It was only a matter of time until TikTok, the short-form video social media giant that launched to a global audience in 2018, would become another platform where food content would thrive.
YouTube proved in the early aughts that intimate, home-produced video content centered on food — from culture to preparation to history — had a market. Instagram followed suit with video clips and recipes in the comments; then came TikTok with its shorter, faster clips — oftentimes rougher or more zoomed-in to ensure you could see what was happening on your phone screen.
Recipes on TikTok mean being close up as the creator talks. Sometimes they take you through the steps, sometimes they tell you the historical, cultural or familial context of a dish, and other times they talk about something else entirely. Of course, high-speed intimacy, especially during the endless loneliness of semi-lockdowns due to the raging covid-19 pandemic, would have a market — according to a spokesperson for the company, food is a high performing category on the app, though they didn’t have figures to share. The hashtag #food currently has 207.1 billion views; other food related hashtags have tens of billions of views.
“FoodTok,” as some creators call it, is an ever-expanding place. A short video clip can amass millions of views fast, changing the speed of virality thanks to TikTok’s automatic video loops and scrolling feature.
Like YouTube and Instagram, it’s a platform with a much lower buy-in cost for groups who rarely get clicks, shares and viewers — anyone with a smartphone can make a TikTok. As Hira Qureshi wrote for The Post last year, “legacy food media obviously still has a long way to go toward addressing racial inequities” in regard to opportunities for people of color in on-screen cooking shows and food journalism. TikTok certainly has its problems — though the barrier to entry itself is lower, the Intercept reported that the app suppressed content from “users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled” or who spoke about political issues, and the app apologized over the summer for suppressing content from Black creators.
The sheer volume of content and the way the algorithm works means that there’s not just content for everyone, but you’re more likely to organically find something that interests you. Maybe you’ll find someone like Joanne Lee Molinaro, who as the Korean Vegan talks about life over a video of her making food. You can find “reviewers” who strike up relationships with restaurants, helping them get by in the pandemic. You’ll see people testing vintage recipes, mushroom hunters showing how to cook your bounty, parents showing what they pack for their child’s lunch, grandmas making muffins, people baking gorgeous desserts, restaurants discussing their menus, cooks who were laid off during the pandemic showcasing their expertise, food bloggers making recipes from their archives and more. Celebrity chefs including Gordon Ramsey and Wolfgang Puck are now on the app, though they are far less interesting. Popular recipe creators have even secured cookbook deals, moving off the app and into print, such as Priyanka Naik, whose book “The Modern Tiffin” releases this week.
Out of the incalculable amount of food content on the app, we’ve picked a few of our current favorites to share.
Foraging tips, tricks and recipes
When I call Alexis Nikole Nelson, 29, she is picking beach plums, an apt activity for someone known for TikToks about foraging.
Nelson first got on the app in 2019 to learn how it worked for her job at the time. At the start of the pandemic, she posted a video about five edible plants commonly found in neighborhoods, which quickly racked up around 25,000 views. “I was like, ‘So the kids want plants!’” says Nelson. “I can do plants.”
That she can. After graduating university “extremely broke,” Nelson took a deep dive into learning about foraging to supplement her cooking. “I’ve always had a palate for what one would consider, ‘not-very-broke food,’” she explains. Foraging “was the way that I could take, like, instant ramen and turn it into this like elevated dish with mushrooms and all these different greens.”
In recent videos, she has made “bacon” from acorn starch, adapted a popular plum cake recipe with ingredients she foraged or made from foraged goods and broke down how to deal with 15 pounds of maitake mushrooms she found.
Nelson describes her account as “one part botany, one part food content and one part chaos.” She shows how to find edible plants and how to tell them from poisonous dupes, as well as how she eats them. In some videos, she speaks on the cultural history of foraging because “food is so inherently culture-connected that I feel like you’re never telling a food’s entire story if that’s being left out.”
Her videos are a high-spirited blend of culinary and visual chaos. Sometimes this involves her whipping the camera along the forest floor at an exciting variety of mushrooms; other times she’ll sing little ditties about the food she’s sourced. She closes almost every video with a cheerful: “Happy snacking, don’t die!” a necessary reminder to all of us to be careful when foraging.
Her effervescent personality brightens her 3 million followers’ days when she pops up with fun facts about the food around us. Nelson is so deeply passionate about food and sourcing it that you can’t help but feel her joy and excitement. She’s having fun — genuine fun — something that has been in short supply thanks to a certain pandemic. I realized that because of her videos, I can identify edible plants along my walking route. Once I’m confident that I know what they are, I’ll cook them.
