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Lifestyle
Telling Food Stories
A new documentary presents Chinese barbecue just the way it is
By Zhang Shasha | Web Exclusive
A woman works at her outdoor barbecue stall in Baise, south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (VIDEO SCREENSHOT)
One of China's greatest assets is no doubt its eclectic cuisine. One of the most popular foods to be found is no doubt the street snacks that make up a large part of everyday life.

A new documentary series, called Chinese Barbecue, tells the story of this popular food option that sizzles over hot coals on just about every street corner in cities and towns across the country. Barbecued meat kebabs glistening over hot coal braziers, while not as elegant as some of the fine dining options in China, are an integral part of people's night life. The aroma and atmosphere surrounding these grilled street eats are "something that could entice a girl to fly downstairs at night wearing her pajamas," the documentary claims.

Released on June 20, the documentary has had more than 25 million clicks on video site Bilibili.com, and has received a rating of 8.9 out of 10 on Douban.com, one of China's most popular film reviewing platforms. Its popularity is reminiscent of another well-known food related documentary called A Bite of China, launched by China Central Television in 2012, which won both domestic and international acclaim.

To find the most popular barbecue stalls the production team trekked to more than 500 locations in 30 cities across the country.

Some viewers compare Chinese Barbecue to Midnight Diner, a Japanese TV series documenting stories from late night izakaya (informal Japanese bars) open from midnight to dawn, mirroring the vicissitudes of Japanese people.

"I'm happy to hear that [comparison] because Midnight Diner is a masterpiece, and we share the same topic, night food," Chinese Barbecue's director Chen Yingjie told Beijing Review. However, Chen said in terms of the tone, "we are quite different." He said that Midnight Diner focused more on food itself, though there was some conversation while people were eating. But this was more in the way of politeness, reflecting the personality of Japanese who obtain inner peace from being quiet. In contrast, the night food scene of Chinese people signifies jollification and a more lively spirit. People eating these barbecue snacks develop a feeling of affiliation, which can be an antidote to loneliness.

An electric fan is used to make the fire stronger by a barbecue stall owner in Changsha, central China’s Hunan Province (VIDEO SCREENSHOT)

On the other side of the world, in the United States, BBQ TV programs demonstrate the even more enthusiastic personality of Americans, who grill large steaks and ribs on their outdoor stoves at home and enjoy competing to see who has the better cooking skills.

"These programs serve as a window, through which we can view how people from other cultures treat food, and more broadly, their life," said Chen.

Barbecue, regarded as the most ordinary and common night street snack, is different from homemade food by mothers as that is a symbol of family and kinship. Barbecue is where you go to become connected to people in society. And unlike official business lunches, during which people are rather reserved and polite, barbecue lets people cut loose and relax with old friends and newly made friends, leaving a lasting impression of camaraderie. That's why it can strike a chord with overseas Chinese. "If A Bite of China ignites my nostalgia, Chinese Barbecue forces me to book a ticket back [home]," commented a viewer.

"Compared with A Bite of China, which showcases exquisite cooking processes and demonstrated delicate gourmet cuisine on air, Chinese Barbecue is more down-to-earth in depicting 'the people'," said Chen.

To Chen, people are the most crucial part of a culture. He explained that even if a tourist can be amazed by scenic or historical sites in other countries, what impresses him most when he travels is his encounter with local people and how they live their lives.

In recent years, more and more programs featuring distinct Chinese characteristics are stepping forward on the international stage, such as Masters of the Forbidden City, a documentary illustrating how ancient relics are restored, and the National Treasure, a series narrating the previous and present life of Chinese cultural heritage.

"The world, as a whole, holds deep-rooted good feelings toward barbecue, either for the taste or the warmth generated by fire," said Chen. "What we should do is to present Chinese barbecue just the way it is because with its unique ingredients, way of cooking, and more importantly, the unique environment and people, the world will recognize it and might fall in love with it just as we do."

Copyedited by Francisco Little

Comments to zhangshsh@bjreview.com

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