Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
‘I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.’
Strangely enough, many of the most touching bits in A Bite of China: Celebrating the New Year are only indirectly about food, when the story zooms out into context. It is the 23rd day of the last lunar month, when by custom the deities that watch over Chinese kitchens submit their reports on the virtues of the homeowners; and within the bare wood and brick walls of his house the grandpa is paying respects to the splashes of colour – the image of the deity, the red couplets, a pyramid of golden ‘candy melons’.
Those candy melons – malt sugar stretched and sculpted, rolled with sesame seeds, and with no melons involved – are his work every Chinese New Year; by now we’ve watched him make them, take them to market, smash them for the village kids. But now they serve another purpose, one concerning how the coming year will go. The old man is relying on them to propitiate the Stove God; he lights joss sticks, he prays.
Each year on the twelfth month’s twenty-third day,
We send you, Lord of Stoves, on your way.
We haven’t much to offer you,
But please enjoy these candy melons.
Speak well of us in heaven,
And keep us safe on earth.
Celebrating the New Year is a spinoff of the TV documentary A Bite of China (舌尖上的中國) which took China by storm when the first series was rolled out in 2012. And for good reason too – I will venture that the two seasons and 14 episodes of ABoC are the best TV documentaries ever made about Chinese food or indeed any food. Its popularity has been such that the word shejian, which literally means ‘tongue-tip’, has become a byword for food, cuisine and culinary culture in recent years. So it seems a no brainer to make a film-length special.
Not that it would be a foolproof option. The choice of the Chinese New Year as a topical core is apt; Chinese folk culture, always happy with the rituals and hopeful symbols, is a rich vein of material. But I read somewhere that the original plan had been to make a drama film, with star actors (including Nicholas Tse, heaven forfend), characters and a romantic plot. It’s the sort of stupidity and point-missing you would expect from a Hollywood studio.
Thankfully, the producers here came to their senses and decided to stick with boring old documentary. After all, there is plenty to love about the subject matter of Celebrating the New Year – in the food, in its preparation, and in what it all means. The film runs in roughly chronological sequence, with the first half mainly focused on a group of families preparing for the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, and the latter half focusing on different practices during the fifteen days of festivities.
Here, it must be said, the quality of the stories is a little bit uneven, and I prefer the first half to the second. In the presence of a real unifying theme – reunion of families – the stories and recipes have something to anchor themselves around. In steamed triple eggs – a chawanmushi with salted egg yolks and century eggs in – there is the wistfulness of a bereaved daughter who has decided to return to her native Taiwan for good. In sunning dried fish (including, surprisingly, pufferfish), there is commentary on the lengths to which fishermen go to supply the immense demand for seafood during the period. The stories are in turn linked to classic seasonal dishes from the region, from smoked dried pork (Sichuan) to crabs on glutinous rice (Tainan).
The second half is less focused, and in some bits the story seems a little forced – interspersing gorgeous footage of a goose being prepared for the roast with incongruous footage of Wing Chun, for instance. But even then it has its moments, including a lovely section on how people across rural China seek to propitiate the deities with their best dishes – those candy melons, and in Inner Mongolia a rare sweet dish.
So basically Celebrating has also decided to stick with its storytelling style, circling around different themes and zooming around their vast country. The voice of narrator Li Lihong lends a magisterial, Attenboroughesque (or Freemanesque) air to the proceedings, and the show almost never patronises; they know you are watching because you like food, and they get right to it. At the same time, they make sure to grab stories from across the length and breadth of a multicultural country, which gives a further sense of vastness.
The camera work, on the other hand, is unalloyed, joyful geekery, a wide-eyed boy going corrr at things big and small, from the dunking of pork belly in boiling oil to the puffing up of those geese, blown so the skin separates from muscle and is more crisp after roasting. And the music, by series veteran Roc Chen, covers beautifully the parts where narration is not needed, like a lingering drone shot over a Zhejiang fishing town.
The most jarring thing about Celebrating, though, is the occasionally wistful – even pessimistic – tone which colours many of its loveliest sections. While it is true that Chinese culture has become more urbanised and often more homogenous, and many traditions are at risk of dying out, it still feels a little strange to keep hearing about ‘the last of the ang ku kueh mould makers’, and how ‘these things will eventually fade out of memory’. Even the whole institution of Chinese New Year, the narration goes, may become ‘merely another day in the calendar’ one day. Given how the two series of ABoC have helped revive interest in those same traditions, this seems literally self-effacing, as if the medium is too shy to acknowledge the positive effect it can have on preserving these customs.
But don’t take my word for that. On Youtube, the comments for the video (which, due to Youtube being blocked in China, come almost exclusively from overseas Chinese nationals) are full of hunger, longing and nostalgia. For the customs most easily lost are the ones we don’t notice slipping away until too late. But Celebrating, by recording traditions so lovingly, is already doing excellent – and dreadfully appetising – work to ensure there’s something to remember.
A Bite of China: Celebrating the New Year
Duration: 84 minutes