A dish of Xialin lamb from Fujian's Luoyuan county. [Photo provided to China Daily]
The chickens in Hetian town, Changting county, Fujian province, are different from some other chickens in that they grow at a slower pace, are swifter in movement and have a tendency to perch on trees to rest. Additionally, they are known for their "superior taste".
Three renowned chefs were asked to each create a dish of Hetian chicken, and their first task was to catch the meal. However, their first trial of making chicken dishes failed to win over villagers. Undeterred, the chefs spent more time with the chickens and the people who raised them, seeking inspiration for new ways to prepare the dishes. With renewed creativity, they finally created three delicious dishes.
The chefs' trip to learn about Hetian chicken is shown in the first episode of New Taste of Fujian, a documentary that premiered on TV and online on Feb 27. The eight-episode program, featuring eight "national geographic indication products" from Fujian, is being aired on Southeast Satellite TV, Fujian Straits Satellite TV, Tencent Video and the People's Daily app.
Even with just three episodes released, the documentary ranks on top of the food documentary list on Tencent Video.
A Douban user, "Yangyan Chaoyangyan", from Fujian, comments that the documentary is "using a new approach to tackle an earthy topic, transforming rural vitalization into tangible faces and creative dishes".
From Ningde Yellow croaker to Shao'an blue crab and Dongshan white asparagus, food columnist Lin Weihui leads 24 chefs in the documentary to experience rural life and explore diverse regional cultures where the agricultural products are found.
"The eight ingredients used in the show from Fujian are familiar to many people, so through the show we explain why we picked them," Lin says.
For example, the dried bean curd sticks from Qingliu county use beans of a different quality than other places, making the sticks quite flavorful.
The geographic environment with subtropical maritime monsoon climate in Fujian has made the conditions for biodiversity possible there.
Lin says he used to learn about ingredients from written material, archives and scientific angles, but this journey has allowed him to know the ingredients in the field.
"When people talk about food, they may see it in restaurants or in markets, but behind a produced food are efforts by a large number of people," Lin says. "We need to tell clearly why these ingredients are good and let more people know about them, which may increase farmers' incomes and push the development of the agricultural industry."
Lin has written down his feelings during the shooting and collected them into a book which he is about to publish.
Wang Shengzhi, general director of the show, has filmed documentaries about food and literature and this is his first on rural vitalization.
"I took a year for this project, spending eight months to know about a duck. There are many special ingredients in Fujian which are easier to make films on, but I wanted to film normal ingredients in daily life and try not to make the documentary dry," Wang says.
Growing up in the countryside, Wang has a deep connection to rural life and he says he hopes the documentary will have artistic appeal for the audience. He says the documentary's tone is earthy. "I think the value of this show is respecting things in daily life."
The documentary infuses several approaches to filming such as traveling, discovering and telling people's stories behind each ingredient. The background music is quite dramatic, which Wang used to showcase the modernity of rural life.
Yang Yan, the executive director, recalls that it was a hot summer when they were shooting the episode on Hetian chicken.
"We visited many chicken farmers and were a bit jealous of the chickens," Yang says, adding that the air is cleaner in the mountain area.
In 1964, Hetian chicken ranked second at the Canton Fair, or the China Import and Export Fair, where international buyers evaluated chickens based on body size, strength, weight, feather color and meat quality.
Yang says it was not easy to record the chickens' movements while shooting the documentary, as they ran too fast for the camera to catch up. "We decided to stay at one fixed point and wait for them to come into our recording range."
To grab the scenes of the chickens' jumping onto trees, the crew waited several nights.
Liu Xin, one of the three chefs in the first episode, says he was impressed by the quality of Hetian chicken and touched by the story of a woman who raises the chickens. He created a dish combining Hetian chicken with mushrooms from Yunnan province. Liu, founder of Hong 0871 Yunnan cuisine restaurant in Beijing and Shanghai, has brought this dish back and added it onto his restaurant menu. He says, "If you want to continuously create new dishes, you have to keep finding new ingredients.
"The relationship between chefs and ingredients is like that of water and fish."
After watching the first episode, Zhu Yannan, director of China Communication Research Center, says the story structure of each episode is interesting, as there is a reversal in the middle and people will enjoy watching it.
"Besides showcasing ingredients, this documentary also presents the relationship between parents and their children," he says.
"Watching the documentary not only brings us a visual feast of delicious food but also nourishes our spirit.
"The comprehensive promotion of rural vitalization is a major plan for national development during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), and we need to produce more shows like New Taste of Fujian," Zhu says.
Tan Xuewen, researcher at Rural Development Institute, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the documentary has both realistic and forward-looking meaning as it aims to promote sustainable development of agriculture.
"I'm surprised as a customer (of food) and as a viewer of the documentary to get to know about villagers' lives and empathize with them," Tan says.
He says to help rural vitalization, more farmers should be involved in local marketing and sales to help the agricultural industry develop.
Sheng Ruowei, chief editor of the National Humanity History magazine, says there are over 2,000 geographic identification products across the country.
"These products which exist in various natural environments and have different histories and cultural backgrounds are important resources for our country to transform from a large agricultural country to a strong agricultural country," he says.
He adds that the documentary will help the "national geographic identification products" to increase influence outside their origin places.