Most people wouldn’t describe the programming on CCTV – China’s leading state television channel – as likely to get viewers excited. But the China Daily did just that when it talked about the phenomenon of A Bite of China, a seven-part documentary about food.
The series has been the most talked about television show around the country for the last two weeks. Episodes have been rewatched more than 20 million times online and attracted good ratings for CCTV.
So why the popularity? As the title suggests, A Bite of China looks at the nation’s culinary choices, celebrating their contribution to history and culture.
For instance, soybeans weren’t always so popular. Two thousand years ago, few people enjoyed the taste of cooked soybeans and their over-consumption made people gassy. It wasn’t until the invention of tofu that soybeans became more popular. Because of tofu’s nourishing qualities the soybean is now a fundamental part of the Chinese diet.
A Bite of China also recounts the history of paddy cultivation to explain why rice is the mainstay of the southern Chinese diet. In the north, wheat flour is the dietary staple. The show goes further to break down staple foods into various styles, such as the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region’s naan (flat bread) and Jiangsu province’s Huangqiao sesame cakes, both of which fall into the wheat category.
It also goes back to source to explain where food comes from (although notably, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of food safety issues in the supply chain, such as gutter oil, see WiC140).
The film crew visits the mountains to trace where bamboo shoots are grown and they go fishing in an episode about seafood. They even visit Taiwan to film how locals make their famous dried mullet roe.
The production team’s hard work did not go unnoticed. “The scenes of digging for bamboo shoots, hanging hams, catching fish with a net, opening a steamer filled with white steamed buns, and pulling wheat dough into thin strands for noodles move us to tears. What a lovely China!” one viewer gushed.
The documentary is beautifully shot making even the most unappetising dishes look irresistibly gourmet. Take fermented tofu (also known as stinky tofu). The tofu is bluey- black from the fermentation process. But the camera’s close-ups will convert even the stinky sceptics.
Small wonder, then, that netizens say the series is “a disaster for people who are trying to lose weight”.
Chen Xiaoqing, the documentary’s director and also a well known food writer, told Xinhua that he wanted to make a different type of food programme. The goal was to go beyond recipes to tell stories about how food shapes peoples’ lives.
In one vignette, a white-collar worker living in Beijing returns to her hometown in Jilin province to learn how to make pickles from her mother. Pickles may seem so trivial to some people, says the woman, but for her they are a taste of home.
“As the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat’,” Chen says. “Food is always connected with people. Behind the documentary’s eye-popping and mouthwatering images are personal stories that reflect living situations and attitudes… No matter how far you go, no matter who you become, your stomach will still be your hometown stomach.”
The response to the series has been overwhelmingly positive. “It is not empty propaganda about China’s splendid food culture. Instead, it shows the techniques used in making food and their production process as well as the lives of ordinary people,” one netizen wrote on weibo.
Flushed with its unexpected success, CCTV is now planning a further series. There are also reports that the show will air in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Taobao, China’s largest consumer e-commerce site, will certainly be looking forward to the show’s return. The site says orders for previously unpopular specialties went up dramatically after they appeared on TV, according to the Shanghai Daily. During the seven nights that the programme aired, consumers bought over 10 million local food items online, up 12.5% from previous months. And Jinhua Ham saw its stock rise 9.6% after it was featured on the show.
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