I eat for Instagram
How social media has changed the way we consume, see, present and shop for food
For 32-year-old Rohini Mehra, weekends are usually synonymous with hearty meals—the more innovative the better.
Through the gruelling week, Mehra survives on instant noodles. So Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for something gourmet, but with a rider—it has to be within the comfortable environs of her home. She logs on to the Facebook page of Tasty, BuzzFeed’s popular online food channel, for quick but epicurean recipes of succulent ribs that don’t require an oven, Brazilian chicken croquettes, hot-dog cups or a lime chicken and avocado salad.
“Or I visit the Twitter handles of chefs such as Sanjeev Kapoor and Ranveer Brar, who share cool ways of using local, seasonal ingredients,” says this freelance visualizer, who is based in Gurgaon, adjacent to Delhi. More and more people like Mehra are turning to social media for their food decisions.
“Kapoor had shared a recipe for a mini sabudana thalipeeth (sago pancakes), so I modified my veggie shopping list for the week to include the ingredients required for that,” says Mehra. People across demographies are spending a good chunk of their day looking up recipes, quick kitchen hacks, live videos of demos by bloggers and home cooks, or simply accompanying a chef on a culinary journey across the world through his tweets.
Online social platforms are teeming with countless “how to” recipes and videos—“21 recipes for those obsessed with bacon”, “green chutney in six styles”, “25 desserts using just apples”. Who doesn’t know how to make something as simple as a green chutney? But I have spent a good half an hour watching videos that show six different ways of making one, just to make sure that I have the perfect recipe.
The popularity of these social media platforms is easy to gauge from just the sheer amount of content that’s available. According to rankings released by online video intelligence company Tubular Labs recently, Tasty maintained its status as the No.1 cross-platform channel in June, with 1.8 billion international views. It continued to reign in the top 3 in the cross-platform rankings in July, coming after UK entertainment content publishers UNILAD and The LADbible. No video or recipe on the platform gets less than 1,000 views and most can be accessed on its Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest pages. Other food channels, such as Tastemade and Food Network, have witnessed similar trajectories. According to a recent article on The Wrap website: “Within the last few months, Food Network has amped up its made-for-social (media) content in response to growing demand, publishing roughly 100 videos per month on its Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram accounts.” These videos get around 540 million views across platforms every month.
Twitter too sees an average of 370,000 tweets a month in India with the mention of “food”. The term “lunch” spikes each day on Twitter precisely at noon, with other peaks occurring at 11am and 1pm, a clear indication that people are turning to the social media platform to discuss what they have eaten or what they want to eat.
“Indians and food are synonymous. We might not all speak the same language but are united in our love for food,” says Keya Madhvani, head (lifestyle and culture partnerships), Twitter India. “We have seen an increase in tweet impressions by 186% for food-related handles year-on-year, while there has been a 133% increase in food conversations on Twitter, year-on-year, from June last year (keywords like ‘food’, ‘cooking’, ‘meals’, ‘recipes’).”
Social media has become an indicator of global trends, be it macro ones about postmodern and post-molecular gastronomy, or the rise of “freakshakes” as well as the hyper-local micro trends seen in farmers’ markets. These platforms are both windows into far-flung worlds, resulting in a demand for newer delicacies for the table, as well as the rediscovery of traditional foods.
As a result, there are now fewer taboo ingredients, be it at home or in the restaurant. And people who were outside the sphere of the food industry suddenly feel included in this delicious world, where they can suggest ingredients, recommend restaurants, share what they cook and engage with chefs who were earlier unknown faces hidden behind kitchen doors.
For instance, it’s a Thursday evening and you are sitting at home, thinking about what to cook for dinner. You log into Periscope, a live video-streaming app on Twitter, and see Bengaluru-based Nandita Iyer, who runs the popular blog Saffron Trail, quickly create a dish from leftover cabbage. You can log on to her special Twitter show, #TwitterTadka, where she hosts a poll every Tuesday evening, asking people to choose what they would like her to make for dinner. You get not just a recipe but also a step-by-step demonstration, watching her make it live on Periscope.
