A stack of food magazines is sitting on my kitchen counter, menacing me with 20 different ways to brine, baste, roast, braise, and stuff a turkey; dozens of recipes for holiday cookies; and a raft of aspirational cocktail ideas. Instagram informed me this morning that my breakfast wasn’t pretty enough, and that I had missed the chance to see a butter sculpture of baking goddess Dorie Greenspan at an event in Brooklyn last night.
The food media in the US, where I live, can be a little overwhelming at this time of year. I have an antidote.
Put down that recipe for perfect apple pie and head straight to YouTube to binge-watch A Bite of China. There you’ll soar over Tibetan mountains and frozen lakes, and wade into muddy water where workers harvest lotus roots. You’ll zoom in on a father-and-son team in Yunnan who cure nuodeng ham using salt they evaporated themselves. You’ll hover over black clay cooking vessels in which matsutake mushrooms sizzle and curl, browning in golden yak butter.
It’s all the pleasure and awe of watching the nature documentary Planet Earth, but it’s about food—and it’s produced by China’s state TV station, China Central Television.
With no pressure to create any of these dishes at home, the show is a welcome break from a season overstuffed with food ambition. It’s just a nonstop stream of gorgeous ingredients, techniques and dishes—including many unfamiliar to even the most intrepid foodie.
Bite of China‘s first season aired in China in 2012, and season two came out in 2014. It was an unqualified hit in China, airing multiple times on several different China Central Television channels, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, sharply increasing demand for the regional specialties (paywall) highlighted on the show. But it didn’t make a huge splash with Western foodies, despite a food writer for The Guardian calling it, “the best TV show I’ve ever seen about food.”
The English translation is clunky at best (CCTV apparently didn’t think to ask Sir David Attenborough, the iconic narrator of Planet Earth, if he was available). The visual storytelling does 90% of the work, though.
Maybe the best thing, for me, about watching Bite of China is the subtle tension between the series as a piece of Chinese state propaganda and the authentic awesomeness of it. Tellingly, the series has been posted, in its entirety, on CCTV’s YouTube channel, despite YouTube being banned in China. The state wants the rest of the world to revel in China’s food prowess—and why not?
The first episode starts with a Tibetan mother and daughter searching for mushrooms in mountains that the narrator refers to as being “free from pollution.” It’s a strange sort of window dressing on both Chinese tensions with Tibet and Beijing’s infamously terrible air quality. Ethnic minorities and their traditional food ways are held up throughout as examples of Chinese ingenuity and the vast expanse of the country’s cuisine, including many segments highlighting Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the far west that is home to a large Uigher population with a longstanding conflict with the Chinese government.
The series is obviously an exercise in cultural cheerleading, but every single segment is so fascinating that it doesn’t feel disingenuous. If you like food and enjoy being reminded that the world is really quite large and full of things you don’t know about, you’ll find this series a sheer joy to watch.