A new documentary series on Chinese cuisine airing on CCTV has set food lovers abuzz over the nation's rich culinary history, while inadvertently raising a new level of disgust over the seemingly endless food safety scandals.
The seven-episode series, A Bite of China, has eclipsed almost all other TV shows in popularity in the past two weeks, garnering praise for its focus on forgotten dishes and religious-like searches for the right ingredients and time-honoured cooking methods that go into making them.
Shot in high-definition video, the series took a CCTV crew to more than 60 locations across the nation beginning in March last year in search of authentic dishes, their painstaking preparation and the personal stories associated with them.
CCTV said the series was not just a simple gourmet show, but an illustration of how people lived, how they cared about their families and related to others in their communities, all based on the belief that 'You are what you eat'. The series also fit well with the mission of CCTV's Documentary Channel of 'opening a window on China'.
Wu Heng, a graduate student in Shanghai, said he became hooked on the show when he watched the first episode in mid-May, which included a segment on the role of lotus root in his native Hubei cuisine. 'I wanted to enjoy the series as much as other food lovers,' Wu said. 'But I just couldn't help being distracted by how much the real China differs from what we see on TV,' he said.
Wu is a part-time webmaster behind the website 'Throw it out the window', where he has documented food scares on the mainland since 2004 in a bid to raise public awareness.
He said there was an 'ideal' China portrayed on TV, one with a rich culture and great diversity of food, and the other China, where people must deal with risky and unsafe food daily.
The documentary series, with a Chinese title literally meaning 'China on the Tip of the Tongue', premiered just a week after mainland authorities launched an investigation into claims vegetable sellers in Shandong province were spraying cabbages with harmful formaldehyde to keep them fresh.
Detractors said they were 'disgusted' with the state broadcaster for failing to also highlight public concerns over the dangers of contaminated and adulterated food. Some have put a photo series onto the Web under the title of 'A Different China at the Tip of the Tongue', showing dishes featured on the show alongside news photos of the same dishes made with substandard ingredients.
Liu Zhumin, a social critic based in Chongqing , said the timing of the series certainly guaranteed it instant success as it created an ideal image of food that the public longed for.
But he said it was unrealistic for the state broadcaster to cultivate patriotism through food culture given the level of public distress over poisonous ingredients. 'It's not a good time to promote our rich food culture,' he said. 'Rather, we should reflect on how we've messed up our food and drug safety regime.'
But the show has its fans.
Wang Xiang, a native of Gansu who now lives in Beijing, said that, coming from the north, he was no stranger to pastry cooking but was still amazed by the dazzling variety made from all sorts of grains the series featured. 'They looked so tempting, I just couldn't help wanting to touch the TV screen so I could have one,' he said.
Li Shouen, a college teacher, said the show was an eye-opener on the rich variety of Chinese cuisines. She said people like her had almost forgotten the enjoyment of traditional dining and its preparation in an age of fast living and fast food. 'How often do we spare a moment to reflect upon what goes into a meal or appreciate how it was prepared?' she asked.