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Chinese food like you've never seen it before

A new Chinese food documentary series called 'A Bite of China' has broken all audience records in China. More than 100 million people have seen all seven episodes.

By Staff writer / June 26, 2012

Cleaners abseil down the side of the China Central Television (CCTV) building in central Beijing on June 1.

David Gray/Reuters

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Beijing

Chinese TV viewers have never seen anything like it, and they are lapping it up. High on production value and low on politically correct pomposity, a new documentary series “A Bite of China” has broken all audience records.

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It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the series is about food, a subject dear to most Chinese hearts. It helps, too, that the seven episodes are lovingly filmed in high definition, offering lyrical, often sensuous shots of particularly delicious or beautiful food.

But most importantly, perhaps, in a country where consumers live in fear of poisoned baby formula, cooking oil recovered from restaurant drains, and pesticide-laced fruit, the series highlights good, traditional simple food and the people who harvest and prepare it.

“At a time of food safety crisis in China, these programs are popular because they show respect for tradition, hard work, and nature,” says Cheng Chunli, deputy head of international marketing for China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster that made the shows.

CCTV’s documentaries, which tend to be dull, worthy programs taking a heavily didactic approach to historical or cultural themes, normally draw about 20 million viewers. More than 100 million people have seen all seven episodes of “A Bite of China,” says Ms. Cheng. For the first time, she adds, a documentary has proved more popular than the drama series that normally top the Chinese ratings.

Chen Xiaoqing, who directed the series, says he never expected it to be so popular even though “everybody likes to eat.” He attributes its unexpected success to the fact that CCTV premiered the series last month on its flagship channel and to the novel style in which he made the programs.

 “We took a Western approach,” Mr. Chen says, explaining how that differs from the standard Chinese method of making a TV documentary. “It’s very simple,” he says. “It’s telling a story, whereas other [Chinese] documentaries try to educate you.”

Chen seduces the viewer into being educated by the beauty of his HD film. Whether through a voluptuous shot of silky soymilk being poured into an earthenware vat or the appetizing sizzle of a wokful of stir fried beef, Chen draws in the viewer.

The director clearly loves food; indeed he says that he is “still looking for a dish I cannot eat.” And he is entranced by the magic inherent in food, explaining and showing how racks of tofu can grow delicate white hairs until they resemble mattresses, or how sparkling crusts of salt crystallize from salty well water as it evaporates in the sun.

One episode, devoted entirely to the soybean and its multitudinous derivatives, recounts the legend of tofu’s invention in the pursuit of magic: An ancient Chinese emperor-wizard in search of the secret of eternal life added gypsum to soymilk and found it gelled into bean curd.

As the mellifluously voiced narrator declaims portentously, “the invention of tofu forever changed the soybean’s destiny.”

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