Recipe: Imagined Snail Noodle Soup
Frustration level: 3/10
This recipe series is about cooking based off of Wikipedia. Does that sound like a bad idea? I assure you it is! But how else am I supposed to sample something that I can’t find a recipe for, and no restaurant near me serves? After all, I want to suffer on Lunar New Year! Enter: luó sī fěn, 螺螄粉, or snail noodle soup, except an imagined version from my brain as I have no idea what it actually tastes like.
Also, I know I’m very late on this recipe and I’m sorry. To be honest, I almost pressed publish on this last week just to meet my own arbitrary deadlines. But it felt wrong to give you all a recipe that wasn’t totally vetted, so I listened to my gut, waited, and cooked a few more iterations.
So with that…happy Year of the Tiger! I hope this recipe gives you some adequate happy-suffering to start off the year. And if you want to read an essay I wrote last year about LNY for TODAY, you can find it here: Celebrating Lunar New Year As An Act of Resistance.
First, some context:
For the last few months, I’ve been down a rabbit hole trying to make luó sī fěn, 螺螄粉, literally translated as “snail rice noodle.” It’s a specialty dish hailing from Liuzhou, a city in Guangxi, a southern region of China bordering Vietnam that boasts steep mountains and intersecting rivers. The dish captures the geography of the area well: river snails perfume the broth; the noodles are made from rice given the prevalence of rice paddies (you may recognize the picturesque Longsheng rice terraces located in nearby Guilin); and of course the pickled bamboo shoots, which grow well in the climate, that give the dish its signature stink—earning its name as the “durian of soup.”
There are multiple stories about how luo si fen came to be, generally accepted that it was conceived sometime in the 70s or 80s. According to the government, the dish combines “traditional food materials of the Han people with the Miao and the Dong ethnic groups.” Despite having been around for decades, luo si fen only saw a meteoric rise in the past few years due to high-end packaging technology. Instant luo si fen—as in prepackaged—has become a quarantine luxury, each parcel comprised of an entire orchestra of smaller plastic packages. Dried noodles, soup base, bamboo shoot, fried tofu skin, peanuts, pickled cow bean, the toppings go on. In 2020, instant luo si fen captured $1.5 billion in Chinese sales alone. (For comparison, Nongshim, the world’s 5th largest ramen company and the makers of Shin ramyun and Parasite-famous Chapaguri, sold $1.85 billion instant noodles worldwide in 2020.)
Naturally, when I came across luo si fen online, I knew I needed to try it. The small problem being…almost no restaurants in the U.S. serve it, and none near me. The few instances of stateside coverage has been of now-closed spots; the only one that seems still to be open is in Virginia. So…the only option was to actually make the dish myself if I wanted to eat it. [Update: Instagram fam always coming through with hot tips! Qin West Noodle in LA apparently serves luo si fen, but it’s called “liu zhou noodle” on the menu. I’ll be heading there soon and will update here again after!)
As you probably gleaned from my long treatise on shrimp chips, I like to have multiple data points before I cook something. (The same is true when I go out to eat—I call my process the “Yelp-critic-Instagram triangulation.”) So the first thing I did was to get my hands on as many instant luo si fen packets as possible. While doing so, I also managed to convince my Serious Eats editor, Daniel, to also spend over $50 in snail noodle products. Here’s photo proof of his excursion, attached to an email with the subject line “This is your fault.”
I regret to report these packets tasted overwhelmingly like bamboo shoot, and not of much else. (I guess that makes me an instant luo si fen hater. Sorry!) But all the luo si fen coverage waxed on about the lush broth made of “pork bones, chicken bones, and river snails.” So I turned to my mother, asking her to search Baidu (Chinese Google) for a luo si fen recipe—to little success. Even endless YouTube scrolling turned up only recipes and reviews of instant luo si fen brands; the only video “recipe” I found was a dreamy sequence from Li Ziqi, a Chinese vlogging megastar that lives in an idyllic cottage surrounded by actual bamboo (which she then harvests and ferments):
Note: This video has a casual 69 million views.
So basically, all I had to start my luo si fen journey was an active imagination, a few bellies’ worth of subpar instant luo si fen, and Wikipedia. Here’s what it says of the soup:
“The stock that forms the soup is made by stewing river snails and pork bones for several hours with black cardamom, fennel seed, dried tangerine peel, cassia bark, cloves, white pepper, bay leaf, licorice root, sand ginger, and star anise. It usually does not contain snail meat, but it is instead served with pickled bamboo shoot, pickled green beans, shredded wood ear, fu zhu, fresh green vegetables, peanuts, and chili oil added to the soup.”
Okay, that’s actually fairly detailed for Wikipedia. But the question remains, if I’m trying to make a recipe for something I’ve never tasted, and probably will not taste for quite some time, how will I know if I get it “right?”
This conundrum has pressed me to think a little more critically about what it means to develop a recipe, and what the heck recipes even are (beyond literal instructions to make something, of course). As I stirred my many pots of snails and pondered the question, “What should this taste like?” it occurred to me I was actually trying to ask, “How do I think this is supposed to feel like?”
