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The lure of cured foods

By Ye Jun | China Daily | Updated: 2012-05-30 09:50

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"Time can be the best friend of food, or a deadly enemy."

The lure of cured foods

So starts the fourth episode of A Bite of China, a popular documentary about Chinese food, broadcast recently on China Central Television (CCTV).

Such wisdom is expressed about pickled cabbage in Northeast China, preserved meat in Hong Kong, marinated fish and preserved roast pork in Hunan, Jinhua ham in Zhejiang, and preserved millet roe in Taiwan.

A multitude of methods to preserve food has produced a number of tasty, classic foods.

Zhang Minghuan, director of the 50-minute TV segment, visited nine cities along with his six-member team to find out more.

At 34, Zhang has worked for CCTV for 11 years and specializes in people stories. To prepare for A Bite of China, Zhang says he watched foreign documentaries about food, and Chinese films about food, such as Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang Lee.

He concentrated on how the directors used light, angles and backgrounds to make food look appetizing. He also looked at food photos and tried to figure out why some were good, and how this knowledge could be used in the language of television.

"When I ate at restaurants, I watched food advertisements on TVs on the wall, and tried to work out how they made the food look so delicious," he says.

Preparation for Zhang's documentary began in March 2011 and shooting wrapped up in December.

"Picking the right people to film was like fishing for needles in the sea. It was the most difficult part," he says.

"A good documentary requires strong protagonists."

Through a coordinator, Zhang found Jin Shunji, an ethnically Korean Chinese, who grew up in Heilongjiang province, and now works in Beijing. Zhang and his crew followed Jin to her hometown to film villagers making traditional Korean pickled cabbage.

Zhang says he was impressed by the simplicity and honesty of the villagers.

The documentary starts and ends with Jin Shunji. At Jin's home in Beijing, she stores pickled cabbage in the refrigerator, and it is Jin's comfort food when she misses home.

On occasion, Zhang failed to locate the person he was looking for, but accidentally found somebody better.

For instance, he set out to find an individual who was making salted fish in Tai O, Hong Kong, but could not locate him. Instead he found a grandmother who made another of Hong Kong's traditional specialties, salted prawn sauce.

"I couldn't understand a word of what she was saying the first time I met her. So, when I saw a picture of an old man under a piece of glass on the table, I repeatedly asked who it was."

It turned out to be the grandmother's recently deceased husband and she broke down in tears. Zhang promptly apologized, while the old lady patted his head and said it was alright.

"When I returned to Beijing, I realized what a touching moment it was. In comparison, the food is unimportant. But the people go well with the whole tone of the documentary."