Until spring 2020, Lisa Nguyen only knew how to cook instant ramen. But, stuck at home and hungry like the rest of America, Nguyen began making her first homemade meals, sharing them on TikTok. Now, 1.4 million followers are learning to cook alongside her.
Nguyen is part of a young generation learning to cook through TikTok, the mobile video app downloaded by nearly 690 million people worldwide. In a few short months, Nguyen introduced her followers to bone marrow, stuffed bitter melon, and other Vietnamese dishes she grew up consuming.
Folks outside of TikTok mostly know its viral hits from mainstream media's post hoc coverage: mug cakes, accordion potatoes, Gigi Hadid’s vodka sauce, and more. But, TikTok is more than a hitmaker. The app contains the democratic world of food—everything from Ming Tsai spatchcocking a chicken to Chinese wilderness cooking—all condensed into 60-second videos. It's a potent format changing who tells us food stories, what we eat, how to cook, and how we view food.
Rivaling Mainstream Media
Zaynab Issa, a content creator and freelance writer, grew up in the kitchen and even independently published Let's Eat, a cookbook of East African and Indian recipes. Last year, she lurked on the sidelines of TikTok for months before gaining the courage to post videos of dishes like turmeric potato bites and brown butter-scallion noodles.
Issa understands the value of traditional food media, with its fact-checking and rigorous recipe testing, but TikTok provides something different—a warm community and heightened satisfaction of learning new techniques in less than a minute. “It's incredibly attention-grabbing. Throw in ASMR, and it's sensory overload. I don't know if I could even watch Ina Garten for 30 minutes," she says—clarifying she really LOVES Garten.
In contrast to the polished, aspirational world of television and Instagram, Issa says TikTok feels like the place “real people go.” Her fans actually make her dishes.
Reversing Declines in Home Cooking
“Social media is looping back to favor the raw and uncut. These are my curves. This is how I cook with no filter,” says Ahmad Alzahabi, the creator behind The Golden Balance. In addition to hyper-technical and over-the-top dishes, TikTok celebrates average cooks and pedestrian meals—there's content for cooks of all levels. Even more, the app's duet and stitch functionality encourages users to participate.
In late 2019, Alzahabi hit TikTok's winning formula with a recipe for “what I make when I don't want to cook." The video received 1.4 million views, not for its novelty or on the merit of introducing a new cuisine—it served as an invitation to cook.
TikTok and its approachable recipes could be the antidote for a country with declining rates of home cooking. “Now, Gen Z thinks of food as a fun activity. Instead of going out to eat, we cook,” explains Issa.
If those habits stick, novice users will continue to accumulate skills, and over time, reap the long-term benefits: healthier lifestyles, lower food costs, and quality mealtime with family and friends.
Accelerating Change in Food
TikTok encourages riffing in a way that traditional recipes, cooking shows, and platforms don't. “TikTok allows you to take in a video, change it a little, and repost it. That edit chain is ultimately how things go viral,” says Issa. “With the feta pasta, somebody might add onion and garlic, or swap out feta for Boursin. And TikTok encourages that."
When Nguyen saw the quesadilla hack, she immediately imagined how to make it her own, leading to her rice paper variation with noodles and hoisin sauce. Birria tacos went viral last summer, and, inevitably, birria ramen followed. However, this type of cross-cultural cooking spans across centuries, giving the world bánh mì, California rolls, chop suey, and aji de gallina. Early food mash-ups were the product of colonization and migration, followed by cookbooks, globetrotting chefs, and online recipe forums.
On TikTok, these types of adaptations are happening in minutes.
Return to Intuitive Cooking
A platform based on improvisation and light on details encourages intuitive cooking. In his videos, Alzahabi sounds like a grandma or aunty who rarely, if ever, consults recipes. Spices are a little bit of this and a tiny bit of that. He instructs viewers to add onions of no specific cut to oil that's “dancing.” He reminds folks to scrape up the “little chicken bits” from the pan, rather than calling it the fond, which would require explanation.
If viewers are learning how to taste, season, and listen to the sound of oil, they're building real skills rather than learning to become recipe followers. In the long run, that makes it easier to produce last-minute weeknight meals, repurpose leftovers, cook with the seasons, and make up your own dishes.
