A Bite of China is a documentary about Chinese food and the people who prepare it.
I’m going to record every type of food and every dish mentioned in the series. When I have enough money (about a gazillion, I think), this will be my menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh and high tea, mid-morning snack, and late evening snack . . .
But before the gazillion comes true, I’ll have to learn from a Chinese idiom: 画饼充饥
Which means “draw a cake to satisfy your hunger”.
Or,”if I can’t eat it, at least I can look at it”.
Episode One: Gifts from Nature
You can watch the entire episode here.
China has a vast population, diverse landforms—plateau, forest, lake, and coastline.
The range of geographical and climactic features have allowed the formation and preservation of species, both flora and fauna. The amount of potential food sources in China is unrivalled.
People gather, forage, dig, and fish for nature’s gifts.
Across four seasons, we are going to discover the stories behind the food, and explore the relationship between man and nature.
Gifts from the Forest
Shangri-La, Yunnan Province
Pristine forests surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
In the forest with both pine trees and oak trees, Tenzin Dolma and her mother set out on a daily trek.
They are trying to find an elusive food.
Matsutake, a type of edible mushroom.
The mushrooms like to hide under pine needles.
The delicate mushrooms can only survive at high-altitude forest that hasn’t been touched by pollution.
Dolma says that she usually has to walk for a kilometre before finding one matsutake.
Matsutake is a highly prized wild mushroom.
In big cities, a dish of grilled matsutake can fetch as much as 1,600 yuan (about 230 USD).
Grilled matsutake gives off a strong, savoury aroma.
City folks view matsutake as ambrosia-like food.
Jidi Village is the matsutake centre of Shangri-La.
At 3 am, when it’s still completely dark, villagers leave their home and head for the mountains, searching for matsutake.
After leaving the village, Dolma and her mother have to trek for another 20 km to the forest.
Even for experienced villagers, finding matsutake still relies much on luck.
High-quality matsutake is hidden beneath the soil.
Dolma’s mother searches the mushroom pit she dug two days ago, and found new matsutake that has grown there.
In the villages, it’s more common to prepare matsutake by sautéing it with shortening.
The best food requires only the simplest cooking method to bring out its flavour.
In recent years, the price of matsutake has skyrocketed.
In the rainy season, the farmers could earn up to ten thousand yuan by finding matsutake. But the workload is heavy.
There is a strict ranking system for matsutake.
There are 48 different quality ranks of matsutake, depending on its place of origin and other variables.
This is Grade A matsutake.
Matsutake has a shelf life of 3 days.
Merchants have to prepare and process matsutake very fast.
Villagers can get 80 yuan for a matsutake of this size.
Six hours later, it will be displayed in a supermarket in Tokyo, with a price tag of 700 yuan.
Once the month of rain passes, matsutake will disappear.
Rain arrives in late May, and accelerates the growth of all kinds of wild mushrooms.
Dolma and her mother are only interested in the matsutake.
After getting the matsutake out, Dolma covers the pit with pine needles to protect the roots, so that mushrooms can continue to sprout.
Suichang County, Zhejiang Province
Nature has gifted us with another food from the forest.
Fresh bamboo shoots are cut into 3-cm pieces.
Then submerged in oil.
Add condiments, and you have a dish of stewed bamboo shoots.
Many Chinese people’s livelihood depends on bamboo.
They are also the experts in bamboo shoots.
Bao Genji comes from Zhejiang. He once grew the biggest bamboo shoot in all of Suichang.
Winter bamboo shoots are hidden beneath the soil.
From the soil surface, you won’t see anything.
Bao only needs to take one look at the colour of the bamboo top to know the precise location of the shoots.
Beneath this layer of soil that looks as if nothing grows there, bamboo shoots are flourishing.
Bamboo shoots are seasonal and perishable.
After removing its outer skin, there is not much left that’s edible.
Chinese chefs are fond of bamboo shoots because they go well with many other types of food.
They go well especially with fatty meat.
Bao starts his process by finding a 4-year-old bamboo, and then digging along its rhizome—underground roots.
Once he finds the bamboo shoot, he digs it out gently without harming its roots.
Then he covers the bamboo shoots with soil. They can stay fresh for up to two weeks.
Pork soup with winter bamboo shoots.
Liuzhou, Guangxi Province
1,500 km southwest of Zhejiang Province
A’liang comes from Guangxi
Sweet bamboo shoots grow in the forest here.
Mid-June to mid-September is the best season for harvesting tender bamboo shoots.
Bamboos grow out of soil and become hardened quickly. If they are not harvested in time, they will grow old, and the shoots will taste bitter.
A’liang harvests summer shoots, which do not taste as fresh and tender as winter shoots, but they can be made into pickled bamboo shoots.
The bamboo shoots will start to rot four hours after being harvested.
