Over the past four years, a documentary series called “A Bite of China” has been received with rapturous acclaim by domestic audiences. Two seasons of the series, which showcases local Chinese cuisine, have already been completed, and a third is currently in production.
Previous television programs have introduced domestic viewers to the complicated processes involved in creating classic Chinese dishes, as well as the superb cooking skills of famous chefs. “A Bite of China,” however, takes a different route, preferring to show us what Chinese people eat on a day-to-day basis.
A typical scene from the documentary runs like this: A weather-beaten rural grandparent or housewife gathers raw ingredients, before creating a local delicacy using their traditional expertise and techniques. Meanwhile, the narrator extols the virtues of such handcrafted food in vivid detail.
Consider the following description of hand-pressed rapeseed oil from the show’s second season: “The use of wooden presses to extract oil is an ancient craft with over 1,000 years of heritage. In an age of electricity and machines, the traditional struggle between flesh and wood still radiates an aura of primeval vitality. A 100-kilogram hammer knocks into the wooden wedge, putting enormous pressure on the seedcake inside the press. This pressure causes the oil to seep out of the seeds. The hammer strikes again and again for more than three hours. Today, in a world driven by the pursuit of profit and efficiency, this may be the best way to carry on the wisdom of our forefathers.”
Today, more and more Chinese people are reconsidering their relationship with food. For many, supermarket produce pales in comparison to homegrown countryside ingredients. There is a feeling that handcrafted foods must be inherently healthier than packaged products from factory assembly lines, and that traditionally made oils and condiments have more flavor than the ones produced by machines.
Such a change in attitude is unsurprising, given that in the past 10 years China has been hit with a series of damaging food safety scandals. In 2009, around 70 people in Guangdong province suffered severe food poisoning after eating pork contaminated with clenbuterol, a drug commonly used to treat asthma. Further scandals involved milk adulterated with gelatin and excessive artificial coloring in drinks.
As a result, Chinese people have been left wondering which products can be trusted, and how they should go about cooking healthy, nutritious food. A side effect of this trend has been to bring the focus back onto the taste of what they cook.
For food companies, the clean food trend has created a host of new market opportunities. Food labels in China are now frequently adorned with promotional slogans insisting that products are “all handmade” or have used “traditional crafting processes.” The aims of such marketing are to stress that their products are not the result of industrialization and mechanization, and to suggest that they are therefore more natural, nutritious, and healthy.
As a result, in recent years more and more mid-to-high-income Chinese people buy products based on the belief that “handmade is good.” This phenomenon indicates that Chinese society is currently undergoing a dietary paradigm shift from simply “eating enough” to “eating well.”
There are historical parallels between the readjustment of consumer values and the belief in traditional food crafting techniques. In the ’60s and ’70s, as the Cultural Revolution swept across China, the government attempted to use crude, violent, revolutionary methods to resolve a number of longstanding internal conflicts in the nation’s traditional culture. Its failure to successfully marry traditional values with so-called modern modes of governance led to a schism between the two concepts in the mid-to-late 20th century.
The Cultural Revolution privileged the importance of ideology over empiricism, and thereby hindered the propagation of modern scientific ideas in China. It has taken the country’s local cultures 40 years to recover alongside rapid socioeconomic changes. In fact, in the wake of the reform and opening-up policies of the ’80s, no matter how loud the official exhortations to undermine and exterminate traditional beliefs became, the public continued to support them. Today, for instance, interest in traditional Chinese medicine, Confucian traditions, and Taoist longevity practices enjoy a level of support unprecedented since the end of the Cultural Revolution.
In the same way, the public’s taste buds have gladly welcomed back traditional culinary techniques and “secret palace recipes” — rich and flavorsome dishes associated with the erstwhile imperial court and believed to contain the secrets to good health. The reverse side of the coin, however, is that resurgent folk customs such as these lack a basis in nutritional science.
In addition, crude customs like a preference for exotic game and the cruel consumption of domesticated animals no longer accord with the realities of human dietary requirements — to say nothing of the ethical issues they raise.
When we support handmade, nonindustrialized cooking techniques, we are actually revealing that many Chinese still have mindsets that are anti-science, anti-logic, and culinary nationalist. A statement attributed to the early 20th-century revolutionary Sun Yat-sen — attesting that modern China trails the West in every aspect except for cooking — has been co-opted by the Chinese culinary world and used to buttress the “Three Divine Attributes” theory of Chinese cuisine: namely, that food should be somehow sacred, mysterious, and miraculous. Despite the blindness to nutritional science that comes with this belief, it is one that remains seductive in culinary cultures across the country.
As an example, take the rapeseed oil extraction technique lauded so poetically in “A Bite of China.” Many people believe that oil produced by such a traditional method must be healthier, higher-quality, and more flavorful. Yet they are unaware that the unrefined oils produced by these techniques have not undergone a process of solvent extraction, and therefore often have excessive levels of aflatoxin B1, an extremely potent carcinogen. In addition, the equipment used for hand extraction of rapeseed oil, like wood presses, is usually unsanitary. Finally, levels of other cancer-causing substances like heavy metal residues, peroxides, and benzopyrene often fail to meet food safety standards.
In reality, food oil that has been processed and filtered by modern industrial techniques has remedied the inherent dangers of traditional techniques. In addition, trace elements lacking in many people’s diets can now be added to foods to improve health.
Publicizing and promoting traditional food preparation techniques and dietary customs is beneficial when it helps to protect and sustain heritage and customs. But given the advances of modern nutritional science, we must remain vigilant against violations of empirical evidence and ensure that we do not deny progressive, sustainable, healthy eating concepts just to return to seductive — but outdated — traditional practices.
Healthy eating concepts that have the support of modern nutritional science must be popularized through the collaborative effort of the Chinese government, the media, scientists, and nonprofit organizations. The mainstream media should take it upon themselves to help disseminate modern nutritional concepts and facts, instead of paying lip service to potentially harmful aspects of traditional food culture.
(Header image: A man hits a wooden wedge with a hammer to put pressure on the seedcake inside the press, which causes the oil to seep out of the seeds, Huangshan, Anhui province, May 2, 2016. VCG)