Two years ago state-run broadcaster CCTV surprised viewers with its beautifully produced food documentary A Bite of China, showcasing the country’s culinary heritage. The eagerly awaited second season, A Bite of China II, started in mid-April, with a young Tibetan travelling deep into the mountains to find the ingredients for a dessert that blends honey and shortening. Without a safety harness, the man spends three hours climbing a huge tree to collect the honeycomb he needs to make the delicacy, which he intends as a gift for his brother (who is set to depart for college).
“Honey is the most valuable gift Bai Ma can bring his family,” the narrator says, adding that it is difficult to obtain anything sweet in the impoverished area.
Next, the series travels to Zhejiang province, where it profiles a fisherman who spends two years mastering a technique to catch mudskippers, an unusual fish that his daughter has long wanted to try.
The audience response to the second season has been a little less glowing than the first series. Many say the show’s producers should have focused more on the food. “Too much time is spent on the personal stories, diluting the true meaning of the documentary,” one netizen wrote.
Chengdu Business Daily concurs: “The first season of A Bite of China was so popular because it spoke about Chinese cuisine but wasn’t only about food. The documentary was interspersed with personal stories. However, the second season takes that one step too far.”
Still, more sentimental viewers said they were touched by the narratives featured in the show: “What the Tibetan boy did for his brother, and what the father did for his daughter, that is so moving!” one wrote.
More eagle-eyed netizens wondered if CCTV had been taking lessons from the award-winning BBC documentary Human Planet. A number of viewers pointed out that some of the sequences and camera angles were almost exactly the same as the UK documentary. But Chen Xiaoqing, who directed the episode under scrutiny, denied any plagiarism, saying any “similarity” was intended as homage to the BBC show.
Netizens weren’t convinced: “If you compare the two scenes with screen shots, you will find them exactly the same except for the characters,” one wrote. “If that is not copying, then we can call academic plagiarism ‘paying homage’ to scholars.”
Despite the mild criticism of the format, the food featured on the show quickly sold out online. CCTV reckons that supplies of Sichuan bacon and Beijing roast duck – dishes mentioned in the first episode – soon sold out on Tmall.com afterwards.
Restaurants featured on the show were also mobbed. Shanghai’s Sanlin Benbang, which appeared in the second episode, told the Shanghai Daily that its phone has been ringing off the hook. The family-run joint, which serves traditional Shanghainese cuisine, says diners have been queueing up for a seat at one of its 12 tables. The Li family, which owns the restaurant, says they are already considering expansion to accommodate all the new customers: “There’s an abandoned warehouse behind the restaurant…I will talk to township officials to see whether I can rent it,” says Li Mingfu, the eatery’s boss.
One of Sanlin Benbang’s most popular dishes is Shanghai-style fried river shrimp. River shrimps are tiny – so small that they are consumed with their shells intact. The shrimps are usually dipped in hot oil until their shell turns red. Then they are returned to the wok and coated in a light gravy composed of soy sauce, cooking wine and sugar.
Sanlin Benbang Restaurant is located on 65 Zhong Lin Street, Pudong, Shanghai. (Tel: +8621 5077-1717)
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