Noodles inspired by ‘industrial thinking’

While the Covid-19 pandemic almost obliterated the restaurant industry worldwide, the crisis turned out to be a blessing for luosifen makers.

Years before the pandemic began, noodle makers in Liuzhou were brewing an idea to take a different path from those exporting local specialty foods to other parts of China by opening chain restaurants or shops, such as Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles and Sha Xian Xiao Chi — or Sha county snacks.

The ubiquity of chains offering these foods in branches all over the country is the result of deliberate efforts of local governments to turn their famous dishes into semi organized franchises.

A humble city in southwestern China, Liuzhou is a key base for the automotive industry, accounting for about 9% of the country’s total auto production, according to city government data. With a population of 4 million, the city is home to more than 260 car parts manufacturers.

By 2010, luosifen had already earned a following after being featured in hit culinary documentary “A Bite of China.”

Specialized luosifen chains started to pop up in Beijing and Shanghai. But despite some initial fanfare and a government push, in-store sales fell flat.

Then in 2014, Liuzhou entrepreneurs had an idea: Mass produce the noodles and package them.

At first, it wasn’t easy. The noodles, first made in shabby workshops, would only last for 10 days. Authorities cracked down on some workshops over hygiene concerns.

The setbacks didn’t slow the momentum in a city renowned for its assembly and standardization capabilities.

As more luosifen workshops popped up, the Liuzhou government started to regulate production and award licenses to factories that met certain requirements, according to state media.

Government efforts have led to more research and upgraded technologies in food prep, processing, sterilization and packaging. Nowadays, most luosifen packages on the market have a shelf life of up to six months, which allows people, near or far, to enjoy the same flavors with minimal preparation.

“In inventing the luosifen packages, Liuzhou people borrowed the ‘industrial thinking’ of the city,” Ni says.

Soul of the soup

While the snail may stand out as the most unusual ingredient in luosifen, local bamboo shoots are what give soul to the noodle soup.

Luosifen’s arguably off-putting scent comes from fermented “suan sun” — sour bamboo shoots. Despite being produced in a factory, every bamboo shoot packet sold with luosifen is handmade according to Liuzhou traditions, say manufacturers.

Bamboo shoots are highly prized in China, their crunchy and tender texture making them a supporting ingredient in many gourmet recipes.

But as bamboo grows fast, the taste window for its shoots is extremely short, which poses challenges for preparation and preservation.

To retain the utmost freshness, farmers in Liuzhou’s suburbs get up before dawn for the hunt. Aiming for the tip of the plant, as it’s just surfacing from the ground, they carefully cut off the shoots above the rhizome. Before 9 a.m., the plants are harvested and handed to the processing factories.

The bamboo shoots will then be unsheathed, peeled and slivered. The slices will sit in the pickling liquid for at least two months.

The secret sauce of pickling, according to Ni, is the mix of local Liuzhou spring water and aged pickle juice. Every new batch contains 30 to 40% of the old juice.

The ensuing fermentation isn’t just a waiting game. It also needs to be mindfully monitored. Seasoned “pickle sommeliers” are paid to sniff the “sour bamboo shoots” to track the fermentation stages.

Convenient healthy food

Though it admittedly draws inspiration from convenience food, packaged luosifen shouldn’t be classed as such, says Ni. Instead, he prefers to refer to it as a “local specialty food,” because neither the quality nor the freshness has been compromised.

“Luosifen producers use spices — star anise, numbing peppers, fennel and cinnamon — as natural preservatives in addition to flavorings,” Ni says. “Depending on the recipe, there are at least 18 spices in the broth.”

Rather than adding flavoring powders, the luosifen broth — often condensed in packets — is created through protracted cooking processes, with bulks of snails, chicken bones and pig marrow bones sitting in rolling boils for more than 10 hours.

The elaborate process also applies to the rice noodles — the main character of the dish. From grinding grains to steaming to drying to packaging, it takes at least seven procedures carried out over two full days — already a largely shortened time thanks to automation — to achieve the foolproof “al dente” state.

However cooked, the noodles will turn silky and slippery, while setting off all the bold flavors in the bowl.

“People staying home now have higher expectations for convenience food. And it’s much more than filling the belly; they want to engage in a ritual to make something delicious,” Shi says.

Post time: May-23-2022