Tiffy Chen knows a thing or two about staying inspired in the kitchen. The content creator behind the TikTok account @tiffycooks (and @tiffy.cooks on Instagram) has a millions-strong following of fans who appreciate her easy step-by-step cooking videos, as well as her DIY spin on her childhood favorites, after growing up in Taiwan.
Ask Chen what keeps her inspired (we did!) and she’ll immediately admit that it doesn’t take more than just being in the kitchen. “Food has always been my happy place,” she says. But she also has a few tips for cooking when she feels stuck in a rut. From her favorite “makes-everything-better” ingredient—it’s a spicy one—to her must-have kitchen equipment, here’s how Chen keeps her recipes accessible, fun, and of course, delicious.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does the phrase “inspired cooking” mean to you?
Because food has always been my happy place, it’s been almost a form of therapy. Nothing makes me happier than just going to the kitchen and cooking. You go in, you get the ingredients and prep them, and you don’t know what the result will be. Throughout the process you deal with obstacles and problem-solve, and in the end you get something you’re proud of and that you get to eat. And you learn things for the next time.
You cite Taiwanese street vendors as a source of inspiration. Are there any food-forward social media accounts you follow for that, too?
I love @thekoreanvegan. She’s an amazing storyteller, and her videography is beautiful. I also really like @masacooking, who is Japanese but lives in Taiwan, so he showcases both types of cuisine. His food are the recipes I grew up eating, and I love how simple and easy he makes them. I also watch @plantyou, who does a lot of zero-waste food and cooking hacks. I’m inspired by tons of people across the board, but those three jump out to me immediately.
How has your family inspired and influenced your own personal style in the kitchen?
I’m very lucky to come from a family packed with foodies. My core memory is of my dad picking me up from school early with a fake excuse to go try the latest hot pot restaurant. We also used to do tours around Taiwan, where we’d eat at every different stall. And this is before Google Maps! We were just trusting our guts—and our noses—and trying new places.
My grandma would cook us a whole table’s worth of food, with leftovers to take home. What inspired me, and what I want to do differently, is be able to teach people. Because food is my family’s love language, my grandma would say, “Don’t learn this; just come back and I’ll cook it for you again.” But people pass away. Before she passed, she suffered from dementia and I never got a chance to learn her recipes. When I try to recreate them, they’re not the same. That’s what inspired me to have a cooking account, a blog, a cookbook—I want to finally put these recipes on the page. Someday, hopefully my kids will be able to cook them when they’re missing me, or missing home.
What ingredients or flavors are inspiring you to create new things in your own kitchen lately?
I am a big fan of spicy food. Szechuan peppercorn has so much versatility. It’s numbing, but also so good at adding a depth of flavor to meat cuisines. For example, if I blanch meat, I add a pinch of Szechuan peppercorn to the water, and it helps remove the “meat smell” and adds a subtly spicy and refreshing flavor. I especially love it in the winter, in soups. I put it in chili oil, and use it in noodle dishes. You can use it whole, grind it up, and pan-fry it in oil. There are so many ways to use it!
Where do you buy your Szechuan peppercorns?
I buy it from the market down the street. There’s tons online, though. Either way, it’s very affordable and you can use it in everything. I had a comment the other day that said, “You always use similar ingredients.” And well, that’s the best thing about it! I don’t want you to buy a bottle of soy sauce and only use it once. I want to show you all the different ways you can cook with it.
Whenever I create recipes, I want to be sure I’m featuring ingredients that are accessible. I’m lucky to live in Vancouver. We are super multicultural here and I’m able to get authentic Asian ingredients—like fresh noodles daily. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Are there any kitchen appliances or gadgets that you use to make cooking easier, faster, or more fun?
One I use on a daily basis is chopsticks. You can do anything with chopsticks! I have like, 80 pairs in my pantry. I’m always using them for cooking, eating, and mixing. When it comes to gadgets, I was not the biggest fan of air fryers when they first came out. I thought, “Why do we need this?” I hate large appliances that crowd my counter space. But the air fryer is very convenient and it can replace other appliances. It now acts as a small toaster for me. I use it to reheat leftovers. It’s a great alternative to frying.
How does cooking for other people factor into what you cook, and why?
Now that I am finalizing my cookbook, I realized so much goes into teaching. Something that is simple or obvious for me may not be for other people. You have to measure, you have to specify everything. So, I may say “lay this ingredient down,” but where are we laying it down? How big is the container? I started in a random kitchen filming myself, and now I realize how much more information goes into it.
What inspires you more to cook at home: restaurants or shopping for groceries?
Grocery shopping. If I see an ingredient I’ve never had, I want to try it and see what I can do with it. But I also love a good deal. If I see chicken on sale, I’m buying that chicken and I’m going to make something out of it.
What new food trends are you excited about? Are there any you want to try and put your own stamp on?
I always get inspired by people making noodles. I’m like, “Oooh, now I’m craving this.” But beyond that, not really. A lot of viral trends waste food, and I don’t want to cook something I’m not going to eat. If I’m cooking something for a video, it’s not only because it’s pretty, or it’s a lot of cheese. It has to be something I want to eat. I don’t want to waste any food.
Do you have any cooking goals for 2023?
I am so excited for something that’s been a year and a half in the making. I’ve always had a dream to create a product that can be in everyone’s kitchen for day-to-day cooking, whether it’s noodles, or sauces, or whatever. After researching and finding the right partner, I’m starting my own food-product line. All of the products will be cooked from scratch, so they’ll be the absolute best quality possible. This year, we’re doing product research and testing, and the hope is that the line will launch on September 3, my three-year anniversary of being on TikTok.
What do you want your viewers and readers to know about staying inspired in the kitchen?
I am a strong believer in the ethos that there’s no right or wrong in cooking. I am a proud home cook with no knife skills, and I’m okay with that. If you’re starting out as a cook, just get in there and try things. You can always adjust ingredients, and customize things. Never be intimated to try new dishes—especially if you’re trying dishes from another culture. If you love it, that’s what matters. Well, that and if you’re having fun doing it.