Inspiring Creativity Across Generations
Bridgett White Hancock is a stay-at-home mom-of-three who always cooks for her family, along with whoever happens to show up on Tuesday nights. Just this January, her sons convinced her to post videos of her prepping dinner while dancing, which quickly sent her to the TikTok forefront.
Although she grew up in show business (her father is the late singer Barry White), Hancock was totally unprepared for how much her rib platters and liberal sprinkling of Slap Ya Mama seasoning salt would resonate. Fans asked whether she’ll be their mom (sure), while companies inquired about products (hell, yeah!) and starring in a reality TV show (no, she curses too much).
Moreover, she's just as surprised by how much TikTok jolted her creativity. “TikTok lets me get out of my box and explore different areas of cooking. Instagram wasn't like this. I'm a visual person and there's just something about all the cooking content with the music people put behind it. Even if I can't understand what somebody is saying, I can watch a video 1,000 times until I think I can try it,” says Hancock.
Exploring New Cultures
Growing up, Hancock, now 56, says she only knew about the foods her family ate. She remembers learning about string cheese in the 5th grade—it was a processed food revelation, “but now, you're sitting in your bedroom and you can travel into homes all around the world,” she says.
TikTok's food content is a passport that doesn't require major media outlets or a chef guide. Traditional gatekeepers don't own the algorithm, which means users are just as likely to learn to make kimbap from a Spanish-speaking Korean-Peruvian or a Korean-American mom.
This year, Alzahabi, whose parents immigrated to America from Syria, is providing cooking videos throughout the 30 days of Ramadan. He hopes to give fans an intimate picture of his family's food and customs during the holy month. “It's a lot of pressure, but it makes me feel incredible,” says Alzahabi. “To be able to normalize these conversations and have others accept people like me, it makes me proud.”
Alzahabi naturally, if not unfairly, feels he has to work extra hard to best represent himself and fellow Muslim Americans. But, instead of stifling content or raising fears of cancel culture, young TikTok users see the app's built-in accountability as a strength.
“With the virality of TikTok, anything you post has the potential for millions to see it,” says Nguyen. And when creators co-opt cultures or disrespect a cuisine that doesn't belong to them, “people call it out immediately. There are checks and balances,” she says.
In the same way that duet and stitch encourages cultural riffing, the functionality also lets users directly respond to harmful content. Issa says the criticism is healthy. “If you say something wrong, you have to own up to it.”
Countering Disordered Eating and Diet Culture
In general, Issa thinks TikTok is a nicer platform than Instagram and Facebook. Creators collaborate, answer each other's questions, and actively promote one another. She believes TikTok's body positivity messages create a space with fewer toxic food hang-ups, with proponents of HAES, healthy at any size, and creators who disrupt hashtags like #diet and #countingcalories.
“I think it's important to find a community that supports you and tells you that health doesn't have to look a certain way, and that you can work toward a goal without a weight centric approach,” says Shana Spence, a registered dietician, who counsels on HAES and intuitive eating.
Still, Spence says there are plenty of wellness creators as well as amateurs, who post highly curated and ultimately harmful diet content (à la “What I Eat in a Day” videos). “What people really need to understand is that many of these people are naturally thin or they themselves use disordered habits to fight genetics,” she says.
Spence is less concerned about the app's abundance of fast food videos, cheese-laden recipes, and Dorito casseroles. “Will fast food be nourishing everyday at every meal? No. But it's not something to demonize either. I think we as adults have a responsibility to teach children about foods to eat that will fuel them, but it's also okay to have ‘fun’ foods.”
Learning to make “fun foods" might also help give young users the confidence to make more balanced meals—and then more complex dishes. It's a natural progression for most cooks.
A New Appreciation for Cooking
Nguyen and Alzahabi both say their appreciation for cooking has grown immensely over the last year, all inspired by an app that non-users often underestimate as a shallow torrent of content. “I used to follow trends, but that wasn't satisfying my creative side,” says Nguyen. “Now, I'm in a privileged position of producing cooking videos that I want to watch.”
Alzahabi, who says he once had the attention span of a fly, is more focused than ever now that he's tapped into something he's passionate about. To improve his content, he's researching dishes and their origins, even foods like pizza that he previously took for granted, saying “I've changed my respect for food, especially when I started diving into it.”
Ferdman, R. A. (n.d.). The slow death of the home-cooked meal. Washington Post.