Liuzhou 柳州

Every Chinese city boasts with pride about its cuisine. Some go next level and build food museums. Liǔzhōu 柳州 has three.

But even aside these establishments, this city has one pivotal magnet for foodies – a dish that single-handedly immortalizes Liuzhou in gourmet minds: snail noodle, luósīfěn 螺螄粉. It consists of rice noodles in rich broth crowned with colorful toppings. The broth is based on river snails and various aromatic spices and the toppings include peanuts, crunchy tofu skin squares and pickled goodies under the leadership of bamboo shoots. It’s a perfect carrier of sourness and spicyness. The fragrance is intense and stimulates appetite. Its add-this-add-that nature made it adaptable into an instant dish: ingredients are vacuum-sealed in separate packets. A huge online bestseller in recent years, especially during the 2020 pandemic – China went crazy about the snail noodle.

Liuzhou is the second biggest city of Guizhou province after Nanning, the capital. It is associated with heavy industry rather than with tourism, even if it is surrounded by awe-inspiring karst scenery similar to that which makes the nearby Guilin one of China’s top travel destinations. Handsome limestone hillocks pop here and there, dictating the urban design. I climbed on one of them, Ma’anshan 马鞍山 or “Horse Saddle Hill”. Within the adjoining scenic area is a cave with Luohan Temple 罗汉寺. Ceremonies happened to be held that day and the shrine was packed. The air was filled with both monks’ chants and mixed fragrances: incense and cooking. Food in large bowls was waiting to be eaten by the gathered devotees.

The three museums of foodie interest are Liuzhou Cuisine Museum, Gui Cake Museum and Snail Noodle Museum. The latter was not yet ready during my visit (I was in the city in 2017 while it opened in 2018), so let me introduce you just the other two.

“Guì” 桂 is another name, or abbreviation, for Guangxi province. The Liuzhou Gui Cake Culture Museum (柳州市桂饼文化博物馆) focuses broadly on the regional pastry-making traditions. Not only cakes are covered but also various kinds of dumplings and pies, both sweet and savory. The amount of information and number of artifacts have exceeded my expectations. Just look at those wooden moulds and plastic recreations of multiple snacks. Workshops for kids were being held upon my visit, filling the place with life.

Liuzhou Cuisine Museum (柳州菜博物馆) introduces the city and its food. Several local dishes are explained in detail, there are also summaries of the Zhuàng 壮, Dòng 侗 and Miáo 苗 minority cuisines. General history of China’s culinary traditions compliments the array of infoboards. The number of faux dishes made of plastic is limited to just a few – which may come as a surprise if compared to most Chinese foodie museums.

It is mostly this: panels with text plus a few mildly interesting artifacts. The initiative and effort are still worth an applause. On the other hand, one may wonder if this place was created simply to bring attention to the onsite restaurant (or is it a restaurant with an onsite museum?). Anyways, they got me: I ordered home-style tofu 柳味家常豆腐, douchi and mud carp bitter gourd 豆豉鲮鱼苦瓜 and a side of Liuzhou pickle 柳州酸. The latter was cabbage alone, but “Liuzhou suān” can be many other vegs. While wandering around the city, I saw stalls and hawkers offering a wide choice of colorful preserves straight from jars. The pickling tradition seems alive.

Another street vendor was selling Rolling Horses 马打滚. These soft glutinous rice flour balls are stuffed with mildly sweet paste (made of beans or sesame) and rolled in tawny powder (soybean flour and brown sugar). You may have tried a similar snack in Beijing: Rolling Donkey 驴打滚. I bought some “horses” and ate them under a fig tree in the Park of Marquis Liu 柳侯公园. This charming green refuge in the heart of the city was created around the tomb of Liu Zongyuan, a Tang dynasty poet, statesman and lover of oranges.

Not far is the main city museum (the last one in this article, I promise). Liuzhou is relatively big and deserves a good museum. This one is quite decent indeed. I liked it better than the provincial-level one in Nanning. The ethnicities presentation is its main draw (hello, it’s Guangxi), even if rather basic, but the most unforgetable thing are the baffling plastic dinosaurs.

One should not limit oneself just to the famed snail broth variety while in Liuzhou – rice noodles are prepared in countless ways in Guangxi (as well as in neighboring provinces and in Vietnam). Let the pig trotter noodles 猪脚粉 on the photo below be an enticing example.

Yóutiáo 油条, deep-fried pieces of dough, paired with soy milk (dòujiāng, 豆浆) are a truly ubiquitous everyday (esp. breakfast) thing all over the country. As it’s wheaten food, I’ve always expected it to be tastier in the North. Alas! We came across a streetside youtiao fryer late in the evening. The perfection of the bean milk and doughnut sticks combo striked us. We wolfed it down with joy. My girlfriend (raised in the floury North) declared it the best youtiao+doujiang ever and I agreed. Here, deep in the South. Thank you, Liuzhou.