Cuisine documentary offers food for thought

Updated: 2012-05-17 10:23

By Sun Li (China Daily)

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Cuisine documentary offers food for thought

A scene from an episode of A Bite of China on staple foods.

A program about Chinese cuisines will offer insights into the geographical, historical and cultural dimensions of what the country's people eat.

Helmed by award-winning documentary maker Chen Xiaoqing, the seven-part high-definition documentary A Bite of China is the first self-produced nonfiction series about food by CCTV-9, the documentary channel. It will air on May 23 and was first shown by CCTV-1 on Monday.

Television is filled with food these days, especially introductions by top-notch chefs and close looks at the complicated and refined cooking processes of haute cuisine, Chen says.

"We have some appetite-boosting shots of food-making, but how to create dishes is only one aspect of food culture," Chen says.

"The program tries to bring something new by presenting more cultural elements related to dishes, such as eating habits and the ethics of eating."

Each episode lasts 50 minutes. Themes range from ingredients to preserved food.

One episode, for example, centers on the staple foods.

It recounts China's history of paddy cultivation to explain why rice is the mainstay of the southern Chinese diet, while wheat flour is the foundation of the northern diet. But it goes further to break down every staple food into its various styles, such as the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region's naan (flat bread) and Jiangsu province's Huangqiao sesame cakes, both of which fall under the wheat category.

"As a saying goes, 'you are what you eat'," Chen says. "Food is always connected with people. Behind the documentary's eye-popping and mouthwatering images are personal stories that reflect people's living situations and attitudes. That's another component that makes it distinctive."

To get enough good stories, the production team spent three months doing research and interviews in about 60 cities before they started shooting last July. Filming lasted about nine months.

An episode about pickles, for instance, revolves around a white-collar woman in Beijing, who returns to her hometown in Jilin province and makes pickles for the first time for her lonely mother.

Another episode captures joyful moments of sons and daughters making New Year cakes (rice pudding) after they return home from various metropolises to celebrate with their parents, who have been staying in their hometown in Zhejiang province.

A Bite of China captures social transformations while presenting food cultures, such as showing the dispersion of extended families that leave the elderly in their hometowns while other members work outside - cases in which food serves as reminders of happy times and centerpieces of reunions.

The storyline development went smoothly, but problems arose in recording the cooking process, Chen says.

The camera had to be placed close to food that was being fried, stewed and simmered to capture vivid imagery.

The camera operators had to observe the scenes and reposition their cameras several times to keep from being splashed with oil.

Chen says the seven episodes might not be enough to capture the glory of Chinese food culture. He's planning a second and third installment.

CCTV-9 director Liu Wen says A Bite of China will continue to be the channel's key project.

"Because the channel serves as a window to allow the world to better understand China, the deliciously informative documentary aims to help global audiences not only appreciate the beauty of Chinese cuisines but also learn about Chinese customs and social realities."