“Social media is accessible to people from different backgrounds. At the core of it all is the public,” says Madhvani. A classic example of this engagement can be seen on the social media handles of Thomas Zacharias. The executive chef of The Bombay Canteen (and a blogger for Mint Lounge) has emerged as one of the key social media influencers in India. His posts on Twitter (over 3,648 followers) and Instagram (around 15,700 followers) about his extensive travels, recipes and flavours discovered en route, as well as interactions with chefs from across the world, spark off a range of discussions among his followers.
On 14 June, he tweeted: “Now onto jackfruit seeds. Usually thrown away, it has a nutty flavour & nice crunch when cooked.” Immediately, his post received a barrage of replies: Someone’s mom used to put these in sambhar, another talked about these seeds being a delicacy in Assam, where they are tawa-roasted, soaked in water overnight and, then, after the peel is removed, are added to yellow dal.
“My life revolves around food and hence my Instagram account does too. It’s about new dishes, exciting local ingredients, and also about my travel,” says Zacharias. Some of his most popular posts on Instagram were about his trip to Europe, in the summer of 2013, when he covered 36 cities in the gastronomic regions of France, Italy and Spain. “I don’t have a specific agenda. Social media just gives me a larger voice and helps me connect with people. It also gives us at The Bombay Canteen a chance to talk about our philosophy as well as new dishes at the restaurant. It has broken a lot of the barriers that usually exist between chefs and their customers,” he says.
Like Zacharias, a lot of other chefs are documenting and curating their lives on social media as well, like Ritu Dalmia (over 440,000 followers on Twitter), whose social media accounts offer an insight into her personal and professional lives. “Social food group associations are a creative way to spread the buzz and interact with both my current and potential clientele, at one place,” says Dalmia, who has introduced Shoutout Sundays, when she reposts at least one great review or feedback received during the week. “Please note, all the handles are organic in nature, minus any paid promotions.”
This heightened engagement with followers is giving rise to newer formats on social media. American chef, writer and restaurateur Mario Batali engages his 1.61 million followers on Twitter with a quiz called #MarioMysteryMeal, where he tweets about one ingredient at a time and asks his followers to guess the meal he is cooking. It’s a fun way for food enthusiasts to share their passion with a celebrity chef.
In July, Twitter India launched its first food and travel Twideo (Twitter-video) show with Brar, titled #RanveerOnTheRoad. Every week, on Tuesday and Thursday, he tweets two 3-minute episodes at 11am. The first season, lasting 15 weeks, focuses on Australia Brar believes in the power of social media and seeks collaboration, networking and inspiration from his platforms. “Rainbow cakes were largely born out of Pinterest, as were many other dishes,” he says.
Great visuals, short-form video and live feeds have emerged as the most powerful formats on social media. “Ninety per cent of video views on Twitter are on the mobile, and video views rose 220 times globally in 2015,” says Madhvani. Both Zacharias and food writer Kalyan Karmakar, who also runs the blog Finely Chopped, get a tremendous response for their videos on Periscope. Karmakar also uses the “Live on Facebook” feature regularly. Finely Chopped is the master brand that he uses across his social media channels.
“People love conversations about food. The reason why Zacharias and Karmakar have worked so well is because they get this idea,” says Madhvani. “For instance, Karmakar gets 1,000 views on one Periscope video.”
These videos are not your sophisticated, shot-in-the-studio variety, but raw, spontaneous and shot live on the street or at an eatery. One of Karmakar’s first videos was about affordable street food options in Mumbai’s Bandra (East) area.
“Next morning, the video had 50,000-60,000 views. Periscope picked up the video on its own and featured it,” he says.
