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Local flavors

By Fang Aiqing| China Daily|Updated: April 1, 2022

Local snacks and street food like noodle soup with swine intestine and blood and bean curd balls are highlights of the documentary series. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Creators of cuisine documentaries have moved into a new stage where the origin of food is highlighted. China, with a vast land covering plains, plateaus and mountainous areas, from coasts to the inland and from the tropical to the freezing, has a diverse food culture that tests the well-known saying-"you are what you eat"-in reality.

A recent documentary released on Tencent's video platform, featuring local snacks of Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, shows people's preference for sour and spicy flavors reflecting a regional culture rooted in the mountains with frequent rain.

The development of transportation and high-tech industries has largely improved the local economy in recent years, and the province has become a tourism hot spot.

"We want to present places people have heard of but are not familiar enough to know about its special food," says Zhu Lexian, director of Tencent Video Documentary Studio and a member of the production team of the documentary series Flavorful Origins, which has been streamed online since June.

Besides Guizhou, the series also covers what's known to overseas Chinese as the Chaoshan regions of southern Guangdong province, southwestern Yunnan and northwestern Gansu provinces. All three programs were praised on review site Douban.

Local snacks and street food like noodle soup with swine intestine and blood and bean curd balls are highlights of the documentary series. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Each documentary consists of several episodes of around 10 minutes, and every episode focuses on one particular type of food that distinguishes its origin from the others.

The Guiyang chapter of the series snapshots mainly street food booths in aging alleys and shops at the bottom of high-rises. They do not necessarily appear at banquets, but are easily accessible in daily life, producer Li Jie says during a fans' meeting.

As Guizhou province was not suitable to produce salt, historically, the locals have developed versatile ways to present the sour flavor to preserve food longer, and the people's preference for spicy food is to resist the generally warm and humid climate.

Unlike people living in the south and southeastern areas of China who prefer light food for breakfast, many Guiyang locals start their day with a bowl of noodle soup with swine intestine and blood, covered with powdered dried chili and some other condiments.

The documentary series Flavorful Origins reveals the bonds between food and the soil that nourishes it. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The perfect mixture of flour and eggs makes the noodles pliable and chewy. One might try to cover their eyes at the pudding-like swine blood that the veteran chef slices into pieces and throws into boiling water. All this is covered in minute detail. The process does not necessarily please some of the audience, but for many, it will make them salivate.

Even for common materials like tofu, the locals have a novel but time-tested way to deal with it.

The tofu, made with sour soup fermented for three days, has become an ingredient for dozens of dishes like fried bean curd balls, or fried tofu slices with a golden, inflated surface with insides melted into soybean milk.

The latter can also be covered with fish mint (yuxingcao), a garnish favored by people living in Southwest China's highland and mountainous areas.

"Although the locals do not know the process food undertakes, like acid-base neutralization, or how to manage temperature and broth, generations of people there have gradually developed techniques based on their understandings of the dish," Li says, adding that it's one of the most charming aspects about folk cuisine.

Local snacks and street food like noodle soup with swine intestine and blood and bean curd balls are highlights of the documentary series. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The show applied high-definition and macrophotography to zoom into chemical reactions inside the food, with a narration explaining the subtle changes. This allows audiences to see how the raw materials become what they are on the table.

Each area or region has its own flavor developed over time. The steps taken to prepare food may seem complicated at first, especially to outsiders, but they are all part of the traditions passed on.

It is this approach, of not being hurried or rushed, that helps preserve the authentic flavor of the region, says Hu Zhitang, director of the series.

Although the show prefers not to reveal the exact names and locations of the restaurants and food booths involved, some of the audience try to identify the locations. It's like a treasure hunt and "screen bullets" are used in real time with comments drifting on the screen.

The producing team from the documentary studio DOClabs has been cultivating the field of cuisine documentary for years. One of its founders is Chen Xiaoqing, a pioneering documentary director among his peers.


The documentary series Flavorful Origins reveals the bonds between food and the soil that nourishes it. [Photo provided to China Daily]

But unlike their previous works, including A Bite of China and Once Upon a Bite that attached importance to using the dishes to tell emotional stories of people, Flavorful Origins focuses more on showing the bonds between the food and the soil in which the ingredients are grown.

In a chapter featuring Yunnan, the camera didn't avoid moments when the younger generations of locals were not used to the tastes of some local food.

However, by deconstructing local food, one may get a clue of how the predecessors of people living there have adjusted to the place, and how evolving tastes indicate the subtle differences in nature and culture even in neighboring towns.


The documentary series Flavorful Origins reveals the bonds between food and the soil that nourishes it. [Photo provided to China Daily]


Members of the production team-(from left) Zhu Lexian, Li Jie and Hu Zhitang-attend a Beijing event to promote Flavorful Origins. [Photo provided to China Daily]


Local snacks and street food like noodle soup with swine intestine and blood and bean curd balls are highlights of the documentary series. [Photo provided to China Daily]