Guoba – from nuisance to delicacy

Many of mankind’s finest delicacies have been discovered by accident; sometimes literally. Cheese has probably been discovered when milk had been stored in a calf’s stomach sufficiently long enough for the rennet in the stomach to produce curds.

Problems cooks, professional or at home, often meet when preparing starchy foods in a frying pan is that part of it sticks at the bottom of the pan, forming a relatively hard layer that proves tough to get rid up. Scrubbing it is the only solution.

However, as long as the stuff that is stuck at the bottom is not too black and burnt, it can actually be very tasty. The physical-chemical reaction produces a whole range of aromochemicals that please the taste buds and the nose (though perhaps less so the eyes).

A waiter in a Spanish restaurant in Rotterdam once told me that the rice stuck at the bottom of the pan is the part they like best of their national food paella.

Pan is guo in Chinese and to stick ba. The phrase ba guo, getting stuck to the pan, is a negative cooking term. However, Chinese have also developed a liking for rice fried that way, and those two words turned around, guoba, have become the designation of a tasty snack.

Guoba as a dish

Guoba is a form of rice that is actually scorched or hard cooked to change its colour and texture. Guoba is popular in many forms of Chinese cuisine, particularly in Sichuan cooking. It is known by many names in different areas of China and surrounding countries, and may even be found worldwide in areas where Chinese cuisine is presented and appreciated.

GBnatural

Initially, guoba was made by burning or heavily cooking rice to the bottom of a wok or pot. When the cook took out the rice, the leftover rice was used in various dishes. Later, demand for this sort of rice dish led to the commercial preparation of blocks of this crisped rice.

Any kind of Chinese dish can be served with guoba. Some common forms of this scorched rice food include sweet and sour dishes, as well as other international Chinese favorites like lo mein, chow mein, or other dishes. The usual choices of meat, seafood, and vegetable elements like tofu and bean curd apply to many guoba dishes.

One thing that guoba offers to cooks is the chance to include a different kind of presentation based on the shape and texture of the rice. Cooks can serve the guoba, with heavy sauces or other elements, in blocks, or crumble the rice onto the plate. The scorched rice stands up to all sorts of innovative culinary uses, which makes it popular in many restaurant kitchens, especially where innovative aesthetic presentation is a part of the culinary strategy.

Another form of this food is a “sizzling rice soup” that has become common in some parts of the world. This is not the usual form of the food, so some cooks, even authentically Chinese ones, may not be aware of the use of scorched rice in this particular soup. The general use of the scorched rice in a thinner soup or broth is another way that the rice can be served for a contrasting taste experience.

Snack

Regular readers of my blog will already have noticed that Chinese are masters in re-creating modern snack food (or in their own terminology: leisure food) from traditional dishes. This is also the case with guoba.

Already in the 1980s, Chinese snack makers launched small squares of guoba with various flavours as the Chinese alternative to the Western potato crisps. When I was stationed in China for my company, we regularly served guoba with the aperitifs when entertaining Dutch or other international guests. The all loved them.

ShGuoba

The first picture shows a package of guoba produced by Xishilai Food (Shanghai) and come in: chili, beef, five spices and BBQ flavours. The ingredients listed:

Rice, maize, vegetable oil, salt, crystal sugar, MSG, spices, additives (food flavours, rising agent, antioxidant).

GBerge

The alternative is onion-flavoured guoba produced by Sha’erge (Crazy Brother) from Dongguan (Guangdong). It has black rice as one of its ingredients, which is advertised as ‘black pearls’ or ‘the king of rice’, due to its nutritional qualities. The producer claims that this product contains vitamins A and B as well as calcium, potassium and magnesium. Ingredients:

Rice, black rice, refined vegetable oil, soybeans, starch, eggs, shortening, refined pork fat, salt, MSG, onion spices.

Guoba as market for flavour mixes

Some flavour houses have already discovered the guoba industry as a separate market segment and have develop special seasoning mixes for guoba. Beijing-based Shanwei Puda Food supplies 4 types: five spices, beef, BBQ and cumin. The ingredients list provided for the cumin mix is as follows.

salt, sugar, MSG, spices, cumin powder, food additives (not specified)

The manufacturer advises a dosage rate of 4% -6% of the weight of the end product.

Innovation: peanut guoba

Guoba has already developed as a generic type of snack in the Chinese food industry. The concept is now further stretched to guoba made from other raw materials than the traditional. Zhenyuantong (Huzhou, Zhejiang) has launched a peanut guoba. The ingredients list reads as follows:

White sesame seeds, peanuts, maltose syrup, flour, vegetable oil, coconut meat, coconut milk powder, salt.

PeanutGuoba

The company also produces: melon seed guoba:

Melon seeds, crystal sugar, flour, vegetable oil, salt.

and:

White sesame seeds, crystal sugar, flour, vegetable oil, chili oil, salt.

We are eagerly awaiting the following product to add to this post!

Eurasia Consult’s database of the Chinese food industry includes 59 producers of various types of guoba.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

 

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Train food in China

Trains are a vital means of transportation in China. Although air travel is as common as in China the US nowadays, the Chinese government keeps investing huge amounts of money in updating the railroad system and new trains. China already has the world’s largest high speed rail system.

