It’s a better show about food.
While all of humanity and Hollywood are busy mining British television for the next obscure detective series hit starring a skinny white guy with a sharp nose, China’s CCTV has made the best show on the small screen. “China Central Television?” you may ask, doubtfully, if you, like me, were first introduced to the channel (channels, really — there’s like 30 of them) in a Beijing hotel room, watching the same three shows over and over again: pandas, soap operas, potentially biased state-run news. Yes, because they also produced “Bite of China.” Even The Guardian called it “the best television show about food ever made.”
You might not think that you need to understand why Siberian elm flowers and green field snails are part of China’s culinary culture, but that’s because you haven’t watched this show yet. You might be too busy watching “Chef’s Table,” which I’m happy to admit might be the pinnacle of American food television, but that’s a dubious honor, like being at the pinnacle of American maternity leave policy.
But here’s the thing about “Chef’s Table”: The Emmy Awards and Netflix watchers alike have heaped praise upon this show that glorifies the work of top chefs around the world. The dramatic, documentary-style, food-porny shots keep diners drooling. But they’re drooling over people making incredible food with every resource imaginable — astronomically expensive meals that wealthy diners fly around the world to eat. If you want to understand the most truly amazing things people do with food, you need to look low, not high.
“Bite of China” is the poor man’s “Chef’s Table.” Not that the production values are low-grade or the cinematography hokey — in fact, it’s chock-full of absurdly sexy shots of temptingly delectable food with visuals and narration that both recall the BBC’s “Planet Earth” — but in that it profiles the little guy, the family selling five-cent buns, not three hundred-dollar dinners. It focuses on the people who make food in rural and urban China, carrying on regional food traditions and biking their products two hours to the nearest town to sell, foraging for rare mushrooms in the high mountains of Tibet, picking lotus roots in knee-deep water. It’s “Planet Earth” for the food-lover, “Chef’s Table” for the proletariat, Jiro Dreams of Sushi for all of China’s vast cuisine.
I was sitting at a banquet table in Hangzhou with my husband and his Chinese co-workers when I first learned of the show. “You’re a food writer, you order,” they said, shoving a menu in my hand, which was how we had ended up with the still-moving drunken shrimp on the table, splashing red wine sauce across the white plates as they flapped their tails, and a dozen people looking at each other nervously wondering who would take the first bite. This is a common expectation: that food writers know about all foods everywhere. But more shocking to them than the fact that I couldn’t order us a decent banquet from the photo menu was that I had never seen “Bite of China” — or as the Chinese name translates literally, “China on the tip of the tongue.”
When the stunned silence ended and somebody finally bit into the (surprisingly delicious) shrimp, a ripple of conversation started. First thing tomorrow, we would be escorted to a restaurant across town that had been featured on the show. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Shanghai the next afternoon, they had Taobao-ed (think Chinese Amazon, but bigger and better) the box set of both seasons — the entire series, plus a companion recipe book (sadly only available in Chinese) — directly to our hotel, which just happened to have a DVD player. (Lest you criticize me for spending my time in Shanghai watching movies instead of exploring: I was traveling with a four-month-old. There was a lot of indoor time.)
We watched as chefs made longevity noodles in Shanxi and artisans cured giant hams in Jinhua, sat riveted by the process of picking bamboo shoots and by the intricate multi-tiered preparation of nine-layer cakes. The foods that danced across the screen to the stilted accent of the English dubbing ranged from cobweb-like hairy tofu to simple handmade dumplings, the shots from sprawling overheads of entire waterways to the tiny water droplets cascading from a single garlic sprout.
The stories, like the camera work, pan from micro to macro to give a full picture of the country’s varied and disparate styles of cooking. Even though “Bite” is limited to a single country, it manages to include more diversity in single episodes than the entire “Chef’s Table” series. In a Wall Street Journal story on comments posted to Weibo (think Chinese Twitter), a common complaint was that it focused too much on minority and border cuisines, and not enough on the majority Han.
To me, that’s part of the appeal: a deeper exploration of sides of the cuisine that even the most aggressive and adventurous traveler would have trouble digging up. It doesn’t just show off the food: it bores to its center, looking at the people who make it, eating with them, following them on the job, and seeing how a lifetime devoted to the food affects them. It demonstrates the “why” behind the traditions — like how lamb fat in a Xinjiang polo (pilaf) dish pulls vitamins from the carrots — and then illustrates it with the kind of intensely appetizing shots that make your stomach rumble and your brain immediately contemplate booking flights to Kashgar.
In some ways, “Bite” shares the element of out-of-reach temptation with “Chef’s Table”: with the former, it’s solely geographical, with the latter, also financial. But where the focus of “Chef’s Table” is on the singular achievement of an individual in each episode — “this guy [or occasionally gal] is special” — “Bite” comes across with a more general message: Chinese food is diverse and incredible. So, while I can’t go out tonight and buy intricately carved jujube pastries in the shape of flowers any more than I can fly to France to sit at Alain Passard’s table, I can order in some noodles and dumplings and at least eat one tiny piece of the same giant tradition displayed as part of the best food television ever made.
While CCTV has Bite of China on their website for viewing, it is finicky, and I’ve found that I have better luck on YouTube: Season One, Season Two. Amazon also has the first season free for Prime members or for purchase, but it’s a subtitled version, and this is one of the few cases where the dubbed version is better. They also have the box set for sale.
Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based freelance food and travel writer and the world’s most enthusiastic eater of everything.