These videos don’t result in passive viewing, rather, they bring about active engagement between the creator and the viewers. For instance, after Karmakar put up a video on Periscope on the Mysore Masala Dosa, Rida Khan, a Bhopal-based food blogger and innovator, posted a video inspired by it. “She used the same masala, but in a paratha. Then, when I posted a picture of a chicken roll that I had during my Kolkata trip, she played around with the ingredients to create a keema (mince) roll the next morning,” he says.
At YouTube India, which has been showcasing thousands of culinary channels for years, food is an evergreen category. It has given a platform to even those who are not remotely connected with the food industry, but are genuinely interested in good food. So you have home cooks like Yaman Agarwal and Nisha Madhulika rubbing shoulders with celebrity chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor and Harpal Singh Sokhi in the list of top 10 food creator channels from India.
According to data shared by YouTube in 2014, two of the global top 10 food channels on the platform are from India (the ranking is based on the duration for which the video was watched). From 2013-14, most searches from around the world for recipes on YouTube came from India. The statistic still holds true, for India continues to figure in the top 5 searches for recipes on YouTube. “The searches are not just for traditional Indian food but across cuisines. We have seen increasing consumption of breakfast and dessert recipes as well,” says Satya Raghavan, head (entertainment partnerships), YouTube.
Vernacular content is emerging as one of the most viewed on the platform, as are channels which cater to niche segments. “For instance, the fastest emerging channel on YouTube is Gayatri Vantillu in Telugu by home cook Gayatri Sharma. She makes vegetarian recipes for bachelors and newly married working couples,” says Raghavan. With more than 60,000 subscribers to her channel, Sharma’s recipes for atukula upma or Andhra-style poha (rice flakes) and green gram dosa are among her highest viewed videos, with over 92,500 and over 105,900 views, respectively.
Hyderabad-based Yaman Agarwal is all of 18 years, but his YouTube channel, CookingShooking, already has a subscriber base of more than 301,700 and ranks seventh in YouTube’s list of top 10 food content creators from India (Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana by chef Sanjeev Kapoor tops the list with more than 956,900 subscribers). Agarwal started the channel in 2012, after searching for a recipe for paneer butter masala on YouTube. “I found chef Harpal Singh’s recipe. However, when I tried it at home, it didn’t turn out the same. I kept experimenting with the recipe and after two-three attempts, I got it right,” says Agarwal, who creates easy content for those who want to replicate a restaurant or dhaba-style dish at home. Some of his most viewed recipes are for the Bengali rasgulla, with 5.3 million-plus views, and for eggless black forest cake that doesn’t require baking, with over 4.9 million hits.
The popularity of videos—both live and recorded—on social media has prompted online food communities to follow this path as well. Indian Food Freak, which started out as a blog, evolved into a food group on Facebook and now has a website, has been posting reviews and recipes for years on social media. “But now we will do 3- to 4-minute-long reviews on YouTube as well in Hindi and English. Visuals are extremely powerful as people get to see and feel the restaurant,” says Pawan Soni, founder of the network, which has more than 100,000 members spread across various chapters in Gurgaon, Noida, Ranchi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chandigarh in India, as well as West Asia. The community is now looking at starting chapters in Singapore and Australia as well. “We get over 100,000 hits a month, which is great for a restaurant review website. But with videos, this is bound to go up,” he says.
Be it Live on Facebook, Periscope or YouTube, it has been seen that picture-perfect videos don’t work. Instead, raw, unpremeditated and impromptu footage is what works best, for it helps connect with people. Karmakar, who never announces when he is going to be live on Periscope, says: “It’s very organic. I was at the ITC Grand Central Hotel the other day and saw an 80-year-old chef making dosa. So I decided to shoot that and people from across the world said ‘hi’ to him.”