Heavily packed

Chinese train travelers are without exception heavily packed. However, at least half the load they carry onto the train is not their actual luggage, but food, and drinks. Entire loaves of bread and hole packs of sausages, cartons of hard boiled eggs and instant noodles, obviously, baskets with apples, and other fruits; and tea.

The tea comes in the form dried leaves. You bring your own mug as well and as soon as you have settled in, you place your mug with a handful of tea leaves on the small table in each compartment. Every Chinese train comes with a number of boilers. A train attendant will pass by about every half hour with a thermos flask with boiling water to fill your mug, again and again. If that is still not enough to satisfy your thirst, you can go to the boiler yourself to fill your mug, or perhaps your own small vacuum flask. One helping of tea leaves is usually enough to get you through the day.

After settling in on their seats or berths, and after getting their first infusion of tea, the next collective activity of Chinese train travelers is unpacking. No, not their pyjamas or playing cards, or whatever they could use for entertainment, but food. In no time, the small tables almost collapse under the heavy load of ham sausages, eggs, water melons, fried chickens, biscuits, tangerines. Every food you can name is there, as well as a few items you may not be able to name.

One of the Mongolian's cabins. Smelly mongolian food strewn about. Gross.

All that eating is bound to create waste: sausage skins, eggshells, watermelon seeds, and skins, chicken bones. A lot of that ends up on the floor. However, the train attendants will take care of that as well. After a round with the thermos flasks, they soon return with their brooms, to sweep the leftovers of their hungry guests to a waste bin at the end of each wagon. It takes getting used to for the beginning Western train traveler in China.

Train food

All this long distance train travelling has affected the Chinese food industry. I dedicated an earlier post in this blog to ‘leisure food’, a typical Chinese food category. Of course, these foods are consumed in all means of transportation, but trains certainly have the edge.

Instant noodles have risen to top position. They are cheap, convenient and tasty. As all trains in China provide hot water, instant noodles have become the most popular hot food on a train, because they can be made anytime.

While instant noodles are the typical staple foods during long haul train rides in China, snack food in small packs are the ideal dishes to add some flavour to the relatively bland noodles. Beef jerky, various parts of the duck, steamed chicken feet, dried bean curd, any nut or seed you can think of, pickled vegetables like zhacai, as long as it comes in a palm-size pack, it works for train travelers.

TrainFoodVar

If soaking noodles in hot water is too time consuming for you, you can opt for a liquid staple. Canned porridge in China usually contains nuts, dried fruits and grains, and is sweet flavoured. Young passengers will like it and adults can take it as dessert.

The second favourite activity of Chinese train travelers is sleeping. A full belly makes you sleepy. However, the refreshing activity of tea can be a spoilsport here. A good alternative for train travelers who want to kill a few hours by sleeping is beer. You will find a few cans of beer in the luggage of many Chinese train passengers. And when your last can is empty, you can usually buy more in the dining carriage.

Other moments to replenish your food and drink stock are the stops at stations. Trains will stop for a few up to ten minutes, which usually gives you just enough time to buy a few cans of beer, some freshly steamed buns (mantou), or a bag of peanuts.

Frui for sale on the platform

Dining carriage

Spending such a long time in a restricted space, is bound to become tedious sooner or later. You can chat with your travel companions, but the moment will come that you have exhausted all topics you may want to discuss. You can play cards, read, listen to music, but it all will become repetitive.

There are three peak events to look forward to on long Chinese train rides: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is not because they are such a culinary tour de force. Neither is it because you are hungry. You have spent most of the time that you are awake eating, and there are few opportunities to burn calories. Still, few people skip a meal, simply because meals are served in the diner, so you finally have an occasion to walk and get some exercise. And you can sit on a chair, instead of a berth, or one of the small fold out chairs in the corridors.

TrainDiner

A typical train meal consists of a bowl of lukewarm rice and a couple of greasy dishes. You usually get more flavour from the foods that you brought yourself than from what you get served in the diner. However, with the modernisation of the Chinese railway system towards the world’s largest high speed train network, the production of train food is also updated. The following picture shows a cold-chain packed meal produced by the Beijing Railway Service Company, with an expiry time of 72 hours.

RailFoodBox

The following video gives an impression about how train meals are served in China.

To summarise: eating and drinking on Chinese trains is not a haut cuisine experience, but it is one of the best occasions to experience a symphony of all aspects of Chinese food and culture.

Food delivery in high speed trains

As of late july, 27 high-speed train stations are providing a pilot food-on-demand service to passengers, who can pre-order food from a selection of the outlets at the stations. The service serves as an apt response to the meal box monopoly. Complaints about the expensive, tasteless meal boxes offered on high-speed trains are not rare, and many passengers prefer to take instant noodles with them or else not eat at all while traveling by train. So the takeouts-on-demand that can be ordered via China Railway Corp’s website or its app two hours before the train is scheduled to arrive at a selected station could be a savior to those hungry travelers who have no interest in the meal boxes. The pre-order service costs as much as that offered by popular food delivery apps like Eleme, except the delivery fee is around RMB 8, which is slightly higher than in cities.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.