A Bite of China: Diet culture, a Chinese taste

A Bite of China, a gourmet-oriented documentary, made its debut on CCTV on 2012 without any publicity campaign and has sparked heated discussion since then. Broadcast on fringe time, a hackneyed theme and numerous competitors in the time interval… All of these impose no impact on the 7-episode documentary series. It shot to fame immediately and becomes the key word searched on various websites.

Confucius Institute Reporter
Gao Yanqun
本刊记者 高燕群
“It’s challenging to watch this documentary in the evening! I keenly smelt the fragrance of delicacies. Would I add a supper before bedtime?” “I’m on a diet. How ‘self-abusive’ it is to watch the documentary in the evening!” A Bite of China, a gourmet-oriented documentary, made its debut on CCTV on May 14, 2012 without any publicity campaign and has sparked heated discussion since then. Broadcast on fringe time, a hackneyed theme and numerous competitors in the time interval… All of these impose no impact on the 7-episode documentary series. It shot to fame immediately and becomes the key word searched on various websites.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO PRODUCE DELICACIES?

Once broadcast, A Bite of China has triggered “gourmet effects”. Just five days after the series’ debut, nearly 6 million people went online in search of various local specialties. Surprisingly, in the documentary capturing people’s stomach, there are no famous chefs or experts. It doesn’t touch upon eight cuisines and exquisite culinary skills.

The most moving part of the documentary is “ordinary”. Characters therein are ordinary people: two brothers digging lotus root manually, a businessman manufacturing bamboo shoot via secret prescription handed down from ancestors, a fisherman leader in his seventies, an old man selling yellow buns, a girl making rice cake with her grandmother… they’re so ordinary that they look like our family members and friends. Having said that, they are exceptional – they’re grateful to the endowment of the nature, respect tradition, use cooking wisdoms like transformation, pickling and air drying to produce fine foods rich in color, taste and flavor. They pay attention to the harmony of five flavors and are happy to share with others. From the collection of ingredients, traditional production skills to stories about gourmet, the documentary depicts numerous laborers in China who carry forward the story of food culture through surefooted and plain efforts. Each and every story is indicative of thousand-year transmission of catering tradition and accumulated wisdom.

Chinese people’s affection for delicious food is originated from their love towards life. Enjoying delicious food is nothing but enjoying happiness brought by life.

By rejecting the large and all-inclusive method of average documentaries, the documentary introduces foods that can be seen in daily life like telling stories. Together with exquisite pictures and artistic voiceover, every delicacy and ingredient are made “lively”. Tibetan girl Drolma and her mother walked over a dozen of hours a day on mountain roads simply for collecting precious ingredient pine mushroom in the rainy season and selling it on the market. Merchants would process it as fast and exquisite as they can and then transport it to the market and finally it can appear on people’s dining table after cooking. It makes sense to say that “How many of you realize that each grain in your rice plate is a result of hard labor.” Arduous labor behind gourmet is often overlooked, but the documentary definitely reflects the unrecognized side of the story.

Bite of china

From bustling southeast coastal cities, to remote mountainous regions, what is behind different delicacies is the same respect and love for food. As Chief Director Chen Xiaoqing puts it, “Chinese people’s affection for delicious food is originated from their love towards life. Enjoying delicious food is nothing but enjoying happiness brought by life.” Perhaps it is the love of delicious food and life and the sense of happiness that move numerous viewers.

“FOOD UNDERPINS ALL CULTURES”

“Flavor is inevitable homesickness in one’s heart.” This is echoed by countless audiences. A Bite of China makes people not only hungry, but also crying. Many of the spectators recalled “flavor of their childhood”.

Bite of china

Rapid development of modern cities forces more and more youngsters to work outside of their hometown. Every time when they miss family, what they miss the most is the delicious food they ate in their childhood. In China, food culture can best represent features of one’s hometown. Someone remarks that “without braised pork with vermicelli, northeast China isn’t northeast China; without ham, Jinhua isn’t Jinhua anymore.” Every local food showed in the documentary evoked deep homesickness. Some were filled with tears; some bought train tickets to enjoy native food in hometown; others even turned down dinner parties to enjoy food cooked by mother…

“Food underpins all cultures,” said Chen Xiaoqing, “and we hope to demonstrate the living conditions and feelings of ordinary Chinese through food stories.” It’s about food but much more than food. The documentary tells such a story: there is an old couple living in Zhejiang Province. Their children live and settle down in other cities. On ordinary days, the home is empty. Only in the Spring Festival, the quiet courtyard is enlivened. Children talk about daily work and grandchildren play around. This is the happiest time for the old couple. They bustle around happily and produce rice cakes for children and grandchildren. But reunion is always short. After the Spring Festival, children and grandchildren leave with packs of rice cakes, leaving the old couple silently at home. This is the outlook of Chinese people – eating together with the family is more important than the food eaten together. Combined with such elements as geography, local customs and ordinary feelings, food gets intertwined with culture. The plain yet massive “sense of history” in the documentary touched and moved many viewers.

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A WINDOW TO CHINA FOR THE WORLD

“At a closer look, it’s a slice of cured meat picked up by a pair of chopsticks, truly appetizing; in distant view, the shoal is fresh from the bath and the mountains are in the setting sun; water flows silently in the middle.” The poster, created with an integration of Chinese elements, including cured meat, chopsticks, mountain and river, impresses everyone with “food landscape” full of Chinese features.

Different from works with heavy investment, high technology and grand scene yet unable to touch people, A Bite of China introduces traditional culture via delicacies and then reaches out to the living values of Chinese people.

Famous cultural scholar Yu Dan remarked that the documentary points to the “real and authentic” cultural landscape of China. In order to show the most authentic story of China, the shooting team has been through a lot to find suitable characters to depict vivid stories. “We’ve selected families standing for regional characters. Food in each specific region has distinctive features and personal traits of our characters can represent the industrious and wit Chinese people.”

Numerous laborers in China who carry forward the story of food culture through surefooted and plain efforts. Each and every story is indicative of thousand-year transmission of catering tradition and accumulated wisdom.

“By using fine food as a window, we help domestic and overseas audiences appreciate the beauty of Chinese food and then recognize China’s cultural tradition and social changes, this is what A Bite of China is committed to.” According to Director Chen, Chinese food enjoys a good reputation worldwide and talking about complex life through food is a modest way to discuss changes of a country.

The appetizing documentary has a vivid English name “a bite of China”. So if you want to understand China, just follow A Bite of China to taste “Chinese flavor”!


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pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 21. Volume 4. July 2012.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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