The pandemic food trend taking China by storm

Society & Culture

Luosifen — a smelly, humble noodle dish — has experienced an unexpected boom during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now so popular that one province has sought UNESCO recognition of luosifen as an intangible cultural heritage.

Luosifen smelly river snail rice noodles
Illustration by Derek Zheng

A humble noodle dish originating in southwest China’s Guangxi Province became a national hit — and something of a limited commodity — during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now Chinese diners can’t get enough.

Luósīfěn 螺蛳粉, or river snail rice noodles, hails from the city of Liuzhou, where it has been served from street-side stalls as an affordable snack since the 1970s. The unique dish, known for its pungent aroma, is made from simmering snails, pork bones, and several spices for many hours, resulting in a spicy broth that is served with rice noodles, fermented bamboo, dried beancurd, peanuts, and vegetables. The popularity of luosifen grew after the food documentary series A Bite of China featured the dish in an episode during 2012, inciting fervor that resulted in many luosifen restaurants springing up in major cities across China. With demand spreading, the dish expanded into ecommerce, and shops began selling the noodles online in instant pre-packaged form. Between 2014 and 2016, the number of luosifen sellers on Taobao increased by 810 percent, according to South China Morning Post.

But when the pandemic hit, it dealt a blow to the logistics chains that supply pre-packaged luosifen for China’s ecommerce platforms. Many sellers couldn’t obtain ingredients, or saw their production facilities close to meet COVID-19 safety measures. At the same time, ecommerce sites were seeing a major jump in traffic, as quarantine forced people to shift their shopping routines online. According to CNBC, Alibaba saw a year-over-year revenue increase of 34% during the April-to-June quarter, while ecommerce giant posted a year-over-year rise of 2,500%.

Earlier this year, when China’s residents were still under strict stay-at-home orders, Time Out Shanghai reported that luosifen was one of the top 20 best-selling foods on Taobao. But due to decreased supply coupled with increased demand, many shops sold out of luosifen, resulting in the dish generating even more craze among noodle lovers. Seemingly overnight, luosifen — the humble street snack — became gourmet.

Live streaming and video sharing also played a role in spurring enthusiasm for luosifen. When the easing of restrictions allowed factories to resume operations, many sellers turned to live streaming to win back their customers. Social media platforms such as Douyin saw luosifen makers demonstrating how to prepare the dish, and even fulfilling live orders. Some shops reported selling tens of thousands of packets during live stream sessions lasting just a couple hours. Food vloggers and bloggers also took to social media to chronicle their experiences of eating or making luosifen; a quick online search produces millions of images and videos singing the noodles’ praises.


Though this year has seen luosifen reach new heights, the luosifen industry had already been trying to capitalize on A Bite of China propelling the noodles into mainstream fascination. To standardize taste and preparation techniques, Liuzhou established the Liuzhou Luosifen Association in 2015, as well as the Liuzhou Snail Noodle Local Standard and the Prepackaged Liuzhou Snail Noodle Local Standard. The guidelines lay out specifications for aspects such as raw materials, industrial production, and food safety. These standards aim to ensure that luosifen will taste similar whether it’s sold in Guangzhou or Beijing, and in pre-packaged form or in a restaurant.

In May, Liuzhou Vocational and Technical College became China’s first college to offer a specialized course in how to prepare and market the signature dish. The college plans to enroll and train 500 students, with hopes that these soon-to-be luosifen masters will help further raise the visibility of the food.

China Daily reports that the sale of instant noodles actually dropped between 2013 and 2016. But the production-related improvements made by the luosifen industry could be addressing some of the concerns that led to diminishing enthusiasm for pre-packaged foods.

“People’s interest in traditional fried instant noodles has decreased,” Guo Xin, a marketing professor at Beijing Technology and Business University, told China Daily. “But the need to quickly solve the problem of eating has not disappeared. In the meantime, snail noodles that are delicious and slightly healthier than instant noodles have emerged as a new fast food.”

Even with stay-at-home measures already lifted across China, the luosifen love is still going strong, and isn’t showing signs of dissipating anytime soon. There are more than 10,000 online luosifen sellers in mainland China. Even the Liuzhou government has thrown its support behind this food, offering subsidies for any manufacturer that can achieve 50 million yuan ($7.4 million) of sales of luosifen in a year. In 2019, authorities in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region announced they had applied for UNESCO recognition of luosifen as an intangible cultural heritage.

The river snails have also recently showed up in an unlikely place: mooncakes, just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. In fact, the hashtag #luosifenmooncakes has generated a whopping 320 million views on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo.