Spicy strips - latiao 拷贝- Cover
Illustration by: Wang Siqi
FOOD

Stripped Down: The Story Behind China’s Favorite Snack

How simple, greasy, cheap “latiao” (literally ”spicy strips“) became the people’s snack

It seems that everyone who was a child in China during the 2000s has some memory of latiao. The spicy strips of greasy dough were the perfect cheap snack for students to blow their pocket money on. One could buy a tiny bag for 1 mao or even individual strips for 1 fen a pop after class, wipe the latiao grease off the keyboard between matches of Counter-Strike at the local internet cafe, or stealthily share with a classmate while the teacher’s back was turned.

Watch the video to find out how a local Beijing shop owner makes traditional latiao

Even TWOC’s editors, mostly born in the 1990s, have fond memories of the snack. “It was like currency to us,” says Hayley Zhao, who grew up in 2000s Beijing. “We bought it near the school and then traded it during recess.”

While the shape and taste of the snack vary slightly depending on the manufacturer, latiao of all kinds are united by a mix of recent history, culture, business, and politics that gave its status today as the “people’s snack.”

Humble beginnings

Latiao is one of China’s most ubiquitous snacks. Since it emerged in the 1990s in the south-central Hunan province, plastic packs of the snack have taken over shelves in supermarkets, mom-and-pop shops, convenience stores, and even street food stalls where they can be added to spice up a meal. “It was sold in small stores right outside the school gate, and there were also vendors selling them from the back of their tricycles,” Zhao remembers.

Some sellers still make it fresh to order, earning a modest living by selling fresh bowls of latiao to passersby for a few yuan each. Meanwhile, the biggest brands of the packaged latiao are now multi-billion yuan companies listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Last year, consumers bought over 100,000 tons of packaged latiao, contributing to a total production value of 60 billion yuan. Even during the pandemic, when other industries were reeling, the latiao business kept growing—probably due to a combination of low cost, widespread availability, and clever marketing by industry leaders like Weilong, which is known for simple but effective slogans like “Eat a pack of spicy strips to calm down!”

But the numbers today mask the inauspicious origins of this snack 20 years ago. In the summer of 1998, torrential rains in central China caused the heaviest flooding along the Yangtze River basin in half a century. Over 200 million people were affected, with an area twice the size of the Netherlands submerged and 15 million farmers losing their crops.

Hunan was one of the hardest-hit provinces. Amid nationwide food shortages and the rocketing price of soybeans, three business-savvy locals in the small town of Pingjiang sought a solution to the local food industry’s reliance on soybean flour. They substituted it with the more readily available wheat flour, which became the basis for latiao. An additional epiphany came when they visited a rice noodle factory in the city of Changde, saw machines squeezing out long strings (tiao) of noodles, and concluded it could be used on wheat dough. Once the wheat dough strips were processed, they added spicy (la) seasoning, and latiao (literally “spicy strips”) was born.

Rows of Weilong spicy strips, one of China's largest latiao manufacturers  line market shelves, latiao, Chinese snack

Various options of Weilong spicy strips, one of Chinas largest latiao manufacturers, line market shelves (VCG)

Pingjiang has since become home to 126 latiao businesses that employ a whopping 70,000 people involved in a local industry worth 20 billion yuan. But latiao manufacturing spread from Hunan, most notably to central China’s Henan province where businessman Liu Weiping founded Weilong Delicious—one of the oldest and largest latiao manufacturers, now a household name in China. Liu adapted the taste to be sweeter for Northeners unused to spicy food. Weilong became the first latiao company listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in late 2022, after their revenue had grown steadily from 3.4 billion yuan in 2019 to 4.8 billion yuan in 2021 at the height of the pandemic.

A dodgy reputation

In Tongzhou district on the southeastern outskirts of Beijing, far from Weilong’s mega factories, 53-year-old Xin Xianmin makes fresh, Henan-style latiao to order for 10 yuan a box. At the back of his shop, just a few square meters large and tucked up a small side street, are two machines: one to knead the dough, and one to squeeze out what looks like a long flat noodle. “When it comes out of there, it’s already cooked. I use scissors to cut it into short strips, season it, and it’s good to go,” Xin says, pointing to the machinery.

"Latiao" shop manager Xin Xianmin in front his Beijing based shop that makes Henan style latiao, latiao, Chinese snack

Xin Xianmin makes latiao of his native Henan style at his small shop in Beijing (Roman Kierst)

The manufacturing process is basically the same for small producers like Xin as it is for the big corporations, and hasn’t changed much over the years: Wheat-based flour is mixed with salt, water, and a few other ingredients, and made into a dense dough. This is then fed into the second machine, and cooked by pressure and heat in the process of being squeezed out. The long dough string is cut into shorter strips, and then seasoned.

Xin is originally from Sanmenxia in Henan and used to work in a small mom-and-pop latiao store. “We could sell a thousand yuan worth of latiao a day,” he says about his business in Henan, although his sales in Beijing have yet to reach that level. “The flour we source locally, but the right spices we can only order from Henan,” he says, motioning at containers with cumin, sesame, and various red powders sitting in a giant metal bowl.

This sense of place, of real and imagined geographic features that are believed to affect the taste of food and give it authenticity, is called terroir in wine-making. The terroir of latiao is all in the spices. “Weilong has four large factories where I’m from,” Xin says proudly.