A’liang and his family have to work fast.
Rice noodle in snail soup is a famous Liuzhou snack.
Pickled bamboo shoots are the most important condiment in the snack.
Gifts from the earth
Nuodeng Village, Dali City, Yunnan Province
Salt wells are scattered amongst red sandstones.
Blood sausages are made with locally mined salt, and take a week of preparation time.
Huang and his son are constructing a stove to extract salt.
Brine water is boiled to obtain salt.
The salted ham has been hanging under the eaves for 3 years, allowing it to dry, cure and develop aromas.
The ham is cut into different parts. There is a different way to prepare and consume each part.
The middle part, nearest to the bone, is the best part.
Cured ham older than 3 years can be eaten without being cooked.
Ham with equal parts fat and lean meat is fried with celtuce.
At noon, salt evaporated from the salt well attracts livestock.
After 4 hours of cooking, the brine has crystallised.
Salt from Nuodeng is rich in potassium.
Huang and his son go to the market at Yunlong County to pick out pork for making ham.
Pigs on the highland differ from FAQ (fair average quality) pigs.
Huang and his son return home with pork they’d bought. The best time to prepare ham is from late December to late January.
Nuodeng Village is situated 1,800 metres above sea level. Its geographical location and its climate makes it ideal for curing ham.
Huang’s son has been learning how to cure ham for more than ten years, but he is still not as good as his father.
The process is simple and repetitive. It’s as much a science as it is an art, in deciding how much salt to use, how to spread the salt evenly, and how to massage the salt into the ham.
Top quality Nuodeng ham
Nuodeng fried rice with ham
Gifts from the Lake
Jiayu County, Hubei Province
In October, water level in the lake goes down.
Shengwu and Maorong are brothers. They set out together in the morning.
It’s not easy to find what they are looking for in the silt.
It takes strength to dig up the silt and soil, patience to sift through the mud, and a gentle hand to extract the lotus roots without breaking them apart.
People in Hubei love lotus roots.
After cleaning the lotus roots and removing their outer skin, the chef cuts lotus roots into thin slices.
Meat filling is prepared.
With a pair of chopsticks, the chef stuffs the meat filling into two slices of lotus roots.
Add starch paste.
Deep dry until they turn a colour of golden brown.
Lotus sandwich, anyone?
Lotus roots can only be extracted by hand.
The colder the weather, the higher the price of lotus roots, since more people are willing to pay for a bowl of hot lotus roots soup.
Stewed spare ribs with Lotus roots soup is a common dish in parts of Hubei.
Chagan Lake, Jiling Province
A bountiful harvest beneath the frozen lake awaits fishermen.
Chefs in a Beijing restaurant are preparing a bestselling dish—fish head soup with flatbread.
The fish heads are transported from Jiling, a few hundred kilometres away.
They are stewed in prepared soup, without adding oil.
Quality fish heads are much more expensive than fresh fish.
4 am, fishermen head towards Chagan Lake.
They traverse the frozen lake surface, dressed in thick coats and mufflers.
The possibility of falling through a crack in the ice to a cold death is a real and present danger.
The fishermen sink a fishing net into the water.
Finding a good spot to sink a fishing net into depends on experience and luck.
Shi Baozhu is 77 years old. He started fishing when he was 15.
The fishing net is visible beneath the layer of ice.
Near Chinese New Year, a ritual is conducted to pay respects to the lake.
8 hours after sinking the fishing net, it’s time to take it out.
Almost all the fish weigh at least 2 kg. There’re no small fish in the net.
The fishing net is designed to allow small fish and bycatch to escape.
And keep fish older than 5 years.
Reunion dinner at Chinese New Year’s Eve, fish is the main ingredient.
The pièce de résistance is stewed fish in soy sauce.
The soy sauce must be from the northeastern provinces.
Bighead carp goes in first.
Mixed with several other types of fish.
The all-fish reunion dinner consists of 14 different fish dishes.
Gifts from the ocean
Wanweiyu Village, Hainan Province
Fishermen walk on stilts to catch fish.
Fishermen venture out to the deep sea.
Lin Hongqi is the captain of a fishing boat in Sanya.
After preparing enough food and water, he sets out on a fishing trip with 20 of his crew.
Captain Lin catches a wolffish.
Fish are attracted to the lights.
The fishing crew often bring along some mackerels as food.
Cured fish can be kept for a long time.
The fish heads and tails are made into delicious soup with pickled vegetables.
Red sea snails are boiled with seawater
To recap: matsutake, bamboo shoots, ham, lotus roots, carp, mackerel.
Me when I think about the possibility of eating all these dishes:
Me when I realise how long it’ll take before I can have the gazillion needed to afford all the dishes:
But never give up. Every day brings me one step closer to my final goal: