January 4, 2023
BEIJING – For those who initially see how Li Wenlong, the 37-year-old owner of a small restaurant in Macao, works in the kitchen, it is a jaw-dropping moment. As the third-generation inheritor of his family business, Li performs an acrobatic-like routine to prepare the dough for Zhusheng (bamboo pole) Noodles, a type of traditional staple food in southern China.
After mixing flour with chicken and duck eggs and pressing the dough down into a giant flat disc, Li takes out a long bamboo pole, straddling it on one end and putting the dough on the other. Just like being on a seesaw, Li goes up and down around 3,000 times, ensuring that the dough gets the utmost elasticity.
The compelling scene is portrayed in the fourth season of Once Upon a Bite, a popular documentary series launched by Chen Xiaoqing, a prestigious documentary director and producer known for cultural programs exploring the relationship between people and food. So far, the previous three seasons, released in 2018, 2020 and 2021, respectively, have accumulated a total of 3 billion clicks online.
Commencing its run on streaming site Tencent Video on Nov 24, the latest season, about the variety of grains found around the world, has obtained 9.4 points out of 10 on the review aggregator Douban, the highest score of all the four seasons.
Consisting of six episodes, the new program adopts a global perspective to trace a variety of grains — such as wheat, rice, millet, beans and potatoes — and tell the stories of how they become an essential component of the human diet through different kinds of cooking methods.
“Grains have shaped the culinary history of human beings,” Chen Lei, the chief director of the fourth season, explains.
“Grains play a foundational role in modern life. Despite the fact that all of us are quite familiar with grains, there are still a lot of stories behind their evolution that we have yet to know.”
The idea of making a whole season about grains was first shaped in 2018, when the team was filming a story about cereals for the first season.
Despite the past few years of the pandemic, Chen Lei and producer Deng Jie led their team in comprehensive preparations for the filming of this new season. Such efforts ranged from cooperating with a photographic team that excels in filming plants to recruiting professionals who majored in botany.
Interestingly, they even rented a field on Shanghai’s Chongming Island to use as a grain “laboratory “to observe how they grow and explore time-lapse cinematography. They also figured out a new method, combining computer-generated footage with actual footage, to display how a seed shoots up.
In the first episode, centering on wheat, which director Chen Lei depicts as a base food for Chinese people, the documentary travels to multiple cities in China, like Hangzhou’s Fuyang district in Zhejiang province and Chifeng in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, as well as the Middle East, the United Kingdom and Turkiye, to discover how the routine lives of locals are tightly bonded to wheat.
“Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t travel abroad, so we had a total of 10 international teams to help shoot the stories in their respective countries,” reveals Deng.
Coordinating with foreign teams amid a complex international situation has been one of the biggest challenges. Deng recalls that the film crew was forced to suspend shooting four times while producing the tale of freekeh, a cereal food made from green durum wheat, in Burqa, a village located northwest of Nablus in Palestine.
When the green durum wheat was harvested in 2021, tensions between Palestinians and Israelis were escalating, making the filming difficult, Deng explains.
But most of the international cooperation went smoother than anticipated.
When the Chinese producers were planning to shoot a tale about manoomin (wild rice), a staple food for Minnesota’s Native American population, a female director residing in the US state, who has been in close contact with the ethnic groups in the country, was recommended to the team.
The director has a profound knowledge of the Ojibwe, one of the largest groups of Native Americans in North America, and a comprehensive understanding of the tribes-people’s cherishing of lakes and the local wild rice, injecting the footage with delicate emotion, according to Deng.
“I also contacted a postgraduate student from Yale University’s history department to work with her. It was a good cooperation experience that has also made us learn a lot,” she adds.
With a touch of regret, according to director Chen Lei, the documentary could have featured more countries, but their previous plans to film the growth of millet in northern Namibia and yams in Papua New Guinea had to be canceled because of COVID-19.
Aside from the overseas stories, the crew also delved into some of the most far-flung areas of rural China, interviewing locals to trace how their centuries-old agricultural traditions have been preserved.
For instance, they traveled to a scarcely populated village on the border of Shanxi province and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and managed to convince an elderly couple who farm hulless oats to share their decadeslong dedication to the land.
Analyzing the in-depth meaning of the documentary, Chen Xiaoqing says that the team members believe that the diversity of grains has shaped human activities, and helped civilizations emerge in different areas.
“Each grain was once the source of energy for the people of a land and the foundation of a civilization,” Deng says. “And the fate of grain is highly related to the historical fate of humankind. We hope everyone can have more knowledge of different kinds of grain, sort of as a way to protect and preserve the diversity of cultures.”