic year

Humble river snail from Liuzhou is key part of Guangxi region's cultural heritage

Made using river snails, the Chinese noodle dish luosifen is a specialty of the southwestern city of Liuzhou and is recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of the Guangxi region.   © AP

LIUZHOU -- On a sleepy morning with only cicadas singing, a young woman walks through a bamboo forest. She digs up sweet bamboo shoots and collects black fungus. On her way back, she stops at a clear stream to do some "treasure hunting." Contentedly, she wraps everything in a fresh lotus leaf.

In a video watched over 53 million times, the Chinese vlogger Li Ziqi shows how to make river snail rice noodles, or luosifen. A humble dish from Liuzhou in southwest China, it is recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of the Guangxi region.

As the ordinary man's "seafood," river snails have been popular for over 3,000 years. While farmers enjoyed stir-fried snails with liquor after a day of hard work, officials also could not resist this rural delicacy at their parties. Poets expressed their love for the snails, too. A renowned Tang dynasty poet Liu Yuxi described a mountain on the shimmering lake as "a snail on a silver plate."

There is even a folk legend about the kind river snail girl. A farmer discovers a big river snail and grows it in his water vat. Since then, whenever he comes home, warm meals are ready. One day he comes back earlier and sees a girl walking out of the shell to cook.

For those who are still reserved about river snails, they can feel relieved. The snails are not visible in luosifen. As the snail meat is slowly cooked with pork bones and 13 spices, it melts and becomes part of the soup. In fact, the noodle is served with pickled bamboo shoots, black fungus, tofu skin, beans, peanuts and green vegetables.

Chinese vlogger Li Ziqi collects river snails. (Screen grab from YouTube)

This cooking method is influenced by the geographic location of Liuzhou. As Liuzhou is on an ancient canal connecting the Yangtze River and Pearl River, two distinct cooking cultures have their encounter at Liuzhou. While the stewed soup is rooted in the Pearl River region, the bold use of spices and chili oil is from the Yangtze River region.

But Liuzhou added its own style with pickled bamboo shoots. Guangxi is famous for the "suanye" culture (meaning pickled fruits and vegetables in the dialect). From pickled plum to papaya and cucumber, suanye stands are colorful feasts for the eyes. Sweet, sour and crisp, fresh suanye chases away heat and improves appetite in this hot region bordering Vietnam.

"Locals say the hero cannot resist the beauty, but the beauty cannot resist suanye," a popular suanye stand owner says proudly in a food documentary.

Liuzhou in bauhinia flower season. (Liuzhou Tourism Bureau via Weibo) 

Hence it is no surprise that sweet bamboo shoots are pickled as well. However, as the bamboo shoots are stored in a pot of mountain spring water for two weeks, they develop a particularly pungent smell during this fermenting process. While the lovers say the pickled bamboo shoot is the soul of the noodle, the haters say it makes the neighbor suspect there is a secret weapon of mass destruction.

But for those who grew up in Liuzhou, luosifen is the taste of their hometown. "I would bike with friends on humid summer nights in search of luosifen spots. Though the core recipe never changes, every place makes it differently," a Liuzhou girl named Linghu recalls. "It was the go-to comfort food after a long day, best enjoyed with cold soy milk."

This local delight was hardly known to people outside, until it was featured in a hit documentary "A Bite of China" in 2012. Two years later, Liuzhou had the first company to sell packaged luosifen. With keen support from the Liuzhou government, entrepreneurs came up with an innovative vacuum packaging to preserve the authentic taste. Trendy gift packs and new varieties such as crawfish luosifen were developed as well to capture the attention of younger people.

Slow food: Snails are cooked to make luosifen.    © AP

In recent years, luosifen has risen from a simple street food to an internet star. Food vloggers love to play with luosifen. There was an online "hell challenge" of trying wasabi-flavored luosifen. There is also a durian flavor for those food warriors. In 2019, sales of instant luosifen reached over 6 billion yuan, with average daily online sales of 1.7 million bags.

As this year witnessed soaring demand for convenient meals, luosifen became the top stay-at-home food in China. Unlike instant noodles with boring seasoning, luosifen contains as many as nine packets with real ingredients. Some even have crisp radish and eggs. In Asian supermarkets overseas, luosifen also became a hot commodity. The export value of luosifen reached 15.35 million yuan from January to July, 16 times the export value in 2019.

"It is the perfect opportunity to eat luosifen to your heart's content, without worrying the neighbor will bash on your door," one luosifen fan joked online.

KFC rolled out of line of ready-to-eat packed luosifen in October.   © AP

More importantly, luosifen provides a source of entertainment and a sense of connection in a tough time. Weibo topics related to luosifen have triggered over 1 billion views this year. The leading luosifen brand Hao Huan Luo amused Weibo fans in various ways, from making a "fresh breath" couple with Doublemint gum to creating luosifen inside pineapple and publishing cartoons of luosifen fighting COVID-19.

People joined online luosifen parties and even hilarious video challenges such as eating luosifen in front of cats and filming their reaction. Luosifen fans created heartwarming cartoons, showing a cute luosifen cheering up hot dry noodles, a symbol of the hard-hit Wuhan.

With annual sales of instant luosifen expected to hit 10 billion yuan soon, Liuzhou set up a school this May aiming to train 500 students per group who specialize in making and marketing the noodle. In addition to a luosifen museum, a recreational park is also under development. Travelers would cycle through the bamboo forest, explore rice plantations and take photos with a mascot couple -- bamboo shoot brother and river snail sister.

Moreover, Liuzhou has a romantic dream for the coming spring. When the city's over 260,000 bauhinia flowers bloom in March, it aspires to organize a street festival where people gather to sing and dance to lusheng, a reed pipe instrument played by ethnic groups in Guangxi, and, of course, share a fresh bowl of luosifen under the purple flowers.

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