• Thu
  • Jul 31, 2014
  • Updated: 1:34am
LifestyleArts & Culture
TELEVISION

A Bite of China: patriotic, nostalgic food porn back for second season

Some viewers say that the award-winning, visually appealing documentary makes them proud to be Chinese

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 7:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 May, 2014, 1:36pm

A Bite of China, which has just entered its second season, is a documentary about Chinese food, but it is also food porn and patriotism wrapped up with one neat bow.

An indulgent and evocative production shot in the style of a big-budget Hollywood feature, A Bite of China aired on China Central Television (CCTV) in 2012, with an initial season of seven episodes that highlighted foods like Paomo soup from Shaanxi province and Jook-sing noodles from Guangzhou.

Watch: Intro to season two of A Bite of China

A lavishly shot love letter to the cuisine of the Middle Kingdom, every episode was filmed with high-definition, microscopic cameras that produced shots that lingered lovingly on a dumpling’s folds or the simmering broth of a bowl of noodles.

Sentimentality was also on high display, with several episodes focusing on China’s minority population and the sacrifices and long preparation time that many amateur chefs had to endure to create home-cooked comforts.

This combination of visual grandeur and personal story paid off, and A Bite of China quickly became one of the most popular CCTV programmes, achieving consistently high ratings. In the two years since its debut, the documentary has been promoted at the TV Festival de Cannes and been sold to over 40 different countries.  

Kelsi Leung, a Chinese native who is currently studying for a diploma in translation, was one of the show’s early fans. Keen on introducing it to her British chef boyfriend, Leung subtitled A Bite of China’s first season and uploaded it to YouTube, where it became the only English-language resource for Western fans until CCTV’s official translation emerged several months later.

“[At the time], there weren’t any available English subtitles for A Bite of China, so doing it just seemed to be the right thing to do,” says Leung. “The documentary was just amazing [and] one of a kind. The angles, editing, background music and narration were superb, creative and up-to-date. I thought that [it showed] sides of Chinese cuisine that foreigners should learn about, rather than just sweet and sour pork.”

Leung’s subtitles – which she now calls “amateurish” – arguably helped the programme reach a larger audience of international viewers, including British journalist Oliver Thring, then a freelancer for The Guardian.

“[It’s] the best TV show I've ever seen about food,” Thring wrote in 2012. “The people are the most interesting part: an old woman looking for matsutake mushrooms on pathless mountainsides…a Shanghai woman filling her bathtub with live crabs to make drunken crab, drowning the creatures in wine and storing them in earthenware.

"But though the programme explains that the lives of many of its subjects are difficult and that the people are poor, it stunningly captures ways of life that are evaporating in modern China.”

To Leung, who lived in a small Chinese village until she was eight, A Bite of China juxtaposes images of delicacies alongside the simple, hard-working folk that create them, generating a memory-inducing aura that’s hard to resist.

“Foods are the things that make up my childhood memories,” Leung says. “Home-grown vegetables and fruits, fish from the ponds in the village, organic eggs from our neighbors, fresh ingredients from the wet market, and above all – my grandma’s cooking. I think many people in China have a very similar childhood. They feel nostalgic when they watch A Bite of China probably because it reminds them of what they had back in their villages.”

The reminiscent value of the show seems to be intentional. In an interview with China Daily, Deng Jie, one of the programme’s co-directors, said that the goal of A Bite of China was to create a documentary that would give viewers the impulse to “go home and cook their family a dinner, practice a hometown specialty, learn to cook a dish from their mothers, and treat their everyday meals seriously”.

By focusing on the nostalgia of food, explained head director Chen Xiaoqing, A Bite of China was also able to “show audiences at home and abroad China’s traditions and social changes, as well as the unbending, frugal and tenacious character of the Chinese people”.

But not all viewers have received the programme positively, and some members of China’s outspoken microblogging community have called the show sentimentalist propaganda that highlights only the good sides of Chinese cuisine while ignoring the numerous food safety scandals that have wracked the nation in recent years.  

The show’s second season, which aired April 18, has also courted controversy, with critics condemning it for focusing too much on the people creating the foods at the expense of the dishes themselves.

“Is this a food programme or simply a documentary about Chinese minorities?” wrote one commentator on the show’s official Sina Weibo page. “In a fifty minute episode, the food shots amounted to what seems like less than fifteen minutes of time. What a mess.”

Accusations of plagiarism have also emerged, with the first episode of season two featuring scenes of a Tibetan man climbing a tree that strongly resemble a segment in the BBC documentary Human Planet

Director Chen has denied the plagiarism charges, arguing that the scene in A Bite of China is “different” from the one in Human Planet. The director has also pointed out that the second season is meant to give deeper insight on the role of food in society – hence the greater focus on humans over cuisine.

To many viewers, however, such criticisms are irrelevant. To them, A Bite of China offers a patriotic sense of wistfulness that’s much greater than the sum of its flaws, all wrapped up in a grand promotion of the mouth-watering flavours produced by the most populous country on the planet.

“Chinese cooking isn’t simple at all due to the size of the country and its long history,” Leung says. “What we, ordinary people, know about is so little… [A Bite of China] shows us something we rarely see, [something] beyond our imagination. That’s why it blew me away… I never knew how amazing Chinese cooking was. Something is this amazing and you are part of it – it’s difficult not to be proud, obviously.”

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

This article is now closed to comments

baysidedweller
I love the series since I am a foodie.
Personally I would not label it as "food ****", which originated (I believe) from Rosalind Coward's book Female Desire.
What **** conjures up in my mind is very explicit and direct acts, whereas I would label the series as more sensual.
Oh well, maybe we can label it as "sensual soft ****"?
 
 
 
 
 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or