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The curious link between snails and the world’s most aromatic noodles

IT’S LIKELY THAT few people outside China know the secret of “snail noodles”. But the word is spreading. The Chinese dish known as Luosifen (literally “snail rice noodles”) is spreading, and there are restaurants selling them outside mainland China, in Hong Kong and even in the United States.

But where do they come from? Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a small city in southwest China, has been a dream destination for countless Chinese since 2014, thanks to a uniquely flavoured rice noodle.

Luosifen(螺蛳粉), snail rice noodles, a kind of Guangxi specialty.

The origin story of snail rice noodles has various versions. The most prevalent one is that one late night in the early 1980s, some hungry tourists rushed to an almost closed rice noodle stall of Liuzhou, but the normal bone broth element in which rice noodles are served was no longer available. There was only a pot of boiled snail broth left, so the stall owner put the rice noodle in the snail broth to cook, together with the vegetables, peanuts and other ingredients.

Surprisingly, the rice noodles boiled by snail broth got big compliments from the tourists. The owner then gradually improved the ingredients and production, creating the prototype of today’s snail rice noodles.

The noodles don’t look like they have snails in them. The snails are used at the start of a complex process along with fermented bamboo shoots that creates a strongly flavored soup base with an appetising aroma – and legend says that men are susceptible to it than women.

Side dishes of snail rice noodles, including pig’s trotters and duck feet. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The essence of snail rice noodles as a dish lies in the snail broth. You soak live river snails in water, then throw in a piece of iron to make the snails spit out the mud and kill the parasites. After two days, cut off the snail tails and drain the water for later use. Heat the oil and sauté the chopped garlic, ginger, dried red chillies and perilla leaves. Add the snails and season with salt, chicken powder, oyster sauce, cooking wine, etc. and stir-fry until medium rare. At this point, add nine types of Chinese herbs with natural flavours, such as fennel, tangerine peel and cinnamon, and the mixture is simmered on a low heat for two hours.

Once the snail soup base is ready, you can add boiled rice noodles and vegetables, drizzle with sesame oil and chilli oil, and finally add side dishes such as fried egg, chicken feet, pickled bamboo shoots. Then you are ready to enjoy it.

Instant bagging snail rice noodles, with dried soup base and condiment packs inside. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, snail rice noodles achieved industrialised production with the introduction of bagged instant snail rice noodles. Liuzhou City also established the snail rice noodle association and industrial parks in 2015 and 2016. Since then, snail rice noodles have become one of the most popular snacks on the Chinese internet. Sales of bagged snail rice noodles have skyrocketed, with sales exceeding 6 billion yuan in 2019 in the rise of e-commerce and average daily sales of more than 1.7 million bags, and demand for local snail rice noodle side dishes such as bean curd and bamboo shoots in Liuzhou has also grown as a result.

Li Ren(李任), a smell worker in a Liuzhou snail rice noodle factory.

Fermented bamboo shoots, an indispensable garnish for snail noodles, are also the main source of the unique flavour of snail noodles, which has given rise to a new type of profession in Liuzhou – the “smell worker”.

The main job of smell workers is controlling the degree of fermentation of bamboo shoots by smelling the taste. Therefore, for the young people of Liuzhou, snail rice noodles are not only a kind of hometown food that evokes nostalgia, but also give the young people of Liuzhou who work outside the city the motivation and opportunity to return to their hometowns for development.

Image at the top from Sohu.

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