The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY TAN YUNFEI (谭云飞)

Ru­ral chil­dren born in China dur­ing the 1970s and 80s can per­haps re­call stand­ing at grandma’s el­bow as she cooked steam­ing rice over fire­wood, hop­ing she’ll let them scrape the pot if they be­haved—a child­hood tra­di­tion sim­i­lar to Amer­i­cans “lick­ing the bowl” of a cake mix.

Grow­ing out of the Chi­nese cus­tom of let­ting no food go to waste, the guoba (锅巴, “cooked rice crust”), also called guo­jiao (锅焦, lit­er­ally “pan scorches”), jiaoguoba (焦锅巴) or fan­jiao (饭焦, “over­cooked rice”), is the crispy layer of slightly scorched rice that clings to the bot­tom and sides of the cooker or wok. With its tan­ta­liz­ing aroma and chewy tex­ture, it was an im­pro­vised treat at times when candy and pack­aged snacks were out-of-reach lux­u­ries.

Some peo­ple have tried pro­mot­ing guoba as “Chi­nese potato chips,” but this nick­name doesn’t do jus­tice to the snack cul­tur­ally. Guoba has been con­sumed since the Jin dy­nasty (266 – 420), ac­cord­ing to A New Ac­count of the Tales of the World《世说新语》( ), a com­pi­la­tion of char­ac­ter sketches and anec­dotes from the first to the sixth cen­tury. In one story, fil­ial army of­fi­cer Chen Yi of the Wu State hoards crusts for his mother, a guoba lover, un­til a sud­den war sends his army scur­ry­ing into the moun­tains, when he learns to sur­vive on guoba.

Af­ter­wards, guoba’s sta­tus rose as it be­came a sta­ple ad­di­tive to soups and other dishes. It reached its zenith un­der the Qing when the Qian­long Em­peror, who liked to dis­guise him­self as a com­moner and go on in­spec­tion tours of the realm, vis­ited a small restau­rant in Wuxi. The owner slapped to­gether a broth made of left­over shrimp and chicken, and poured it over guoba to serve. The sur­pris­ingly tasty re­sult, xi­aren guoba (虾仁锅巴, “shrimp ker­nel guoba”), was de­clared “the num­ber one dish un­der heaven.”

The ba­sic recipe of to­day’s xi­aren guoba re­mains the same: First, small shrimp is sea­soned with cook­ing wine and salt, mixed with egg whites, and fried with green peas, corn, and car­rots. When the mix is gold­en­brown, tomato sauce, su­gar, and wa­ter are added to form a broth, which is cooked for sev­eral min­utes, then poured onto guoba (ei­ther store-bought or home-made). When the boil­ing broth hits the crispy crust, it makes a siz­zling sound de­scribed as 平地一声雷 (“a sud­den sound of storm on ground”), which is an­other name for the dish it­self. It’s best en­joyed quickly be­fore the guoba goes soft.

Al­though Jiangsu prov­ince has its em­peror story, sev­eral other places claim to have their own unique ver­sion of the snack, in­clud­ing Sichuan’s sanx­ian guoba (三鲜锅巴, “guoba with three del­i­ca­cies”) and spicy guoba rou­pian (锅巴肉片,“guoba and sliced meat”), and Zhe­jiang’s fan­qie xi­aren guoba (番茄虾仁锅巴,“guoba with tomato and shrimp meat”). The es­sen­tials re­main the same: dif­fer­ent kinds of soup siz­zling over the hum­ble de­tri­tus of rice.

While guoba mostly re­tains the nat­u­ral home-cooked fla­vor it’s al­ways had in ru­ral areas, man­u­fac­tur­ers have rolled out var­i­ous mass-pro­duced in­ter­pre­ta­tions since the early 1990s, us­ing al­ter­na­tive in­gre­di­ents (mil­let, corn, bean) and ev­ery fla­vor imag­in­able (or unimag­in­able) to cap­ture young con­sumers’ hearts. Us­ing the pop­u­lar slo­gan “不尝不知道,一尝忘不掉” (“Won’t know ’til you try, won’t for­get once you try”), Xi’an’s Taiyang Foods Group sold 180 mil­lion RMB’S worth of Sun Rice Chips (太阳锅巴) in 1990 alone. Here, the tra­di­tional sta­ple snack is rein­ter­preted with 4-to-6-square­cen­time­ter bite-size pieces and fla­vors in­clud­ing cumin, pep­per, beef, bean, salt, and BBQ.

Cur­rently, the most searched-for guoba brand on Taobao, Wo­long Guoba (卧龙锅巴), boasts a “hand­made” ver­sion us­ing wood­fired ovens, like the ar­ti­sanal potato chips found in Whole Foods. Based in Xiangyang, Hubei prov­ince, the home­town of the leg­endary strate­gist Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮), the brand has cashed in on yet an­other lo­cal­ity’s guoba folk­lore: Sup­pos­edly, Zhuge’s wife “in­vented” the snack when she could find no other food to serve the vis­it­ing lord Liu Bei. What was once a left­over, an un­wit­ting dish for an em­peror, and a child­hood treat has be­come a multi-mil­lion-rmb snack in­dus­try; the taste has di­ver­si­fied, the recipe is dis­puted, and only the mem­ory re­mains.

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