TV show spurs taste for hidden delicacies

One of the least popular products offered by online shop owner Zhang Xiaowei in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, is being snapped up by thousands thanks to a popular food documentary.

Zhang's shop at online retail platform Tmall sells a variety of products from the depths of Tibetan forests, including saffron and Chinese caterpillar fungus.

But honey from Nyingchi in Tibet had gone almost unrecognized, to Zhang's disappointment.

Each year, Tibetan beekeepers trek from low to high altitudes in the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, seeking blossoms which are free from pollution and pesticides to allow their bees to produce honey of rare quality.

But because beekeeping is still a niche business in Tibet and the blossom season there is comparatively short, Nyingchi honey often costs more than other varieties.

Zhang said this was probably one of the reasons that had deterred people from tasting it.

In the first episode of the popular China Central Television documentary A Bite of China II shown on April 18, Nyingchi honey featured in the story of a Tibetan family searching the forests for raw food and natural happiness.

Almost immediately after the programme was shown, Zhang's honey sales began to increase and he has now sold 3,500 bottles.

CCTV head Hu Zhanfan has described the programme as a record of Chinese people's "living wisdom and cultural traditions". A Bite of China, which explores the relationship between people and food, was the most recognised TV production in China in 2012.

Staging a high-profile return, the documentary's eight-episode second season travels to more than 150 places nationwide to focus on artistically crafted urban banquets, simple home cooking and nature's raw offerings.

This year, Tmall has been authorised to launch a website featuring sales information about food mentioned in the documentary.

Among the first batch of 100 food products, most of which went online on April 18 when the programme's second season made its debut, Sichuan sausages, Peking duck and Nyingchi honey were the first to sell out.

Statistics from Tmall show that within three hours that night more than 2 million people visited the website through their mobile phones, and the number later rose to 5.4 million.

The online retail effort has helped bring so-called hidden delicacies within public reach.

For example, the programme introduced a type of fish sauce from Leishan, a county in Guizhou province, which the local Miao people describe as their proudest flavoring. But when a huge number of searches for it appeared on Tmall, the online retailer found that no shops were selling it.

Li Lei, a fruit retailer in Shanghai, was quick to seize this opportunity. While the documentary was still being shown, he began making random calls and finally reached a policeman on duty in Lei-shan who knew the only fish sauce factory in town and gave him its contact details.

After reaching an agreement with the 74-year-old factory owner, Li flew to Leishan next morning and managed to put 1,000 packets of fish sauce he bought from the factory on his shelves by 11am.

Made only from water and fish caught locally, the factory's sauce had been sold mainly to locals for the past 35 years. Li said it took a considerable effort to make the factory owner trust him and finally agree to sell him all the stocks.

With more than 2,000 packets sold in a week, Li hopes that his stock of 9,000 packets will last until August, when new stocks will arrive. "China has so many hidden delicacies. I feel very honoured to be able to bring one of them to people around the country," Li said.

He has remained in Guizhou to persuade the two Lei-shan fish sauce makers who featured in the documentary to endorse his products.

Four episodes of the documentary had been broadcast by this week, and more purchasing trends are expected to emerge in the next seven weeks.

Li said it was a coincidence that he had been able to obtain a product from Guizhou. "I doubt I will have such good luck next time," he said. "But it's good for the foodies. I'm sure delicacies will get online even more quickly."

Zhang, the online shop owner in Lhasa, hopes the documentary will help to boost development of an industry. The local government had been supportive of beekeeping, and after the documentary was shown, some businesspeople had also begun to show their interest, Zhang said. "I hope the popularity of Nyingchi honey is just a start," he added.

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