Red characters rhyme.
Yu Shibiao 俞士彪 (fl. 17th century) was a native of Qiantang 錢塘 (modern Hangzhou) and a poet of the local Xiling 西陵 School of ci 詞 (lyrics) writing. The title says he was travelling near Suichang (in modern Zhejiang), but except for that, we know nothing about why and when he made this trip. There is really no profound meaning I’d like to extract from the poem. I just enjoy its simplicity, clarity, and the calm tone, which fit perfectly with the routine experience of a traveller in the mountains.
What first caught my attention was actually jiaofan 焦飯 (burnt rice). On the rare occasions when burnt rice appears in literature, it often alludes to the Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 anecdote about Chen Yi 陳遺 (fl. 4th century) whose mother liked eating burnt rice. Because of his mother, Chen Yi developed a habit of collecting burnt rice at his workplace and brought it back to his mother when he went home. One day he was suddenly enlisted in a hastily planned campaign. His troop was defeated and fled to the mountains where they struggled to find food. In the end, many starved to death, whereas Chen Yi survived thanks to the burnt rice he had collected in his bag. His survival has been considered a reward for his filial piety.
In Yu Shibiao’s poem, however, the burnt rice doesn’t seem to be an allusion to Chen Yi’s anecdote. Instead, it is literally burnt rice, genuine food that provides energy for a traveller in the mountains.
When I stayed in the mountains, I got a big bowl of rice topped with a layer of burnt rice at my first lunch in the canteen of the Jiufeng Villa. My first reaction was, “Oh, the rice was burnt. What a shame!” But on second thought, I wondered whether the kind hostess would really serve something undesirable in such an explicit way to a new guest. I sat down, thinking to myself, “Maybe they also like burnt rice.” The next moment the cook walked in with a warm smile and, of course, some burnt rice in her hand, asking me, “Isn’t it nicely burnt?” There we go. (Another day when the hostess had to serve normally cooked rice, she apologised for it.)
This brought back the memory of guobafan 鍋巴飯 (cooked rice with a scorched layer on the bottom) that I had eaten only when I was little and when non-stick cookware wasn’t prevalent. Compared to the straightforward expression jiaofan (“burnt rice”), the alternative term guoba 鍋巴 (literally “pot adherents”) perhaps sounds less off-putting. In fact, guoba is considered a good snack by many, although the packaged guoba nowadays is quite different from that in the pot.
Faced with this surprising re-encounter with guobafan, my mind was occupied with contemplation about how people discovered the beauty of burnt rice. It perhaps started from the pursuit of a different texture and flavour in a pot of otherwise boringly nicely cooked rice. Indeed, when cooked rice is appropriately scorched, it becomes crunchy and gives a different flavour. Moreover, cooked rice is easier to store or take on the road this way, as attested by Chen Yi and Yu Shibiao.
Such culinary diversions from the norm don’t always work for everybody. When I brown meat, for example, my father always looks very anxious and as if tempted to grab the pan or turn off the fire. Every time I have to try very hard to stop him from “salvaging” my meat and convince him that it is not “burnt.” In the case of guoba, it has always been associated with bad cooking and never welcomed in my family. But as the re-encounter had brought me so many thoughts, I was ready to adjust my view by the end of my lunch.
"Guanshan xinglü" 關山行旅 (Travellers in the mountains) by Guan Tong 關仝 (ca. 907-960)
Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei
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