Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we’re checking our feeds.
The joy of cooking is flourishing on TikTok.
A few months ago, I stumbled upon a mesmerizing video of a TikTok creator using an immersion blender in a simmering pot of soup. It was approximately 3 a.m. and in a bout of insomnia, I ended up scrolling through TikTok’s endless For You Page. Among the absurdist skits and choreographed dances, the one video I actually watched all the way through was about making soup.
When I finished the minute-long video, I scrolled on and eventually went to sleep. Although I couldn’t find that exact video again — TikTok users can’t access their viewing history — a few days later, it inspired me to look up recipes for butternut squash soup for me to make. I unearthed the immersion blender that I hadn’t used since I moved more than a year prior and got to work.
Since I started engaging with culinary content, TikTok’s algorithm has been adding more cooking videos to my For You Page. I’ve learned to make smashed potatoes, bread chicken for Japanese katsu, and even temper chocolate. But with their rapid narration, quick editing, and minute-long time limit, TikTok recipes are nearly impossible to follow. Instead, I use them as inspiration to search for written versions of the recipes later.
One recipe that’s become one of my cooking staples was inspired by 21-year-old Bay Area college student Newton Nguyen. His account, @newt, has 4.1 million followers. Nguyen’s recipe, which was particularly hellish to follow on TikTok, shows users how to marinate beef for bulgogi, or Korean-style barbecue.
After watching the video, though, I was hit with an overwhelming craving for the sweet and savory dish I had grown up with.
“We’re gonna start off with a Korean pear,” he narrated in his video, following up with a joke. “What’s the difference between this pear and an American pear? This one has a universal healthcare system.”
Obviously, I wasn’t going to stop and pause the video for every step — it would be unreasonable. After watching the video, though, I was hit with an overwhelming craving for the sweet and savory dish I had grown up with. Between advice from my mother and following Korean food blogger Maangchi, I whipped up some bulgogi and rice that I probably wouldn’t have made if not for Nguyen’s TikTok.
I don’t have much patience to watch cooking videos. Who has half an hour to dedicate to watching a new recipe, when preparing it will take as much, if not more time? I grew up with shows like Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Alton Brown’s Good Eats, and like watching those shows, I consume TikTok content for exposure to new recipes I wouldn’t otherwise think to try.
Thanks to digital platforms, Nguyen said, cooking content needs to be tailored for shorter attention spans.
“I think nowadays, we live in a fast paced world, and our attention spans suck,” he said in an Instagram DM. “So fast paced videos are perfect for Gen Z, because we’re able to watch the video quickly, learn something, be entertained, and move onto the next thing.”
Hatti Rex, 27, feels similarly. The London-based writer and illustrator tends to buy the same grocery staples every week and work off of those — meat, fish, cheese, and vegetables. Her cooking approach differs from her father’s, who she remembers used to “flick through” his collection of cookbooks to plan meals, and buy groceries around those plans.
“You can instantly just Google something you’re craving and learn how to do it,” she said in a Twitter DM. “A lot of the time I find I’m looking for recipes for ingredients I already have at home and don’t want to go out of my way looking for specialist ingredients I’ve never heard of.”
She recently began incorporating a tomato and cream pasta sauce into her quarantine meals, based off a TikTok recipe she watched on her For You Page. While her father may have cookbooks, her recipe foundation comes from ones she found on TikTok or a friend’s Instagram story.
“Before lockdown, I’d go shopping maybe every couple of days to every day so I’d just kind of think of what I wanted at the time,” Rex added. “But based loosely around the stuff I already had.”
Eitan Bernath, an 18-year-old chef and culinary personality, knows people don’t watch his videos to follow them step-by-step. Instead, he directs his audience to his website, which includes written instructions that correspond with each recipe he showcases on his TikTok account. Bernath compares his account to a digital adaptation of traditional cooking shows — people watch for the personality, not necessarily the recipes.
“Maybe someone won’t have the patience or interest to watch through a half-an-hour cooking show or a 10-minute YouTube video,” Bernath said during a phone call. “But they would for one minute for a super fast entertaining cooking video.”
The New Jersey-based high school senior doesn’t plan on going to culinary school, but is planning to take a gap year to expand his channel. While he’s been a food blogger since he was 12 years old, his TikTok account garnered roughly 986,000 followers since he created it in November 2019. He attributes the success to how digestible his recipe videos are.
“It’s also bite-sized, meaning they don’t have to commit 40 minutes to watching how to make a recipe.”
“When I was a little kid, I spent many, many hours a day in front of a TV, and [now] I genuinely don’t remember the last time I sat in front of a television except to hear Gov. Cuomo speak,” Bernath continued. “I have over 200 videos on my account. They [TikTok users] can start watching 20 seconds of my new video, they’re like ‘Hmmm I don’t want to watch anymore,’ and just scroll and watch the next one. There’s tons of content that’s relatively easily accessible, and it’s also bite-sized, meaning they don’t have to commit 40 minutes to watching how to make a recipe.”
While I’ll gladly watch Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen ferment and reverse engineer and brainstorm new recipes for hours, it’s unlikely that I’d consume traditional cooking content as voraciously as I do with digital shows. That’s not to say that traditional cooking shows don’t work for everyone; it’s just a difference in learning styles.
TikTok chefs show me recipes that I probably wouldn’t have tried if they didn’t appear during my mindless daily scrolling — I just have to look up written instructions, first.