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China TV series seeks to put cultural identity on the menu

The popular documentary series “A Bite on China”(舌尖上的中國) — 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 endeavor 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.

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