A customer in her 20s appears at the door and orders a box of sweet and spicy flavored latiao. Xin gets to work. He prepares fresh latiao with base seasoning and then adds the flavors the customer asked for. She smiles behind her face mask when TWOC asks whether sweet and spicy is her favorite flavor: “To us born in the 1990s, this is the taste of our childhood,” she says.

That childhood love of latiao was to the chagrin of many parents and teachers who considered it unhealthy and unsanitary, especially after several food safety scandals in the early 2000s that vilified latiao as the ultimate junk food.

In 2005, state broadcaster CCTV exposed unsanitary conditions at several unlicensed latiao factories, many of them small family-run workshops that proliferated at the time due to the snack’s simple manufacturing process and low market entry barriers. Another CCTV report from that year exposed the use of prohibited food additives in latiao production.

Along with a growing number of more general food safety scandals, the most infamous resulting in the death of six babies from melamine-laced milk formula in 2008, adult consumers began to distrust the safety and nutritional value of latiao. “The school had the teachers give lectures about not buying food from outside vendors,” Zhao remembers. “But some older students had good rapport with the store owners, and made secret purchases at lunchtime through the holes in the school wall.”

Freshly made latiao shared by Beijing-based latiao shop owner, Yang Hua on her WeChat

Yang Hua, a Beijing-based latiao shop owner, shares a batch of freshly made products on her WeChat (screenshot from WeChat)

In 2018, the State Administration for Market Regulation even tried to curb the sale of junk food near schools. Latiao appeared first on their list of regulated foods that were deemed “unhealthy due to their high content of fat, sugar, salt, sweetener, and preservatives,” clocking in at around 500 calories per 100 grams.

Despite efforts like these, ultra-processed snacks continue to be readily available. But consumer concerns persist today: “My mom said latiao is made from plastic bags,” reads one comment under a popular 2022 video about latiao manufacturing on the social media platform Xiaohongshu. “My mom just threw my latiao in the trash, didn’t even get to eat a single strip,” reads another comment under the same video.

Economy of memories

“Our latiao is made without additives; just the dough, the seasoning we get from Ningxia, nothing else,” asserts 43-year-old Yang Hua from Beijing. It’s late afternoon, and a cold wind is blowing over the district of Changping on the northwestern outskirts of the capital. Still, customers are queuing outside and ordering through the window of Yang’s tiny shop, which is big enough to fit just herself.

Yang Hua busy preparing a latiao order for her customer in Beijing's Changping District

Yang Hua prepares latiao orders for customers lined up outside her small window front in Beijing’s Changping district (Roman Kierst)

Yang sells up to 15 kilograms of fresh latiao every day, made in her shop to order. Half a kilogram, served in a paper bowl, costs 15 yuan. For customers who live too far for food delivery services to reach, she sends their orders through the mail.

Yang stresses that her latiao is clean and above board. She has a business license, a food business certificate, and a sanitary certificate as stipulated by the Chinese Food Safety Law and the strict rules of China’s food delivery platforms.

“The packaged latiao is no good. Those additives will wipe humanity off the earth; they’re messing with our genes,” Yang’s husband interjects as he’s handing her a delivery of spices through the shop window.

Manufacturers are doing their best to change latiao’s reputation. The brand Weilong has ramped up efforts on social media to educate consumers about the sanitary and standardized manufacturing process. “I showed this to my mom, she finally let me eat latiao now,” reads one comment under a video posted by Weilong on Xiaohongshu.

There is even a museum dedicated to latiao (backed by the Food Association of Pingjiang and Mala Wangzi, a major local latiao brand) in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, which spreads the good word. A slogan above the entrance to the museum, which opened in 2020 and is free to enter, reads “Do you still dare eat latiao? Exposing the unknown truth.”

The slogan “Do you still dare eat latiao? sits atop the entrance of the Latiao Museum in Changsha, Hunan as people line up to enter

The slogan “Do you still dare eat latiao?” sits atop the entrance of the Latiao Museum in Changsha, Hunan province, as people line up to enter (VCG)

Inside, the museum looks like a lab, populated with staff dressed in white gowns handling microscopes and other scientific contraptions. In one room, large glass vats hold basic ingredients like flour and vegetable oil for visitors to inspect. In another room, spices like cassia bark are available for visitors to touch and smell. The message delivered here is that latiao is a healthy snack, made with just a few natural ingredients under strict standards. The museum is largely without branding but hosts a latiao eating competition that prominently features Mala Wangzi.

The same museum recently opened a temporary exhibition in Chengdu, with plans for additional pop-up events around China. “The museum in Chengdu was open for 16 days and attracted over 100,000 visitors…A lot of people said that after visiting the museum, they feel more at ease eating latiao now,” Li Manliang, museum director and vice manager of the Pingjiang Food Industry Association tells TWOC. He’s confident that Pingjiang’s 126 latiao businesses will benefit.

But latiao is not just for large corporations, it’s also for small sellers and their nostalgic customers. Back in Tongzhou, another customer appears at Xin’s cramped shop, a young man in his 20s. “It’s my comfort food. I’ll have it with my chicken tonight,” he says, pointing at a plastic bag of fried chicken in his right hand before heading back out into the cold Beijing winter afternoon. Despite a bumpy history, latiao remains China’s ultimate cheap comfort food. For just a few yuan, the chewy dough provides memories of childhood and simpler times—one spicy strip at a time.

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author Roman Kierst (小罗)

Roman Kierst is a staff writer and editor at The World of Chinese based in Beijing but much more at home in Chengdu, where his own China story first began as a high school exchange student in 2006. Likes to pick up a film camera occasionally to take pictures of (mostly) old places.