After a four-year hiatus, state broadcaster CCTV decided to revive its wildly popular food documentary series A Bite of China late last month.
The series, which first aired in 2012, explores Chinese culture via the relationship between the Chinese and their food. The first season was followed by an eagerly anticipated second in 2014, which spurred millions of people to search for related food products on Alibaba’s e-commerce site Taobao.
The third season, comprising eight episodes lasting 50 minutes each, returned on February 19 during the Lunar New Year holiday period. Daily episodes have been structured according to themes such as “appliances”, which spotlighted heritage craftsmen who make pots and stoves; “hometown snacks”, which looked at street food from various regions; and “banquets”, which featured luxurious feasts from ancient and modern times.
The show has been so well-watched that a wok-maker featuring in its debut episode claims to have received more than 100,000 orders for his pans. He has sold out of his existing stock, which sell for as much as Rmb379 ($59.61) each, and there is now a two-year waiting list for new orders to be filled. Jinan Daily also reported that the wok-maker even had to warn a growing number of visitors against crowding his factory’s doors or trespassing on its premises to get a glimpse at how the woks are made.
“An elderly woman came in and wanted to buy one, but we had sold out. She took a sample from our showroom and held it tight… we had to persuade her to part with it,” a wok blacksmith called Liu Zimu told the newspaper.
The woks, from Zhangqiu in China’s eastern Shandong province, are handmade through a painstaking 12-step process that includes hammering the metal 36,000 times to produce a non-stick surface that cooks food without oil. The tradition of wok-making in Zhangqiu had almost petered out at the turn of the century, but has been revived in recent years with the growing interest in artisanal crafts across China.
But despite the newfound fame of a few of the businesses featured, the series has been less successful on the ratings front. It initially scored a high rating but then slid in the Douban rankings (a popular rating site for entertainment shows and books) to record lows for the franchise.
Opinions are polarised across social media too. Some viewers complained that the show has focused too much on kitchen tools and should have taken more time over visuals of the food itself. Others were annoyed by what they regarded as oversimplification in one of the later programmes about Chinese medicine.
The new season has also tended to concentrate on the life stories of individuals rather than the food. Viewer frustration boiled over at one episode in which a feature on shuai mian, or “hitting noodles”, looked mostly at the story of a rural chef trying to earn his crust in the city so his daughter can receive a better education.
There was another narrative about a mother with an incurable disease who tries to live life to the full by cooking a complicated breakfast for her child every day.
Others pointed out factual errors: a Yunnan stone pot featured did not originate from the province in question but from Sichuan and Tibet; a large-mouthed pike fish was wrongly cited as a perch; and a sea coconut and conch soup said to be popular in Guangdong as a “damp-removing remedy” did not bear such properties and is not commonly found in the province.
Others were more critical of the production’s style, faulting the series for close-ups that zoomed in too much, clips that weren’t detailed enough, and narration that could have been more eloquent.
Interviewed by Guangzhou Daily, series director Liu Hongyan said he wasn’t too fazed by the lower ratings. Liu and his production team had not worked on either of the two previous series, and said they were trying to introduce innovative ways of storytelling to meet the growing appetite for culinary entertainment at “a particularly good time for the development of documentary films throughout China”.
When A Bite of China was first broadcast in 2012, there were less than 50 food-themed television shows across the country. There are now about 400 to 500 documentary and variety shows on the same topic, including Chef Nic hosted by Hong Kong actor Nicholas Tse (see WiC247) as well as region-specific programmes such as Taste of Xinjiang and Secret Guangxi.
As such, audiences are now a lot more demanding and that has set a higher bar for local producers to create original foodie content.
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