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 aromachemicals 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.

It had been relatively quiet on the guoba scene in terms of new developments. However, Wolong Shenchu (Divine Cook) from Hunan province launched a new type of guoba in 2018: Wolong Guoba.

The crackers look more slick than the first products and they are marketed in a high-end position, as if it is a very traditiional Chinese product. The ingredients list:

Rice, vegetable oil, chili, Sichuan pepper, spics, salt

This is definitely a healthier formulation that has cut on fat and MSG.

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 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

 

Leisure food – A food group strongly embedded in Chinese culture

The existence of a category like leisure food in Chinese food statistics is rooted in the laid back nature of Chinese culture

Entering a typical Chinese supermarket and looking around at the distribution of foods and beverages on the shelves, one indication that may strike you as unfamiliar, of even odd, is ‘Leisure food’, xiuxian shipin in Chinese.

Leisure and food are a match made in heaven in any culture, but there is no nation that created a more harmonious marriage between those two concepts than the Chinese. Visit any historic site in a Chinese city, and you will be amazed about the choice of snacks and drinks that are on sale in small shops or by street vendors.

When you then zoom in on the domestic tourists, you will have a hard time spotting one who is not eating or drinking, or at least visibly carrying food in their bags, ready to take it out and have a bite.

Before getting to those sites, or scenic spots, you need to travel. China is a huge country, so travelling can take time, and the best way to kill time in any culture is . . . eating. Chinese airports, train stations and long distance bus terminals are genuine food streets, offering everything the easily bore passengers may want to keep themselves, and their facial muscles in particular, busy. Eating has thus become the favourite way to pass the time on long haul rides in China.

Chinese high school and university students are also an important consumer group of leisure foods. Bakery products and meat snacks are their favourite foods during breaks.

All this has led to the coining of the category leisure food in the Chinese food industry.

It has become an officially recognized term. The library of Eurasia Consult has a collection of Food Industry Yearbooks starting with 1985 until the early 2000s, when the Internet rendered those paper information carriers unnecessary. Leisure Food is a separate section in those books, like the separate shelf for those products in Chinese supermarkets.

Leisure food is a hybrid collection of foods comprising:

One source divides leisure foods in the following subcategories:

Type main market customers outlets consumption mode
Private consumption home family members Residential areas, special shops, convenience stores At home
Travel food travelling travellers local special shops, supermarkets , airports, railroad stations, tourist spots Travelling, gift giving
Gifts Gift giving people in need of gifts special shops, supermarkets Gift giving

What I especially like in this division is the category of ‘gifts’. It always a nice gesture to bring home local delicacies when returning from a trip. And with a country as large and varied as China, there are more local specialties than a person can bring home in a life time. Moreover, gifts play a key role in Chinese culture. This is why Chinese airports and larger railway stations sell local foods in fancy gift packaging. People do not buy those to eat themselves, but to give them to relatives and friends.

The following graph shows the market shares of various categories of leisure food of December 2019.

 

Market size and value

There are more than 4000 manufacturers of leisure food in China.The leisure food industry in 2018 was worth RMB 1029.7 bln; up 12%. Insiders expect that the value of this market will reach RMB 1298.4 bln by 2020.

Ingredients

It is an interesting market for suppliers of food ingredients. Preservation is key term here, not only referring to keeping the bugs out, but also the preservation of the flavor, color and texture.

This sector is also an interesting market for suppliers of food packaging machinery. All of the above mentioned products need to be packed in small portions, that can be conveniently stowed in ones pocket or hand bag. The preferred size is the single-portion package; a pack you open and empty in one leisurely moment, without the need to close and seal it for the next moment.

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Trends for 2017

  • Leisure food should be tasty, novel and healthy. Snacks are by definition tasty. Consumers will only make repeat purchases and remember the brand if a snack is delicious. Chinese consumers are eager to try new leisure foods. As long as a product is novel and interesting, they are willing to give it a go. As Chinese are becoming increasingly health conscious, growing numbers place great emphasis on the nutrition facts of nibbles, such as those that are low in sodium, sugar and fat. This also includes additives in general. If more flavourings are added in order to create exciting taste, it can may Chinese consumers, who are now avid readers of ingredients lists, suspicious.
  • Small Packs are the trend. A very prominent trend is packs are getting smaller and smaller. Factors driving the growing demand for leisure food in mini packs are convenience, hygiene, pricing and visual impression. Mini packs can satisfy consumers’ demand for “convenient and hygienic one-off consumption”. They are particularly popular with female consumers who prefer snacks that can be eaten in one go. With large packs, if the food inside cannot be consumed straight away after they are opened, some consumers would not want to eat it again afterwards as they would consider it to be neither fresh nor hygienic.

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 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.