Taipei (The China Post/ANN) - The popular documentary series A Bite on China¿ by mainland Chinese top state TV broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) - began on an almost mythical note.
With his authoritative voice (imagine Morgan Freeman speaking Mandarin Chinese), narrator Li Lihong described China as a vast nation with possibly the richest natural resources for food on Earth. The very first food item featured in the premiere episode is the ¿fairy-like¿ rare fungus of pine mushroom from the forest of Shangri-La.
The series, comprising seven 50-minute long episodes with footage from 70 locations that took 13 months to make, can be regarded as an ambitious myth-making endeavour that attempts both to establish Chinese cuisine as a sophisticated style of cooking on par with its French counterpart and, perhaps more importantly, to create a modern mental map of China for its billions of people.
The map is political as well as cultural. True to its political propaganda mission, the CCTV included mullet roe from Taiwan as one of the delicacies from China.
As Taiwanese media have learned long ago, food is a strong cultural ambassador. For many Taiwanese people, local food (and beverages) is one of the least disputed indicators of national identity. People were proud when pearl milk tea was exported to Europe; they were indignant when a travel website picked pig's blood cake as the world's weirdest food.
For foreigners, pearl milk tea and other Taiwanese food and beverages actually remind them better of Taiwan than the nation's star athletes. In the international sports scene, players are mostly identified with the team they are in and not the nations they come from.
The rapid growth of mainland China has created a substantial middle class. While the property bubble in the mainland makes home ownership a distant dream for many, the more affordable and instantaneous gratification of sightseeing and eating make domestic foodie tourism important. Like many middle-class Taiwanese, although the middle-class Chinese may not be able to privately own a piece of their land, they can at least have a bite of it, which gives them a sense of belonging.
The show also marks a clever move by the Chinese media to achieve the Communist Party's stated goal of curbing what it saw as excessive promotion of materialistic ideals and to add ¿educational values¿ to entertainment. By preaching the importance of sustainable relationship between human beings and nature, as well as prominently featuring down-to-earth farmers, ingredient collectors, food preparers and chefs, the documentary clearly aims to advocate environmentalist and humanistic virtues to the middle-class viewers.
Nevertheless, all the high-minded ideas in the show cannot hide the consumerist nature of Chinese society. Soon after the documentary was aired, the sales of Nuodeng Ham featured in the first episode reportedly increased 17-fold. Many of the restaurants introduced in the series became instant stars.
Despite its idealistic depiction of China, the show cannot hide the troubles that have been plaguing the nation. While the show is widely admired by the mainland Chinese, China's problematic food safety is a dominant topic among its fans.
The nation's property craze is also highlighted by the headaches that many restaurant owners featured in the show have experienced, finding themselves suddenly facing huge rental increases by opportunistic landlords. The show has also recently been accused of passing off dishes made by five-star hotel chefs as those made by down-to-earth noodle eateries.
The CCTV has announced the renewal of the series for a new season. China is quickly learning the importance of soft power not only as a leverage for foreign affairs but also as a powerful tool for creating national identity.
In contrast to the mainland, Taiwan, although having had a good head start, is in an apparent stalemate with regard to this area. The government should address its lack of plans to support unique Taiwanese culture (made evident in the Shida Night Market debacle and the sudden move of an iconic ice shop in Taipei), or it will risk trailing the mainland even in soft power.