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 mushroom. Inside a ger in Inner Mongolia, in the early hours, a woman dips a ladle in milk to get breakfast for the man who 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 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 kind of about a national love of food, with the expansiveness of a National Geographic documentary.
The show first debuted in China in 2011 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 is so full, telling stories from digging for mushrooms in Yunnan Province in southwest China to communal ice fishing in Jilin Province in the Northeast.
In some ways, the show is not representative of actual food culture in China at all. The dirtiness of food markets, the over abundance of food in China this decade as well as the over consumption. Both the tedium and the magic that comes from cooking for your family every day.
But it does get other things exactly right. The man bouncing on a large bamboo to roll out dough for noodles, in a restaurant where people from the street can look in, be curious and want to come in. Families sitting together near a well to roll dough. The rap song about spicy pork noodle soup.
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 courtyard, 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 says hello to a worker. Everything about it is so familiar and reflected in every aspect of Chinese life. Are there chickens in the courtyard? There must be.
Look at that kimchi. I feel like I can taste it.
Here is “A Bite of China,” episode 1, “The story of nature.”