Let’s eat! “A Bite of China” was originally posted in July. Here, I’m updating it with some writing on bubble teas and Ina Garten’s lemon bars. Enjoy!
“A Bite Of China”
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.”
There are many bubble tea restaurants in this area now, but in the early 2000s, I think the very first bubble tea shop was on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
It was upstairs, in the space where the Lucky Stars clothing store had been. (Anyone else remember that store? I loved it.) You walk up the wood stairs to the bubble tea shop, and the space had the early 2000s bubbly graphics.
Oh, we didn’t know how good we had it then. That place was the cutest bubble tea shop. Although I’m not sure I want it to come back. It was perfect for just that era.
That was also around the time my family got into bubble teas. The mix and the tapioca pearls — boba — are sold at the Asian grocery store, and the taste from the mix was pretty much exactly the same as store-bought.
Bubble teas are the happiest drinks. You don’t want to think about them too much. Coffee and tea get rhapsodizing. Sodas get commercials starring Cindy Crawford and Britney Spears. Bubble teas just get drunk.
Well, I guess they do get their online rhapsodizing. Do you like yours with the basic tea and boba, or do you like yours with lichee jelly and mango flavor? Or strawberry?
My favorite bubble tea place closed a couple years ago, so since then, I have not been going out for it. It’s a simple thing to make. The instructions are on the tapioca pearls package. And then add black tea and milk, and voila!
But it just doesn’t feel like the same. I miss that bubble tea shop.
Ina Garten’s lemon bars
In the world of star chefs, Martha Stewart is the master. The foremost expert and a consummate businesswoman, she has an idea for every dish and every event.
By contrast, Ina Garten has always seemed more relaxed. There is a twinkling joyfulness in Garten when she cooks that makes you feel like you could smell and taste the ingredients she’s using. She has an excitement for food. She loves food, she loves having her friends over, and that’s it!
A few summers ago, I got into Ina Garten’s videos. Last year, I kept wanting to make her lemon bars. I finally made them in the winter, and remembered how nice it felt to go through the motions, or the steps of cooking.
There might have been more pressure on Millennial women in recent years to cook perfectly than there were for our Baby Boomer and Gen X moms. They cooked before Instagram and Facebook, when bragging and competition happened at parties and special events, meaning that in their day-to-day life, they could let their hair down and just cook, try new things, follow their own tastes.
Now, showing off your cooking — and very importantly for some, cooking just the “right dish” for the mood and feeling of just that one particular night — are paramount. Some men have gotten into the competition too. (I see you, male friend who is making lamb stew for no other reason than it would look “cool” that one night!)
So, back to cooking and food for pleasure, for no one on social media, for just yourself and to nourish yourself and your family.
My lemon bars didn’t turn out that great, but just making them made me feel better.
Here is Ina Garten’s recipe for lemon bars.