By now, you’ve seen it.
The block of white feta, lightly browned from the oven, resting on a bed of roasted cherry tomatoes and olive oil. Mixed together, the cheese and the tomatoes make a sauce. Add cooked pasta, and dinner is served.
The recipe, commonly known as “baked feta pasta,” became a viral hit in January. Since then, it’s infiltrated your social media feeds, your news sources, maybe even your dinner table.
Harris Teeter, a grocery chain based in North Carolina, reported a 200% jump in block feta sales beginning in February, a spokesperson for the company told CNN – that’s right around when the dish was gaining notoriety.
Suddenly, block feta cheese was akin to the latest Jordan sneaker release – it was flying off the shelves, with some consumers going to multiple grocery stores to get their hands on one.
All this, just because of TikTok.
Since its debut into American consciousness, TikTok has become known for its funny, viral content, like the “Ratatouille” musical. But the influence of the app can’t be overstated. The song “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo, for example, became a massive hit – breaking Spotify records and reaching the top of charts around the world – in large part due to its prevalence on the app.
In other words, TikTok is literally shaping culture. And, as the baked feta pasta dish can attest, that includes the way we eat.
On TikTok, food doesn’t have to be perfect
Cooking shows and celebrity chiefs – global phenomena like “MasterChef” and Jamie Oliver, for example – are historically what has moved and impacted food culture in the West, said Tania Lewis, the co-director of the Digital Ethnography Research Centre, which focuses on digitalization, algorithmic decision making, and everyday life.
Social media has democratized that process – anyone can be a food celebrity now.
“The new ‘celebrities’ are not necessarily TV professionals but home cooks and styled up foodies who’ve branded themselves as influencers via YouTube, Weibo, Instagram and the like,” Lewis, who is also a professor at RMIT University, Melbourne Australia, said.
“TikTok’s success in the food space comes off the back of two decades of growth in food media and an associated burgeoning interest and knowledge amongst the general population but particularly the aspirational middle classes in foodie culture.”
This is all made even more compelling when analyzing the age of TikTok users, who tend to be younger millennials or Gen Z.
Gabrielle Reyes is the chef behind the TikTok account One Great Vegan, where she posts vegan recipes accompanied by songs. Her audience on TikTok, she told CNN, is anywhere from 6 to 16 years old.
So it makes sense that these TikTok food trends – things like the aforementioned feta pasta dish, as well as spiralized potatoes, the tortilla fold, etc. – take off. They’re incredibly easy to make and, oftentimes, they look cool, too, Reyes said.
“It’s something a child could do,” she said.
Jon Kung runs the account Chef Jon Kung on TikTok, where he’s been posting videos since last May. Instagram food trends, he said, tend to be more about the look rather than the taste. It’s “food built to be photographed,” he said. TikTok isn’t like that.
“(TikTok users) prefer personality over polish,” Kung told CNN.
That’s not to say that TikTok isn’t polished at all. There are still some of the classic food porn shots made popular by Instagram food creators. But there’s an element of genuineness that isn’t seen in other food media.
All of this is exhibited in a recent TikTok by Kung, where he attempts to recreate Panda Express’s orange chicken. The video shows Kung going through the motions of cooking – he chops the chicken into pieces, marinates it, breads it and fries it. At one point, he accidentally splashes himself with corn starch.
In a voice-over, Kung narrates his process. But rather than listing ingredients and amounts, Kung talks about seeing a bottle of Orange Faygo, a brand of orange soda, at the grocery store and becoming inspired to experiment with it. He encourages the audience to let themselves have fun, too.
“Sure I added some things like chilis, herbs and spices, but there’s no need to take things so seriously all the time,” Kung says in the video. “The first American Chinese cooks struggled with what they had. They paved the way for the rest of us to have fun and actually enjoy what we’re doing.”
Kung does all this in a video barely a minute long. That’s part of the appeal of food on TikTok too – you don’t have to sit through a 20-minute video explaining the ins and outs of a dish. There’s a place where details matter, and in cooking they can be important. But food can also just be fun. And that’s the lesson that is getting passed on.
It’s a cultural exchange in 60 seconds or less
Joanne L. Molinaro is a self-taught cook who runs the food blog The Korean Vegan. In 2020, she started posting on TikTok, where she now has more than 2 million followers.
Molinaro’s content is both about food and beyond food. In a video for budae chigae, for example, she talks about her relationship with her father. In her version of that viral feta pasta, she opens up about love and insecurity.
The effect is visceral, making her videos not just about food, but about its intersections with politics, family and culture, too.
“When I got onto TikTok, (the younger viewers) were already so well prepared to engage with me about these deeper issues as they related to food,” Molinaro said.
Molinaro does include ingredient names and amounts as text, so her audience can cook along if they want. Simply by watching her, it’s easy to pick up on some tips and tricks, like when she uses a second cast iron skillet to press a folded tortilla sandwich, another TikTok food trend.
But she’s also introducing users to an array of Korean ingredients, which might be new to some.
“(I’m) very mindful that everyone is obsessed with Kpop and Kdramas, and Korean culture is so much more than just those things,” Molinaro said. “I’d love to just share tiny little bits of that with my audience.”
In this way, TikTok allows for cultural exchange, beyond just sharing recipes.
Reyes, for example, cooks with ingredients like banana blossoms and jackfruit – things that some people may not have seen before. She knows that in a lot of ways, she’s teaching young people about those ingredients and those foods.
“It’s a form of celebration; it’s a form of learning; it’s a form of teaching people that other cultures eat this interesting food that you might like as well,” Reyes said. “Sometimes you stumble upon someone that’s creating something on the other side of the world, but it resonates with you.”
Simply put, the app is showing how food can be unifying. That baked feta pasta dish, after all, got its start in Finland.
The app is changing what people eat
TikTok goes beyond just sharing easy food trends or introductions to new ingredients. The platform is changing what people eat.
After becoming ubiquitous on the app, birria tacos – a classic Mexican dish – have started appearing on menus across the US. Fufu, the West African staple, made a similar jump, after a video of someone eating it went viral on the platform.
“TikTok has become this crazy soft culture center,” Kung said. “TikTok bleeds into Instagram, and Instagram bleeds to Facebook, and Facebook bleeds to everyone else. I see more and more birria tacos on menus, and I know exactly why they’re doing that.”
He continued, “TikTok does a really good job of showing that different or weird is not bad, it’s just weird to you. Especially with young people, I think they’re more open to that. It has opened their worldview.”
From introducing people to easy recipes like baked feta pasta, to turning birria tacos a household name, creators on TikTok have helped millions celebrate food in a new and shareable way.