Vegan recipes with a dash of science
George Lee, 20, knows the secret to perfectly absorbent tofu. “Just freeze it,” he says, before elaborating that the frozen tofu cubes soaked in savory Taiwanese hot pot broth led to this discovery. I am not the only beneficiary of Lee’s unbridled passion for science-informed vegan cooking. Lee reimagines dishes such as Taiwanese popcorn chicken as plant-based recipes for over 628,000 TikTok followers.
Lee, who calls Taipei, Taiwan, home, is not only a successful TikTok creator but also a trained Le Cordon Bleu chef and aspiring scientist. His affinity for biochemistry took him to UC Berkeley’s undergraduate program, where he learned about alternative proteins. Vegan meat intrigued him, but time for cooking experiments was scarce. The March 2020 lockdown allowed him to cook every day and photograph his vegetarian and vegan dishes. He started posting on Instagram and TikTok, where he quickly found an audience, and launched his blog, Chez Jorge, in May 2020.
Nearly a year and a half later, Lee still raves about the creative possibilities of vegan food. “It’s always unknown whether you find a new method or renew an old tradition,” he says. “The other day I posted a story about the 20 varieties of tofu found in Taiwan. A lot of people were shocked. In the West, tofu comes in a box and there’s not many other options.” His latest endeavor, a vegan Taiwanese cookbook publishing in 2023, will introduce readers to more Taiwanese specialties, food traditions and a dash of plant-based science.
His vegan Taiwanese recipes have especially resonated with Asian Americans seeking plant-based versions of their childhood favorites. Lee’s signature blend of humor, history and personal story complement his recipes for Taiwanese sticky rice and Taiwanese-style braised tempeh. “You don’t need to give up part of your heritage in order to be on a vegan diet,” Lee says. I certainly feel that way. After watching one of Lee’s TikToks, I want to grab my seasoned wok and re-create cumin tofu noodles that transport me back to my grandmother’s kitchen.
— Jess Eng
Recipes from home and traveling
Before the pandemic, before 2020, Tiffany Chen suited up every day for her job as a district manager for a technology company in Vancouver, B.C. But at night, she loved checking out the local restaurant scene.
Chen was born in Taiwan and moved to Vancouver while in high school. “Some of my favorite memories are of going to Taiwanese night markets with my family, staying up late to try all of the different stalls,” she says.
When she found herself stuck at home in mid-2020, she missed all the traveling and dining out she used to do for fun and turned to the kitchen. “I had tried to start a food blog at least five times before I started Tiffy Cooks and never kept up with them,” Chen, now 28, says. But when she challenged herself to post every day on Instagram and TikTok, she was surprised at how quickly she found an audience. “I think I found other people who were missing their favorite street food or homestyle Taiwanese foods, and wanted to re-create them at home, like me,” she says. Tiffy Cooks officially launched on TikTok on Sept. 3, 2020, and today it has 1.6 million followers.
Chen’s cooking and filming style is straightforward and fun. Her recipes — mostly a mix of homey Taiwanese and Chinese dishes — get tested three times before they make it to her blog or TikTok. Occasionally, she spotlights a certain subset of the cuisine, like her 21-day Night Market series, which featured chicken baos, green onion pancakes, crab rice balls and vegetarian dumplings. Her fans love waiting till the end of each clip, where she says, dramatically and triumphantly, “Look … at … that!”
This January, Chen left her corporate job to be a content creator full-time. She just signed a deal for her first cookbook, which will be published in 2023. She also offers guidance to those interested in starting their own blog or TikTok. “What I love the most is every creator has a chance to blow up because of how the algorithm works. People who aren’t professional creators can make this happen. You don’t need fancy equipment, or a background in editing like you do with a lot of other social media platforms. With TikTok, you really can do everything on your phone.”
Specialty coffee may not get you the same monster views as, say, a magic glass cake, yet back in June, coffee guru Zach Johnston racked up about a million and a half views for one of his TikToks, briefly joining the ranks of highflying creators on the platform.
The video was something of a lark for Johnston: He plays both himself and his wife, Lyndsey, in the TikTok. Johnston stands in for Lyndsey, who asks, “Can you make me some of your fancy coffee?” Johnston (as himself) then proceeds to painstakingly weigh, grind and hand-brew a small handful of Castellon Geisha beans from Corvus Coffee, a rare Colombian product that can fetch upward of $30 for a mere third of a pound. He offers the cup
TikTok was immediately horrified. “It was very polarizing,” Johnston tells me. “It was either people telling me to divorce her or people telling me that I was a misogynist. It was a whole spectrum of things.”
