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Sensual Pleasure

As eating is a fundamental pleasure for people everywhere, food programs are popular throughout the world. “Even relatively amateurish cookery shows have high audience ratings, so it’s no wonder our series, with all its research and attention to detail, is popular. But we never expected such an overwhelming reaction,” Ren Changzhen said.

Eating is the favorite national pastime of the Chinese people. This is evident in the daily greeting among acquaintances, “Have you eaten?” no matter what time of day.

Young people seldom know anything about the origins of their favorite delicacies or the lives of the people that created them. A Bite of China fills this gap through its emphasis on the relationship between the people of different regions and their native foods, including the ingredients that go into them.

“We make a point of showing the common denominators of prepared foods as well as subtle differences. Noodles are a feature of both north Chinese cuisine, where they are made from wheat, and that of southern China, where they are made from rice flour. The Guilin rice noodles so popular across China are thought to have come about after the opening of the Lingqu Canal, which was built on the orders of Emperor Qinshihuang (259-210 BC) for the express purpose of transporting supplies from north to south China for his southern expedition,” said chief producer of the program Chen Xiaoqing, himself a gourmand who writes cookery columns in various newspapers and magazines.

Food and agricultural products are inextricable from folk customs. Celebrations of the rice harvest, for instance, are held in certain areas of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces before it is stored in barns. Locals also present gifts of rice to the families of newborn infants. One program in the series features a birthday dinner party for a senior resident of Dingcun hamlet in Shanxi Province, where guests selected the longest noodle in their bowls to present as a wish for his longevity.

“I’ve watched the whole series and find that it does more than just display examples of particular cuisines by including their cultural heritage. It shows how our attitude to food ingredients can be a way of maintaining harmonious relations with nature,” cultural commentator Hu Yeqiu said.

A Bite of China showcases the diverse norms and modes of life of everyday Chinese people throughout the nation.

One show featured a family gathering at the suburban home of an elderly couple whose children and grandchildren live in the city. For them, eating with the whole family is their happiest time, so they spend hours making sticky rice cakes in preparation. Sad to say, these gatherings occur only every few months. Once their children and grandchildren get into their cars to drive back to the city, they are left once more to life in an empty nest.

“Rapid urbanization has changed the pattern of the extended family, but certain dishes and eating etiquette maintain customs that evoke time-honored legends. By featuring them the series carries a profound sense of history,” Chen Xiaoqing said.

Besides expressing their enjoyment of the program online, its fans also buy the ingredients of featured dishes.

Netizen Fengxi Shenlei wrote in a midnight micropost on Weibo that he had visited the shopping website Taobao at least 30 times looking for ingredients mentioned in the program. He is one of many who set out to create for themselves the gastronomic delights they have seen on A Bite of China.

Formerly lesser known tasty treats such as Moldy Tofu, fungi, ham from the old town of Nuodeng and the fan-shaped cheese from Dali, the last two from Yunnan Province, are all top-selling items on Taobao. Sales of the ham alone grew 17-fold within just five days after its appearance on the program.

Back to Nature

Many believe that A Bite of China restores people’s pride in Chinese cuisine against the background of recent concerns about food safety, and rekindles their zeal for natural foods, in line with Chinese traditions and values.

There are also those who argue that although the series showcases all imaginable tastes and flavors, the fact remains that Chinese diners have and continue to be exposed to the dangers of recycled cooking oil and all manner of artificial food additives.

These hard facts have prompted online comments such as, “A Bite of China takes a cloud-cuckoo land view of Chinese restaurant fare, when the fact remains that some establishments still use cooking oil made from sewage.”

The documentary series displays tempting cuisines and the legends behind them. News items on the visual as well as printed media on food safety scandals, meanwhile, underline the sordid aspect of China’s food industry.

“The warm glow that A Bite of China left its viewers with will soon fade and be forgotten, but the real, off-camera world still confronts us all in our daily life. We have to face it, think about it, and come up with a solution,” China Youth Daily reporter Cao Lin said.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us