There are moments in “A Bite of China” that stay with you long after you watch the show.
A mother and daughter walking together at dawn, digging for mushrooms in the mountains of Yunnan. They easily push their sticks in the dirt to gently push up a priced mushroom that sells for thousands in city restaurants. Inside a ger in Inner Mongolia, in the early hours, a woman dips a ladle in milk to make breakfast for the family. The man will herd their sheep on the grassy plain. Fermented tofu nuggets are laid out on baskets on a balcony before they are hauled out to a busy city sidewalk and sold. The most simple yet amazing street food.
More than technique and skill, “A Bite of China” is about taste and heritage, habit, livelihoods, the knowledge and skill that comes from working with food all your life, as well as the pride and appreciation of people working in food, really getting their hands in, and knowing the natural, subtle chemistry of food. The show is about a national love of food, combined with the expansiveness and knowledge of a National Geographic documentary.
It was probably a cultural moment that will not be replicated in the future. Fans of the show say the first season was the best. Maybe there is only enough material to sustain that kind of perfection for only one season.
The show first debuted in China in 2012 and embodies a peak appreciation of food culture, and peak cultural pride. Every episode is full of stories from disparate corners of China. The first episode itself bursts with variety and flavor, telling stories from digging for mushrooms in Yunnan Province in southwest China to communal ice fishing in Jilin Province in the Northeast.
The show is not completely representative of actual food culture in China. The reality is the over-abundance and over-consumption of food in China this decade, as well as an increase in community gathering places. The beauty and sensuality, and hustle and bustle of food in the Aughts is not shown. Or the tedium and the magic that comes from cooking for your family every day.
But it gets other things exactly right. The man bouncing on a large bamboo to roll out dough for noodles in a restaurant, so that people walking by on the street can look in, be curious and want to come in. Families sitting together near a well to make tofu. The kind couple who makes and sells tofu and the way they go about their life with their daughter. And the rap song about marinated pork sandwich. All true to life.
In episode 2, there is a segment where a girl goes home to the Shaanxi province, and helps her family prepare kimchi.
There is something about that that’s in the Chinese national memory.
That familiar countryside yard, the peppers that are hung from the entrance, the water, the large container that the kimchi is put in, the window through which the girl looks at the red peppers put out to dry. Everything about it is familiar and reflected in every aspect of Chinese life. Are there chickens in the courtyard? There must be.
Look at that kimchi. Can you just taste it?
Here is “A Bite of China,” episode 1, “The story of nature.”