I mean this in a sensory way, not a romantic one. When I eat, say, cheung fun at my favorite dim sum place, I’m feeling the supple rice noodles slip and slide between my teeth, perhaps accentuated by the bracing saltiness of some soy sauce squirted on top. This likely spurs me to suck on my cheeks just a little as I chew, with a little inhale to help dissipate that salinity. Or maybe I’m feeling the caramelized, sweetened note of a soy sauce that’s been stir-fried with the noodles, the soft crust formed through this interplay of ingredients nestling into little crevasses of my teeth. This all builds into a complete sensory package that I tuck away, to be retrieved as a reference data if I ever were to make cheung fun.
A recipe, then, could be understood as an individual’s best approximation to replicate a certain sensory experience. And a good recipe is one that consistently captures that experience. This is a straightforward (though not necessarily easy) process for dishes I’ve eaten before, and know what to build towards. But for dishes like this mythical luo si fen, how do I determine what sensory experience I should model the recipe after? This prompted me to reflect on how I began concocting my own sensory interpretation of luo si fen, independent of tasting it. That would’ve been the first time I read Goldthread’s media coverage of the soup, when I began to attach physical reactions to the passages on my screen:
For those who love it, the smell of luosifen is heaven, enough to make the mouth water. For others, its acerbic stench has been compared to a “chemical bomb.”
When I loll around words like “pungent,” or in this case “acerbic” in my mind, it gives me a specific feeling in my spine. It makes me want to lean back and breathe a sharp exhale, like a soothing cleanse. Mentally, I know this is in sharp contrast to a description like “moldy and soft,” to which I would flair my nostrils and push air around in a circle to get a deeper whiff as I eat.
And here’s another clue, from the same piece:
Growing up in Liuzhou, many of my hometown memories are tied to luosifen. It was the go-to comfort food after a long day, best enjoyed with cold soy milk.
What a wrinkle thrown into the mix! My initial mental queries of luo si fen most certainly would not taste good with soy milk—I had a visceral, disgusted reaction reading this the first time, although I had never sampled the pairing before.
In a bizarre way, for a soup I know very little about, I quite easily plucked little ‘clues’ on how I think it would feel. All my imagined sensory details of what this soup “should” illicit in turn became the goalposts my recipe approximated towards. Whether or not these goalposts are correct, I have no idea, but this little thought exercise made me revel in the fact that all art forms—from composed dishes to musical scores and architectural blueprints—are sensory recipes. How extremely awesome is it that us humans have the ability to not only dream up abstract sensory ideas, but to actually translate them into recipes that invite others to participate and enjoy the experience we created?
Okay so #blessed vibes aside, where did that lead me in when it comes to luo si fen. All of these feelings made it feel far too daunting to carry out all the pieces of this noodle soup simultaneously, so I decided to start with the broth. Some of the sensory clues I anchored on were:
Creaminess. The visual of Li Ziqi’s soup made it clear that this was a broth made from a hard boil, which would emulsify the fat into the broth and leave nice smoothness on the tongue. Looking at the color, it seems the bones may not have been roasted—so I opted to create a base from un-roasted pork neck bone (a very classic broth base for Chinese soups) and chicken feet (for silky collagen).
Snail flavor. I imagined a certain gnashing of the teeth here: there’s a certain acrid sensation I get when eating snails, which I wanted to capture—but mediate. The first time I dumped 2 pounds of snails into the pot, I felt a slight sinking feeling it was too much. And indeed, it was.
Pairs with soy milk? This clue made me feel there must be a note in the luo si fen that harmonizes with the sweet, floral nuttiness of actually good soymilk. The first few times, I went in hard with sand ginger. This ended up creating a powerful perfume in the broth that prompted the same sort of drooling sensation as tonic water (not in a good way). When I tried to do this with more licorice and less sand ginger, the broth became far too woodsy, feeling like spikes along the back of the throat. Ultimately, I ended up wrapping both herbs in a sachet so I had more control over the infusion, and that worked much better.
Fragrant. This term is fairly generic, and produces little sensory feelings for me. (Perhaps this is what we mean when we say we are desensitized to something?) But it did make me think 1) there should be some easy-to-place top notes in the broth, so I upped the ratio for tangerine peel and star anise compared to the other spices; and 2) the spices should probably be bloomed in oil to extract maximum aromas. After a first few overly eager tries, I also lowered the total amount of spices a bit (because drinking a small bowl of the final broth felt like licking potpourri) and managed to get a broth that, for some reason, emitted a nicely roasted peanut smell.
After all that imagining and replicating, this recipe is what I’ve got. I’m not going to call it luo si fen because I don’t think that’s responsible. It’s an approximation of the feelings I’ve had reading about, and looking at, luo si fen from afar. I have no idea if this is “accurate.” But for now, I think it tastes pretty damn good when compiled with store-bought toppings. (We’ll see if I still feel so confident once the from-scratch toppings are incorporated.) Stay tuned as I tackle the bamboo shoots next! For the full recipe for the broth, scroll to the bottom beyond the paywall. (Sorry, gal’s gotta eat. After some time has passed I’ll open up this recipe though, because I do believe in free content.)
Weekly Meme Roundup
Personal Things From This Week
Eating: Exponentially increasing mounds of dumplings!!!
Drinking: MUD/WTR, the coffee replacement I keep trying to persuade my team to drink. (I worry my enthusiasm for the product has made them suspicious it’s a Ponzi scheme.)
Nice thing I did for myself
this last week: Took a night off, when I was supposed to be writing this newsletter (heh…)
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