A staple treat’s long journey to becoming a national snack
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.
This is subscriber exclusive content
Become a subscriber to continue reading
Rice, Crispy is a story from our issue, “Curiosities and Quests.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.