Every autumn, the Chiangjing river in Hubei, eastern China, begins to drop and the nearby lakes become thick bogs covered in webs of detritus. Men come in little boats, perhaps 100 a day, paddling their way across the sinking river in the dim, blue-grey light before sunrise. They’re looking for lotus root, the starchy staple that is a highlight of much Asian cooking, and gives a sweetish solidity to a winter soup.
I’d never given a thought to where lotus root comes from. Getting hold of it turns out to be fantastically difficult, dirty and dangerous. The roots, perhaps a metre or two long, lie deep in the thick, gluey mud of the lake bed. They’re fragile, and snap or scratch easily, and there’s no machinery to get them out. You wade out into the bog, the mud coming up to your knees, and find a root, work out which direction it’s lying in, then dig it out slowly and carefully by hand. At the end of another 14-hour day, the workers compare their aches, torn muscles, sprained ankles and twisted ligaments like soldiers or a rugby team. They hope for particularly nasty winters, which mean that more people make lotus-root soup, and the price of their product rises.
This is just one segment of the best TV show I’ve ever seen about food. I’d hazard it’s the best one ever made. A Bite of China began airing in May on the state broadcaster there. CCTV is better known for its obliging communist propaganda and unwatchable soap operas than for anything this sumptuous and beautiful. Thirty of the country’s most respected filmmakers worked for more than a year filming the seven 50-minute episodes. They shot throughout the country, from the frozen lakes of the north-east and the bamboo forests of Liuzhou to the frenetic chaoses of Beijing and Hong Kong.