The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s luosifen soup is a fantasia of flavors that doesn’t deserve its pungent reputation

Luosifen noodle soup from the Yanzi Noodle House food stall in New York Mart in Rockville, Md. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
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Luosifen noodle soup’s reputation precedes it. Some have described it as “barnyardy” or “pungent” or even, rather archly, “the world’s smelliest noodle.” Some apparently think it should be classified as a bioweapon.

But as I sit in my car, drifting my nose above a bowl of luosifen perched on my steering-wheel tray, I’m struggling to detect anything remotely off-putting about the soup from Yanzi Noodle House in Rockville, Md. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for trouble. I’m just perplexed. How can luosifen’s reputation be so far removed from the river snail noodle soup right in front of me? Did chef Audrey Keenan go easy on me? Has Western media played up the soup’s funk in yet another sorry attempt to exoticize a foreign dish? Have my olfactory senses finally collapsed, several months after contracting the coronavirus?

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The noodle soup that I’m slurping is a fantasia: Flavors amplify and fade, amplify and fade, over and over. Chile oil tingles my lips, then disappears. Vinegar zips across my palate, then recedes. Sweet spices — maybe Chinese cinnamon? Maybe cloves? Maybe star anise? Maybe all the above? — tickle my nostrils, then retreat. Beneath it all, as if it were the grid that sends out these charges, is a steady undercurrent of river snails, their aromas an amalgam of fish and dried mushroom.

The rice noodles, fat and absorbent, ferry these flavors in each pale white strand, sometimes accompanied by a muscular section of pork, a dried square of tofu skin or a crisp cylinder of sour green bean. In the weeks since I was introduced to luosifen, I have fallen hard for it, to the point where I want to understand how it developed such a bad rep — and whether it is truly warranted.

On the phone with Keenan, I put the question to her. She’s a native of Liuzhou, a prefecture-level city in China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It’s the home of luosifen, a name that basically translates into a series of nouns: “snail rice noodle.” Keenan and I have held brief, halting chats in English at her stall inside New York Mart, but to better facilitate a real conversation, I asked Lydia Chang, daughter of the esteemed Lisa and Peter Chang, to serve as interpreter.

So, I wondered, how did luosifen become the durian of soups?

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“The noodle soup that she had back home is not supposed to be stinky or with any kind of pungent or unpleasant flavors,” said Chang, interpreting for Keenan. However, Chang related, Keenan “believes that when it becomes a processed food, that’s when you would experience the unpleasant flavor because of processing.”

This is where the story becomes even more fascinating. Since its creation in the late 1970s or early 1980s — its origin story is far muddier than the soup — luosifen has risen from semi-obscure street food to national obsession in China. Its popularity has been driven by a variety of factors: The soup’s brief appearance in “A Bite of China,” a hit documentary on the state TV network; the wholesale manufacturing of prepackaged luosifen; and pure pandemic ennui, as quarantined residents took to Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) to talk luosifen and drive demand to such heights that it led to shortages.

An executive with the Liuzhou Luosifen Association said last year that sales of prepackaged luosifen surpassed 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in 2020, a 60 percent increase over the previous year. Some 2.5 million packets are produced daily in China to meet the demand. You can now buy the stuff on Amazon, like I did.

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My luosifen kit came with eight packets of ingredients, including one for the snail meat. Across the top of the snail packet, the manufacturer had added the phrase, “I love the Smell,” the last word capitalized as if the stink’s fame had reached proper-noun status. Prepackaged luosifen is sometimes described as “instant,” but depending on what method you use, it can take more than an hour to prepare. Regardless, by the time I was done reheating and eating the soup, I didn’t notice anything that would rise to the level of stink, let alone bioweapon.

But after slurping the last noodle, I took my sauce pan (yes, I ate straight out of the pot; it’s a pandemic, people!) back into the kitchen, and that’s when it hit me: Barnyard aromas and the concentrated funk of dried mushrooms lingered in the air. They weren’t unpleasant. They reminded me of Chinese herbal medicine shops, and I love the smell of those places.

I can tell you this: The prepackaged luosifen is a wan imitation of the soup Keenan prepares at Yanzi. For the broth, she will simmer chicken, pork and beef bones with fresh, not frozen, snails that she buys at New York Mart. She says fresh snails will never offend your senses. She also processes her own sour bamboo, which some consider the actual source of the Smell, not the snails (though, I found nothing objectionable about the bamboo, either). She will pack a bowl with whatever add-ins you order — the preserved vegetables, wood-ear mushrooms and pork are a must — along with containers and/or bags of tofu skin, peanuts, infused vinegar and chile paste to garnish and ignite your soup to suit your tastes.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Keenan is a one-woman show at Yanzi, which is the nickname by which she is known among friends and family. Her American husband, Jim Keenan, whom she met and married in Liuzhou in 2008, occasionally works the counter, but it is Audrey Keenan who has the knowledge and the practiced hands to make the signature soup. Even without a line of customers, it may take her 10 or 15 minutes to prepare your meal. Calibrate your expectations accordingly should you venture to Rockville.

Yanzi, of course, isn’t the only food vendor at New York Mart. There are many other things to like at the food court, though not the seemingly random hours of some operators. I’ve savored the hua juan (flower rolls) and the pork-sauerkraut buns at the Shaxian Appetizers stand. I was floored by the shrimp and vegetable tempura (if not the oversize nigiri) at Inari Sushi. And I adored the Shanghai steam-fried pork buns and the Shanghai wonton soup at a stall that operates under the name Chef of DeKang Wu.

But it’s the luosifen soup — the first that I’ve seen in the D.C. area — that has captured my attention, and my cravings, just like it has with millions back in China. It definitely doesn’t stink.

Yanzi Noodle House

15108 Frederick Rd., inside New York Mart, Rockville, Md., 301-777-8888.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Nearest Metro: N/A

Prices: $6.99 to $39.99 for snacks, noodle soups and entrees.