One reason that food video-sharing has become so popular on platforms such as YouTube is also the revenue it generates. “Creators earn a lot of revenue through the channels. Also, a lot of advertisers and brands such as Nestlé are keen to work with the people who create top content—for consultation or endorsement,” says Raghavan. There are different revenue-sharing models currently in the market: Some content creators tie up with multi-channel networks (MCNs), while others operate on their own. Some, like Karmakar, are regularly approached by brand management agencies and companies—in his case, because of the equity that his channel, Finely Chopped, has garnered. “I act as a brand endorser or a brand consultant. Sometimes I give media space to a brand through my social media channel. I might also help develop a creative for it.,” says Karmakar.
In the world of food, social media has been a great unifier, helping bring the entire food ecosystem on to one platform. “You have celebrity chefs on the platform, and also chef-restaurateurs like Manu Chandra and critics like Marryam H. Reshii. All parts of the ecosystem converge and often produce impact,” says Madhvani, citing the example of Mumbai-based chef Saransh Goila, who credits Twitter for the idea of the Goila Butter Chicken. “He would host butter-chicken dinners at home and post pictures online. Soon he realized the huge demand for the dish and launched his Goila Butter Chicken takeaway and delivery service,” she says.
Who to follow for cooking ideas, recipes and tips
Feeling confused about what to cook for dinner? Or, are you at a local market in Assam and need tips on what regional produce to buy? For well-informed advice, just tweet to these home cooks and bloggers, who have become extremely popular on social media for their culinary advice, so much so that they are even followed by celebrity chefs.
While food writer Kalyan Karmakar follows Ananya Banerjee for her recipes of little-known Odiya dishes and Bengali dips, the food consultant and founder of the APB Cook Studio, Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, finds Gitika Saikia inspiring. A Mumbai-based home chef who hosts a pop-up called 8 Sisters, dedicated to cuisine from the North-East, Saikia’s posts on gahori dekhia bhaji (fiddlehead fern with pork), jadoh and the Assamese staple of khar are popular across social media platforms.
For a hearty dose of food innovation, visit Bhopal-based food blogger Rida Khan’s page. She makes unusual dishes with easily found ingredients: Oats and kathal (jackfruit) kebabs anyone?
A Delhi University student, a former radio jockey and a software professional—the Indian food stars on Instagram
Who would have thought that the simple chore of cooking breakfast for his boyfriend would transform London-based Michael Zee into an Instagram star with around 635,000 followers. Since 2013, Zee has been putting out a single post every day under the name Symmetry Breakfast, which showcases the best in breakfast from around the world. Be it gallo pinto from Costa Rica, bambara and plantain fritters from Ghana or the Sunday special of spinach, beyaz peynir and egg pide from Turkey— his Insta feed is a melting pot of cultures and flavours.
Closer home, we have our own compelling food Instagrammers:
■ Delhi-based Shivesh Bhatia has witnessed a trajectory similar to Zee’s on his Instagram account in the past two years. A self-taught baker and blogger, this 20-year-old posts under the name Shivesh17 and has around 75,100 followers. Bhatia, who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science from Delhi University, plans to train in pastry-making next year.
■ It has been seen that accounts which highlight the personality of the home chef or food blogger are more popular on Instagram than those which just showcase pretty pictures of food. “Earlier, I was very conscious about the way I looked. But I realized over time that it’s more important to put a personality out there,” says food blogger and home chef Amrita Kaur, who Instagrams as Amrita of Life and has around 16,900 followers. Previously a radio jockey, her Insta feed is populated by images of gourmet dishes , while also showcasing her diverse interests, such as urban gardening and photography.
■ Who doesn’t have a disaster in the kitchen? But not many people want to put it up on social media. However, Bhavna Kalra doesn’t shy away from putting her kitchen disasters and quick-fixes using leftovers on Instagram. Posting by the name of Just A Girl From Mumbai, she has around 37,200 followers. Recently, her post about a dal sandwich made from leftover moong dal, onions, chaat masala and coriander became extremely popular. Based in Sydney now, she has thousands of followers in India. “When I moved to Sydney, I realized that Indian food is terrible here. There is so much more to Indian food than chicken tikka masala, and that’s why I started blogging about it,” says Kalra, who is a project manager with a software company.