Chinese food documentary stirs culinary craze

Updated: 2012-05-30 08:48

(China Daily)

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Chen and his team behind the cameras had to make sure there were stories behind every beautiful, tempting image of food, incorporating ingredients, places and food producers that reflected geographical, historical, religious and anthropological relevance.

"It is our hope that the series could reflect the changes of Chinese food in history, and the impact of rapid changes in China on families and relationships," Chen says.

This is especially apparent in the second episode, Story of Staples. The cameras zoom in on an old couple in the Ningbo countryside who makes traditional rice cakes. They only see their children once or twice a year because the second generation has deserted the land and opted to live in the city. The increasing number of empty nesters, old people left alone in their rural homes, has become a significant social phenomenon in the country.

Another sign of encroaching urbanization can be seen in the seventh and final episode, Our Country, Our Fields. It shows the hanging garden of Beijinger Zhang Guichun, who carefully tends 100 square meters of vegetables on an apartment rooftop. In the city where land is scarce, Zhang and the like are trying their best to create an oasis among the concrete barrenness.

Dong Keping, a Beijing gourmet who was also consulted for the documentary, thinks the modern industrialization process and over-population have already resulted in the sacrifice of certain valuable resources, such as the traditional "three delicacies", rare fish from the Yangtze River.

He thinks city dwellers have become nostalgic about the past, and food from the past, as they grow disillusioned with the present. Dong says the documentary is able to get so much resonance because it brings viewers back to a pure, clean memory of childhood food, food that is now lost in the urban sprawl and perhaps surviving in threatened pockets in the remote countryside.

The Chinese love their food, but they have been plagued by a continuous series of food safety issues in recent years. Bian Jiang, deputy secretary-general of the China Cuisine Association, says the images of simple, honest traditional food producers would serve as a reminder to the black sheep in the food industry.

"This may be a better way to awaken the conscience of these producers - by showing them the honest hard work involved in traditional foods."

Bian, another consultant for A Bite of China, says there has been much media coverage of food in recent years, contributing to a heightened awareness.

"But in the past, these programs mainly showed cooking techniques, cuisine styles, and tempting food pictures. A Bite of China shows the source of Chinese culinary culture. It reaches beyond the tip of the tongue, into the different sectors of society."

A chef used to hover at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. These days, the link between food and culture has helped elevate the chefs to better social standing, and respect.

Sam Leung, executive chef with Dynasty Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver, Canada, says Chinese culinary culture is the root of inspiration for Chinese chefs overseas.

"Helping Chinese chefs learn the culture behind the cuisine will boost Chinese food overseas, and lift the social status of Chinese chefs," he says. "It is my dream to let foreigners understand that Chinese cuisine can be artistic and beautiful. It is not just chop suey, or sweet and sour pork, or fried rice and noodles."

Chen Xiaoqing says of all memories, the memory of the taste bud is the most tenacious. Chinese people can travel around the world and adopt different languages, but they'll always appreciate Chinese food and flavors.

Soon, this outstanding documentary series will be traveling abroad. At the Cannes Festival in April, prospective buyers were shown a trailer of A Bite of China. According to Liu Wen, CCTV 9 will start dubbing the series into English, Russian and Arabic in June, depending on where the program sales orders come from.

As Chen Xiaoqing says, the language of food is universal.

"With eating, language is not a barrier," he says.

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