Originally a regional specialty from the southern Chinese city of Liuzhou, Luo Si Fen (螺蛳粉) has quickly become the rage in China over the last few year, spawning a crop of restaurants and ready-to-eat products in supermarkets across the country. I was, like many people, initial skeptic quickly turned believer with my first taste.
The dish consists of rice noodles boiled and served in a soup made from a stock made from river snails and pork bones which are stewed for hours with black cardamom, fennel seed, dried tangerine peel, cassia bark, cloves, white pepper, bay leaf, licorice root, sand ginger, and star anise. The soup does not usually contain any snail meat but pickled bamboo shoot, pickled green beans, shredded wood ear, fu zhu, fresh green vegetables, peanuts and chili oil are usually added.
As I’m not in China to make a personal pilgrimage, I’ll have to settle for instant packaged versions to be cooked at home; specifically, a little comparison between the five brands that was available in Yamibuy at the time of writing:
柳全(Liu Quan) VS 好欢螺(Hao Huan Luo) VS 螺霸王(Luo Ba Wang) VS 螺状元(Luo Zhuang Yuan) VS 嘻螺会(Xi Luo Hui)
(There was also 寄杨轩 and 桂之印 but they were out of stock at the time and has been ever since).
(I’m not getting a commission from Yamibuy, although I probably should be…)
For those of you lazy asses who don’t want to read all the details and look at all the (pretty) pictures, the TL;DR overall ranking is 柳全/Liu Quan (best fu zhu/rice noodle/soup base) > 螺霸王/Luo Ba Wang (best chili oil) > 好欢螺/Hao Huan Luo > 螺状元/Luo Zhuang Yuan (best peanuts) > 嘻螺会/Xi Luo Hui
The namesake river snails are the core ingredient in the base stock, rather than appearing in the final bowl itself (although you can opt to add-on meat like beef brisket or pork belly, so I’m sure there’s a variation where you can get actual river snail). There’s doesn’t result in any ‘snail’ flavors in the end product; instead, they’re essential in providing the “fresh” component of the soup base (鲜, or umami, even though I dislike that inadequate translation).
The soup then serves as a backdrop to unite the other key elements in a bowl of luo shi fen: the funk and saliva-inducing tartness of the pickled bamboo shoots and green beans; the fragrance and fiery burn of the chili oil; the crunch and flavor of deep fried tofu sheets (fu zhu) saturated with broth; the crispness and nutty aroma of fried peanuts; and the slippery, toothsome rice noodles that catches all of the above with every mouthful (jesus christ that is way too much fucking words to write about noodles, I feel like I need to go to Food Addiction Anonymous).
It’s infamous for it’s really pungent smell (mainly from the pickled bamboo shoots), I actually don’t think it’s as bad as described but I have high tolerance in that area so cook with an open window, or when no one’s home, or just deal with it.
好欢螺(Hao Huan Luo)
- This was the only one that include an actual package of de-shelled river snail meat, these were fine: fresh enough but not notable either
- The deep fried fu zhu had a strong soybean flavor but also a stale grease smell
- The worst pickled bamboo out of all five, horrible stink (not the usual funk from pickles) and had a unpleasant chemical aftertaste
- Noodles were pretty good; smooth, elastic and toothsome, a bit on the soft side
- Chili oil is quite spicy, the kind where it immediately hits the back of your throat and makes you cough but had little aroma/flavor
- Soup base was too acidic and salty, artificial tasting and lacked the natural richness/depth the other brand’s had
螺霸王(Luo Ba Wang)
- Bouncy, chewy, quality thick rice noodles
- Soup base was above average; enough richness for it to be flavorful yet drinkable, the vinegar added a mellow , natural tang that offset any heaviness
- Fried fu zhu is exceptional: very fresh (smelled like they were just fried), thick enough to have a satisfying bite and really soak up the soup
- Chili oil is fantastic and undeniably the soul of this bowl; really highlights the umami-freshness in the broth and adds dimension; very aromatic but not spicy, the heat builds up but doesn’t linger
- Egg is my own addition and not included
螺状元(Luo Zhuang Yuan)
- The best peanut out of the five: like the fu zhu from Luo Ba Wang above, this smelled and tasted like it was straight out of the fryer; very fragrant, crunchy, and nutty
- Fu zhu is good, just slightly stale
- Rice noodles have a different texture than the other brands: rather than being elastic or toothsome, these ones have a crisp bite to them (not from being undercooked, but from the noodles having a harder center core than the others)
- The most natural and lightest soup base, less complexity/deepness and slightly more sour than the others
- Chili oil had low heat, but good flavor and fragrance
嘻螺会(Xi Luo Hui)
- Peanuts were bland
- Fu zhu were limp and had no flavor
- Noodles were good, elastic with a nice pull but a tad soft
- Soup certainly was wasn’t bland: salty, sour with a nice deep flavor but too heavy to be drinkable
- I guess everything else was so average I didn’t even bother to take notes 🤷🏻♀️
- The bomb ass fu zhu/tofu crisp, best out of the five 💣: not only do they taste just-fried-super-fresh, they were still crisp and had a natural sweetness from the soybean
- Best rice noodle for me, I’m very very particular about the texture of noodles and these ones are ultra elastic, very bouncy, exactly that “QQ” mouthfeel you’re looking for
- Chili oil had good amount of aroma and heat without being heavy or overbearing
- Also the best soup base, it’s deep, rich and flavorful, with a strong fermented funk undertone from the pickles, a lot of layers to be savored
- Peanut were fine, if not as aromatic as other brands