In 2012, ‘A Bite of China’, a CCTV documentary series about Chinese food and cooking was aired and quickly became a national hit.
While there is a plethora of documentaries on food produced around the world every year, the vast majority adopting a ‘technical’ perspective, this documentary series almost seems ‘out of place’ – and surely there are not enough facts and figures in it. The series focuses instead on the history, the culture and the people behind the food. There is neither a Michelin-star chef nor an artisan kitchen – it’s all about the simple food that ordinary families cook and eat at home, the authentic local cuisine.
The audience loved it – in fact, it was such a success that the production team made a second season, aired in 2014. ‘A Bite of China’ tells a story that resonates with everyone in the country – experiences repeated and passions shared.
In China, love for food is universal. This love bonds people together. A traditional way of greeting your neighbour in Beijing is ‘Have you eaten?’ instead of ‘How are you?’, as ‘How are you’ sounds far too formal to Chinese ears. On second thoughts, it also actually makes sense – what could be more important than food in a world of foodies? Nothing, really. If you have eaten, you’ll be alright. The answer can vary between a simple ‘yes’ and more details, such as ‘not yet, I’m on my way to buy some spring onions.’ By replying to the greeting in a casual manner, the two of you feel instantly much closer, as if you have reached a secret consensus on not talking about grand ideas or outlooks on life. You perceive yourselves as part of the same group, and an imagined community is born.
To the Chinese, cooking is also an adventure happening in a small space. To cook a good meal, the chef needs to stay focused, as timing is everything for most Chinese dishes. The ingredients and seasonings have to be added in the right order, at the right moment and be cooked for the right duration; otherwise, the taste would be different. In fact, timing can have an impact on the three essential factors of Chinese cooking, known as ‘colour, aroma, and taste’ (se, xiang, wei). It is the precise coordination of a series of delicate tasks under time pressure that makes the chef’s job challenging. A Chinese cook can never dream about leaving the turkey in the oven and setting the timer as ‘job done’.
As much as a daily chore, cooking is more than just getting something edible onto the dinner table; it’s about experimenting within a framework, exploring all the opportunities and making the most of your ingredients. I remember when I was at school, there was one day when my mum was out of town and my dad was working late. I was sleepy but hadn’t had anything for dinner. When my dad came back, he searched the fridge inside out and only found a cucumber. He walked into the kitchen with the cucumber in his hand and then closed the door. He came out of the kitchen 20 minutes later, holding a plate. The cucumber was wriggling on the plate, almost like a fish swimming in a pond. ‘Try it,’ he said. I had my doubts (sorry, Dad) but with the first bite, my taste buds got a startling wake-up call. The flavours of sweet, sour and spicy blended harmoniously together, forming a complex and stimulating taste. I finished it all, and saw my dad smiling at me. He said it was a dish my grandmother used to cook for him in the past. He could easily have just made me a cucumber salad!
To this day, I still remember how the light was cast on the table that night, how I stretched out the cucumber with chopsticks, and how the aroma of the dish lingered in the house for a while. Memories about food don’t fade easily.
These days, if I dine out in Chinese restaurants, I will sometimes order the same cucumber dish my dad cooked, just to give it a go (it’s called suo yi huang gua). They all have slightly different presentations and tastes, some better, some worse, but I think I’ve acquired the spirit of the dish. The continuously fine-tuned flavours cultivate the love for food, reinforce the memories about family, and inspire a new journey for the next generation. This is how culture gets passed on. After all, people themselves are merely cultural artefacts.