Photos: Brandon McGhee
You’ll smell a bowl of luosifen before you see it. These river snail rice noodles are a popular (if niche) Chinese dish, but they’re controversial thanks to their famously distinctive smell, which stretches down the street of any restaurant serving them. (It actually comes from the stinky suansun, sour pickled bamboo shoots, not the snails.)
The dish – from the city of Liuzhou in Guangxi, the southwestern Chinese province known for photogenic hills and the tourist destinations Guilin and Yangshuo — doesn’t hit you the way, say, stinky tofu does. But it definitely has an odor.
Originating sometime in the 1970s or 1980s when the influences of Han Chinese cooking met the ethnic minority cooking of the Miao and Dong, the dish sputtered along for decades as a regional favorite/curiosity. Then the hit-making machine A Bite of China came to document it in 2012 and suddenly stinky snail noodles were everywhere in China. There are supposedly 5,000 luosifen restaurants across China
; in the city of Liuzhou, there is an entire luosifen industrial park for companies producing instant luosifen.
In 2018, a manufacturer of instant noodles opened a private luosifen museum in that city
. This year, government officials have applied for national “intangible heritage” protection as well as UNESCO recognition
. The Liuzhou commerce office says they offer a 100,000rmb subsidy
to owners who open luosifen restaurants outside of Guangxi. They’ve even hit the Japanese Mukbang circuit
In Shanghai, Fen Jia Liuzhou Luosifen
on Fahuazhen Lu seems to be the buzziest. My first attempt to go on a Friday night was met with a 90-minute wait. When I went again on Monday, it was relatively quiet — an hourlong queue. If that seems like a long time to wait for a bowl of river snail noodles, you might want to wait until you’ve tried them.
Even those that are squeamish about the idea of mollusks in their mian might find a lot to like here. The river snails are in fact mostly used alongside pork bones to produce a rich broth, spiced with black cardamom, black pepper, dried tangerine peel, fennel seeds, cassia bark, cloves and a whole lot more. The specialty here is rice noodles served in this soup along with minced pork, the pickled bamboo shoots, dry tofu skin and peanuts.
There are a few errant morsels of snail meat added back to the broth — in Liuzhou, apparently, this is not common — but they are well hidden amongst the other toppings.
You can also get the noodles dry if you prefer them that way, with just enough broth added to carry the flavor.
The result is an umami bomb, something that won’t be totally alien to lovers of, spicy Sichuan noodles but with a whole other rich, fermented funk. It’s not fishy, as you might expect, but rather sits on the same scale as something like blue cheese or stinky tofu. They’re delicious, and after just a couple of mouthfuls, they no longer feel at all like a gimmicky or out-there dish to try for the sake of it. These aren’t bugs on a stick. You’ll want to eat them again. At 25-35rmb per bowl, there’s not much excuse. If you’re coming here, don’t miss out on a side plate of the crispy pork.
Fen Jia isn’t the only place slinging snails. In northern Jing’an, Liuzhou Jia Wei Luosifen
came recommended from an aficionado of the noodle. Thankfully, there was no wait around dinner time on a Sunday, though the small restaurant was still packed. (This picture is from a quiet afternoon.)
Jia Wei’s noodles, while still rich, pack a little less flavor than Fen Jia’s, and you feel like the intensity is coming more from generous salting and seasoning than hours simmering with shells and bones. They’re still a mighty fine bowl of noodles, and good for a quick meal if you want to get these flavors.
Still, if you’re dead set on trying these things for the first time, bite the bullet and get in line down for Fen Jia.
You might not look at snails the same way again.
Fen Jia Liuzhou Luosifen, 83 Yangzhai Lu, near Xinhua Lu. Full listing here.
Jia Wei Liuzhou Luosifen, 621 Anyuan Lu, near Yanping Lu. Full listing here.