The thing is, Johnston isn’t really in the business of stirring the pot. Sure, he says he thinks you shouldn’t debase high-quality beans with cheap creamer, but the Missouri native also believes you should drink your coffee however you like, “as long as it’s ethically sourced and people are paying a fair price,” as he said in a follow-up TikTok. “I really don’t care what my wife drinks, either.”
Johnston spends far more time on his account teaching us about the techniques, equipment and specialty coffees that will lead to a better cup in the morning. I’m a total coffee nerd, and I’m still learning new things from Johnston: the Ross Droplet Technique to reduce static when grinding (I immediately purchased a dropper); the aesthetics and science behind Icosa Brewhouse glassware (still too pricey for me); and how babies (or at least Johnston’s daughter) delight at the sound of beans being ground by hand.
Johnston is clearly a quick study. He got into specialty coffee only about four years ago (his parents didn’t drink the stuff when he was growing up), and he has been on TikTok for a year, with about 6,500 followers to show for his efforts. But based on his humor, his knowledge and his defense of good coffee against all evil additions (sorry, Lyndsey), he’s a star in my world.
Techniques, anime-inspired recipes and more
Jon Kung never planned to be a content creator. Before the pandemic, the 37-year-old chef was known for intimate dinner parties in Detroit. But without guests to entertain amid the stay-at-home orders, Kung wanted to be of service. “I thought to myself, well, I have a skill. I can help people cook and stretch out food,” he told me on a video call. Since posting his first food video at the beginning of May 2020, he has amassed 1.4 million followers on the platform, sharing his third-culture cuisine, anime-themed recipes and commentary on gatekeeping and cultural appropriation in aesthetically pleasing short videos on the social media app.
His TikTok career began with “showing people how creative I could be and showing how interesting my concepts can be or how pretty my plating can be.” Over time, his focus shifted. “I got a lot more interested in encouraging people to cook creatively and express themselves through food,” Kung said. “I don’t care whether you cook my food or you cook anyone else’s, just cook for yourself. And if you cook a bad meal, it’s not that big of a deal.”
While he is also on almost all of the other social media platforms (Instagram, YouTube and Twitter), he finds TikTok to be unique. “There’s an immediacy to TikTok that feels like it’s almost a conversation,” Kung said. “The way things can spread on their own so organically is actually quite beautiful.”
That organic reach has allowed him to become a content creator full-time and landed him a cookbook deal. “Even my first six months into posting videos and stuff, if you told me that this was going to be my career, I would have asked, ‘What are you on? Can I have some?’” Kung said. “The trajectory of all of this just is not believable.” But to me and the millions of other people who watch his videos, the trajectory makes a whole lot of sense.
Nadia Caterina Munno’s first brush with the platform that would make her a bona fide celebrity was not as a creator but as a parent. The home chef and former marketing exec now known to her 2 million followers as the couture-wearing, wind-machine-blown Pasta Queen noticed that her 9-year-old daughter had been exploring TikTok. “I was about to delete it off her phone,” Munno says. “And then I saw there were cooking videos, including one of someone botching a lasagna so badly, I thought ‘I have to remedy this.’”
She began posting videos of herself cooking in her bonkers Florida kitchen (it comes to the Sunshine State via Florence, where it was made by artisans and shipped over) and quickly drew a following for her glamorous persona and her breezy pasta tutorials. “I’m not your average cook in an apron,” she says. Which is an uncharacteristic understatement. Munno’s on-screen vibe is telenovela-meets-Sophia Loren, with a big dash of viewer affirmation: she always notes that the food is “gorgeous — just like you are!”
Something that sets her apart from viral TikTok trends is that her dishes aren’t stunty. There are no hacks involved — just bowlfuls of glossy noodles, some originating from her nonna’s recipes (she grew up in Rome and on the Amalfi coast), all delivered with entertaining instructions. For her carbonara, she instructs viewers to “scrunch” black pepper “until the Roman gods weep with joy.” Her recipe for the Whipping Sicilian (a.k.a. spaghetti alla carrettiera) includes garlic, chile peppers and parsley, and “a whole lot of passion.”
Now, the Pasta Queen’s reign is rapidly expanding. She has appeared on “Good Morning America” and “The Drew Barrymore Show,” and has a cookbook and a TV show in the works.