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Feast by the book

Liu Zhihua
Updated: Jan 15,2016 9:48 AM     China Daily

A market on water in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, during the Spring Festival. [Photo/Provided to China Daily]

A Bite of China film crew captures Spring Festival fare around the country, Liu Zhihua reports.

More than a year ago, when Deng Jie, Chen Lei and a few of their colleagues from CCTV were sipping coffee at Starbucks, they suddenly realized that while Spring Festival is widely considered the year’s most important holiday for Chinese, the excitement to celebrate it is growing weaker in today’s fast-paced society.

Deng and Chen, documentary film directors who are wife and husband, decided to make a feature-length film to look into the holiday’s traditional but less-known delicacies of nianyefan that have been enjoyed by Chinese from one generation to another at the Spring Festival Eve dinner.

The film, A Bite of China: Celebrating the Chinese New Year, hit theaters across the Chinese mainland on Jan 7. Its main consultant is Chen Xiaoqing, an established filmmaker and food critic in China whose well-known works include A Bite of China, the popular broadcast series that has drawn millions of viewers to its presentations of Chinese fare.

A Bite of China: Celebrating the Chinese New Year, published by Chinese National Geography and China CITIC Press.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

After months of toiling around the country, sharing and filming nianyefan feasts with numerous families rather than their own, the documentary team has also produced a colorful namesake book in Chinese, published jointly by Chinese National Geography and China CITIC Press. It was released earlier this month. The team of more than 20 authors includes culture researchers, food critics, writers and actors as well as members of the film production team.

The writers describe their childhood memories of their families’ specially prepared delicacies for the celebration, as well as how festival fare has changed as time passes.

Wen Yao, a young woman originally from Shanxi province, who has been living in Beijing since she was 13, shares the story of her mother’s signature “mutton hotpot”, and how it combines Beijing-style hotpot with the Sichuan-style chili hotpot to stew mutton, vegetables, vermicelli and many other ingredients together with a little lard-fried chili.

Without that dish, the celebration of Spring Festival is not complete, Wen says.

An elderly woman in northern China makes huamo, or decorated steamed buns, to celebrate the Lunar New Year.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

Famous actor Huang Lei writes that he has spent every Spring Festival in the past four decades in Beijing, where he was born and lives, and recalls the nianhuo, or items that are must-haves to celebrate the Chinese New Year-especially snacks and ingredients for the family feast-have multiplied as the choices and channels to buy them have expanded.

He also tells about how he frantically drove all over Beijing to buy Chinese chives on one Spring Festival Eve to make dumplings. He could only calm down and finally feel secure when he was able to clutch a cluster of the pungent plants.

Without dumplings made with Chinese chives, he writes, a Spring Festival is not Spring Festival.

While dumplings are the holiday’s signature food in North China, in the south it’s simply essential to have staple foods made with rice, such as New Year cake and other forms of rice cakes.

In its 85-minute length, the film could not present all of the more than 60 types of fare the production crew had captured on camera, and about 20 signature Spring Festival dishes that didn’t make the final cut are included in the book, according to co-director Deng. Readers can even cook the rare foods themselves, she says, if they follow the process recorded in the book and its many colorful photos that demonstrate the making and their presentation.