The most widely-viewed food film of this year is probably one you’ve never heard of. Called “Shejianshang de Zhongguo” in Mandarin — variously translated into “A Bite of China,” “Tasting China,” “Taste of China” or “China on the Tongue” — it deserves your immediate attention. Although it has Mandarin narration and subtitles, the language barrier is slowly lifting thanks to the efforts of Chinese-speaking foodies who crowd-sourced English subtitles. Now you have no excuse not to hunker down this winter and learn about the magic of Chinese cuisine. Salivate at your own risk.
A food TV hit
For a sense of the documentary’s popularity, consider that the week in May that it aired on the national documentary channel China Central Television (CCTV) 9, viewer ratings spiked 30% to new highs for that time period. The film beat the popular drama series that normally aired during that prime-time slot, according to China Daily.
Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, counted 2 million updates in reference to “Bite of China” and China’s behemoth online shopping portal Taobao.com had searches for food on the site double at that time. Five days after the series went on air, nearly 6 million shoppers searched on Taobao for local food specialties mentioned in the documentary, resulting in 7.2 million purchases. Sales of smoked ham produced by a family featured in the film grew 17-fold during that time period. The series has since been licensed and aired on national television in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
‘A Bite of China’ a technical marvel
Filming and editing techniques are astounding: the sounds and sights are captured with such precision and highlighted in so detailed and intimate a manner viewers can’t help but feel as though they are a part of the action. The first episode, “Gifts from Nature,” focuses on matsutake mushrooms (called songrong in Chinese).These are the bounty of an early-morning foraging excursion in Shangri-La, based in Yunnan province, and they sizzle and pop so vivaciously they may as well be atop one’s own frying pan.
“Bite of China” is the country’s first food film made with hi-definition video filming equipment. It took 13 months to shoot starting in March 2011 under the direction of Chen Xiaoqing. The sheer manpower, determination and perseverance it took is evident, requiring three researchers, eight directors, 15 cameramen and three editors to capture footage from 70 locations throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Only that kind of time and effort could have produced such an intimate look into people’s lives, which is what most stands out long after watching the documentary, more so even than the breathtaking landscapes and mouth-watering delicacies depicted. The food purveyors and producers become such larger-than-life characters, they begin to approach idealized archetypes. Viewers learn about the intricate and other-wordly process by which lotus roots are extricated from holes dug several feet deep into desolate muddy swampland. They see up-close the fingers of a little girl learning how to mix flour for noodles with her grandmother in the second episode. These segments give an insight into the intricate history, culture, pride and workmanship that each bite of Chinese cooking can embody and inspire.
Skepticism and criticism
Nevertheless, one must view any work produced by state-run CCTV with a critical eye. The Asia Society blog has a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of the myriad Chinese netizen responses to the series. There is undeniably a strong push to rouse Chinese people’s national pride. China’s reality is often much rockier and inequitable than the idealized, peacefully diverse country portrayed in the film. Environmental issues and urbanization are hardly mentioned, nor is the disenfranchisement of a massive rural population who is actually responsible for growing and gathering the crops required to feed the nation. Episode 3, “Conversion of Inspiration,” focuses on time-tested food-processing techniques like fermentation, curing and steeping. Oddly, it never mentions China’s head-long rush into modernization and industrialization over the past 30 years, which are in part to blame for a haphazard food safety regulatory system and a focus on quantity over quality that permitted recent food safety crises to repeatedly arise.
Second installment on deck
Whether this is your first foray into Chinese cuisine or a return to familiar territory, it’s hard not to fall in love with “Bite of China,” or at least to walk away hungry. I’m excited to watch the second installment of the documentary, set to be released in 2013.
In the meantime, Mandarin speakers can watch the original on CCTV’s website. Otherwise, I was able to find translations of all “Bite of China” episodes on YouTube, though I can’t vouch for their complete accuracy. To view the Chinese version, carefully cut and paste this text into your search browser: 舌尖上的中国，英文字母
Top image: Food documentary “A Bite of China.” Credit: CCTV