'Once Upon a Bite 2' explores global stories behind food

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, May 1, 2020
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The sequel to the much applauded and ambitious food documentary "Once Upon A Bite" continues to shine a light on the stories and cultures behind mouthwatering cuisines around the world.

A still from the docuseries "Once Upon A Bite 2" shows smoke spiraling up from the kitchens of homes in a small Chinese townduring early morning. [Picture courtesy of DOClabs Beijing Media]

The docuseries is again made by renowned documentary director Chen Xiaoqing and his team. Chen explained that he has long been interested in making food documentaries and has been fascinated by the subject of flavors for years.

"What is flavor?" Chen asked during an interview with China.org.cn. "Strictly speaking, it refers to the sum of the feelings we have towards food through taste, smell and touch. The flavor is more like a mystery. It brings us joy while provoking our curiosity about this world."

The director explained that his team wanted to convey the message that no meal comes easy. He said there are a lot of things behind food, and hoped people should cherish what they eat. For him, food is the best messenger to convey feelings, "We got to see people's love and passion for life, which really touched us."

Chen and his crew spent more than one and a half years researching 25 countries and regions around the world, filming over 300 kinds of delicious foods. They then divided those foods into eight separate themes, with each forming an episode that explores different cooking methods and flavors using similar raw ingredients around the world, such as chicken, crab, sugar, honey and sausages.

The second season of "Once Upon A Bite" premiered on April 26 with the first episode focusing on sweet flavors, and subsequent installments to be released every Sunday. Produced by Tencent Video in conjunction with DOClabs Beijing Media and Tencent Penguin Pictures, the first episode is proved to be an instant hit, gaining more than 72 million views and a score of 9.4/10 from users on China's major reviewing website Douban. It continues the success of the first season, which attracted over 1 billion total views on Tencent Video and notched up a rating of 9/10 on Douban back in 2018.

Li Yong, another director of the second season, explained to China.org.cn that they still wanted to explore the relationships between people and food, uncover the inextricable connections between different cuisines, and help audiences around the world understand the variations between food cultures in different parts of the globe.

"Every kind of food has a lot going on behind it waiting to be discovered. Cuisines have an inseparable relationship with such things as the geographical environment, natural resources, cultural psychology and local eating habits," explained Li. "As globalization continues to accelerate, the world is becoming increasingly unified along certain standards. But even so, there are still some foods that are deeply rooted in the places they come from. They can't go on existing without their local soil."

Li said that their team has been constantly striving to locate and record traditional lifestyles that are quickly disappearing. For him, the docuseries offers a new global vision to see how differently, or similarly, the same foods are cooked all around the world. "Many ideas about food transcend both race and geography," he pointed out.

From producer Zhang Ping's perspective, the series was designed to cover all aspects of making food, from obtaining and processing ingredients to cooking itself. Relatively speaking, the acquisition and processing of raw cooking materials are highly limited by the season. 

"Whether you're talking about farming, fishing, hunting or collecting, as well as drying, pickling, fermentation and other types of processing, they're all closely related to the rules of nature. There are also those foods that are closely related to traditional festivals. Overall, filming basically needs to follow the schedule of the food," Zhang explained.

Sausages are a typical example. Traditionally, farmers would slaughter pigs to make sausages and bacon at the end of the year, which is in winter. "Although industrial processing methods mean that they can now be found all throughout the year, that's not our goal," he said.

Filming for the episode on sausages initially started in early 2019, wrapping in mid-March the following year after around 14 months of filming. "For more than a year, we were just waiting patiently for the moments we needed to shoot."

Two posters from the docuseries "Once Upon A Bite 2." [Image courtesy of Tencent Video]

The crew also encountered challenges besides mouthwatering attractions. Director Li Yong explained that in making the episode about crabs, the seven-person crew had to film during cold polar nights in Norway, battling huge waves and winds, as well as seasickness. To get the best shots, cinematographer Wang Yongming even bravely climbed on to the front of the ship's cabin. "If he'd fallen into the sea, the cold water would have killed him within two minutes," Li said.

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 also affected the production and its crew. Before the debut of "Once Upon a Bite 2," Chen Xiaoqing specially recorded a video for the audience, saying: "The virus has had a huge impact on the world. I've often looked out the window while I've been editing the series, and everyone looks particularly nervous, walking by in a hurry. But in the scenes we recorded a year ago, people are still hugging, shaking hands and kissing. Many people are still sitting together, cheering and drinking. That was a particularly beautiful world."

Li told China.org.cn that the severity of the pandemic was far beyond his imagination, and had prevented them from completing some stories, including getting shots of some natural environments, and doing supplementary filming for some stories. Despite leaving the crew feeling helpless and somewhat regretful, the broadcast of the docuseries should convey comfort, love and hope to a global audience.

"Most of the stories were filmed before the outbreak, when you see family reunions, noisy markets, and religious gatherings. You can't help but feel like they're from another world. It's surreal. When we look at them again, we feel that such ordinary daily life is so precious. Perhaps it's only after you've been through lows, darkness and bad times, that you really understand just how precious everyday routine and normality really are," Li Yong lamented.

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