There are a seemingly endless number of documentaries to enjoy on Asian food. But for mainland China — with a few notable exceptions — few Western documentarians have managed to even scratch the surface of the wide breadth of flavors and stories Chinese regional cuisines have to offer.
Thankfully, that’s changing — especially with an increase in Chinese-made documentaries that boast an insider’s look at food and identity. Whether you’re looking to escape or get informed, here are six food documentaries we love that are available for online streaming during your self-quarantine.
This seminal documentary from Chinese state network CCTV aired its first season in 2012 and was the first to ramp up the scope and production value of such documentaries in the country. The result resonated deeply with Chinese eaters nationwide. Shot in over 60 locations around China, the documentary also opened a much-needed window into the diversity of Chinese regional cuisine. Each episode leaps geographically, from the plains of Inner Mongolia to the island of Hainan, and highlights the history and preparation of famous dishes like mapo tofu and Shaoxing wine, as well as more obscure (but still very Chinese) foods.
Amazon Prime subscribers can watch here (season 1 only — but later seasons went off the boil anyway).
Flavorful Origins (2019)
Produced by China’s Tencent Video, Flavorful Origins was the first ever foreign platform-produced documentary to be syndicated on Netflix. And if you watch it, you quickly understand why. The 20-episode series is a lushly filmed love poem to the regional cuisine of Chaoshan, located in southeastern Guangdong province.
Prepare to Drool: Chinese Food Documentary “Flavorful Origins” Hits Netflix
Although it’s visually similar to other Netflix faves such as Chef’s Table and Salt Fat Acid Heat, this series earned praise for quietly focusing on the everyday farmers, shop owners, and family-run stalls that make up southern China’s storied food scene, rather than artisans or star chefs. (We recommend watching it in its original Mandarin, with subtitles.)
Netflix subscribers can watch the full series here.
The Search for General Tso (2018)
This documentary film digs into the origins of what’s probably the quintessential Chinese-American “chop suey” dish: General Tso’s chicken. Considered “authentic” by even well-traveled Americans, but utterly unrecognizable to most people in China — “that looks like frog, not chicken!” a woman exclaims on seeing a picture of the dish — General Tso’s chicken propagated across the United States in a time when Chinese immigrants had to carve out a culinary niche in order to survive.
Producer Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter and author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, leads this close-up on an invention that was equally shaped by Asian and American tastes.
Amazon Prime subscribers can watch the full movie here.
Lucky Chow (2017)
Okay, so this series isn’t exclusively about Chinese food, but it’s definitely worth diving into for the episodes that it is. Tending towards modern interpretations of traditional foods, this show tackles a different neighborhood, industry, or theme unique to Asian foods and identity in each episode, and features a who’s who of food experts and entrepreneurs from around the globe.
Hosted by Chinese-American entrepreneur Danielle Chang, who runs successful pan-Asian food festival brand Lucky Rice, Lucky Chow also takes a wide-angle approach to how ideas are exchanged between homeland and diaspora.
Viewers can watch the series for free on PBS here (season 2 only) and on the Lucky Chow site here (all seasons).
Once Upon a Bite (2019)
Alas, this one is for Chinese speakers only — for now, hopefully. After Season 2 of A Bite of China wrapped, visionary director Chen Xiaoqing parted ways with CCTV (which may help explain why Season 3 isn’t as good as the previous two). Chen would eventually be poached by Tencent and create his own TV show for the tech giant’s video streaming platform.
“A Bite of China” Director Launches Mouthwatering New Food Documentary Series
A hardcore foodie in his own right, Chen’s new series spends equal amounts of time on food and people and, unlike Bite of China, draws interesting parallels between Chinese farming and preparation methods and those in countries like Spain and France. If you can’t understand Chinese, it’s still well worth braving all the Tencent Video ads for the gorgeous visuals of landscapes and food.
Tencent Video VIP members can watch the full series here.
Breakfast in China (2019)
Like Once Upon a Bite, this viral series from 2019 is also sadly for Chinese speakers only. From Wuhan hot and dry noodles to Guangdong congee, these 35 five-minute episodes focuses on the most important meal of the day, and how it’s prepared and eaten in regions throughout China. To do this, the filmmakers visit a shop in each city that specializes in a famed local dish, and interview both the owners and their impassioned diners. “I’ve eaten here every day for over 10 years!” declares one local in the show’s first episode about his favorite noodle shop.
Viewers can watch the full series for free on Tencent Video here.
Header image: Breakfast in China (2019)
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