Sunday, January 4, 2015

Snail Noodle Soup

Thanks to some curious historical pigeonholing, Liuzhou is best known in China as a producer of coffins. This reputation even makes its way into a well-known Chinese saying about the key to a happy life that goes: 生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州. This translates to something like “be born in Suzhou [a city reputed to produce the most beautiful people], live in Hangzhou [which is renowned for its scenic location], eat in Guangzhou [the seat of world-famous Cantonese cuisine], and die in Liuzhou.” Although the coffin industry casts a macabre pall over the city’s history and culture, it is not the only game in town; Liuzhou is also known for its delicious snail soup, known to locals as luó sī fĕn. 

Most people who hear about this snail soup expect at least a handful of the eponymous gastropods to lie in wait, lurking squishily within the shimmering, murky broth. This assumption is actually wrong, as snail meat is not a direct ingredient of luó sī fĕn. In fact, the soup gets its name because its base is snail stock. River snails and pork bones are stewed for hours with vendor-specific combinations of spices (generally including cardamom, fennel, star anise, cloves, pepper, and other similar spices) to create the distinctive broth. In addition to the snail broth, the recipe for luó sī fĕn includes a thick tangle of skinny rice noodles, crispy fried tofu skin, peanuts, pickled vegetables (this is Guangxi, after all), fresh green vegetables, and heaps of chili oil. This is usually a very spicy bowl of noodles with some intriguing contrasts of taste (spicy, sour, and faintly musty) and texture (slippery, crunchy, and soft). You can buy luó sī fĕn in nearby cities like Nanning and Guilin, but if you want the finest bowl of snail soup money can buy, I’d recommend making a stop right in Liuzhou. If nothing else, it will give you something other than coffins to remember the city for.


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