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The quick and the delicious

Short recipe videos on Facebook and Instagram have a gripping quality that draws food lovers and novices into a world of culinary wizardry

Sanjyot Keer of Your Food Lab cooks with his nephew Iyan for an episode of ‘Your Food Lab Junior’. Photo Courtesy: Your Food Lab
Sanjyot Keer of Your Food Lab cooks with his nephew Iyan for an episode of ‘Your Food Lab Junior’. Photo Courtesy: Your Food Lab

Potato-stuffed Idlis, Samosa Pinwheels, Motichoor Rabri Parfait, Chimichurri Chicken—if the videos on Facebook and Instagram are to be believed, then these seemingly simple recipes can transform culinary ignoramuses like me into masterchefs without burning down the kitchen. These videos, a minute or two long, are as much about the dishes as they are about creating beautiful content. As Rishabh Vora, a lawyer from Mumbai, puts it, “I enjoy the simplicity of the videos, they’re great for my short attention span and they look amazing." For people like Vora and myself, these videos stop us from incessantly scrolling through news feeds on social media; The Wall Street Journal appropriately called them “thumb-stoppers ".

Over the last two years, quick recipe videos have changed the way people approach cooking. You don’t need to follow complicated recipes in cookbooks or make notes while watching Sanjeev Kapoor or Madhur Jaffrey preparing dal makhani or chicken tikka masala. These new-age mini cooking shows squeeze about 10 minutes worth of cooking into 2. Measurements and instructions (“Chop finely", “Stir every five minutes") appear as text in the video, so all you see is a chef’s point of view of a kitchen counter and stove top and a pair of hands dicing, frying and kneading.

It all started in the second half of 2015 when Buzzfeed launched Tasty, a new vertical dedicated to creating easy-to-follow recipes that look good and promise to taste delicious. The short videos were wildly popular, garnering thousands of likes, shares and comments within hours of being uploaded. Today, the Tasty page has over 91.4 million Facebook likes and over 15.6 million Instagram followers. It didn’t take too long for Indian media houses and home chefs to follow suit.

Till then, India had been used to the likes of Jiggs Kalra and Tarla Dalal walking viewers through the various steps of a dish on Doordarshan and Zee TV. Archana Hebbar of Hebbar’s Kitchen was one of the first to use Buzzfeed’s simple format to share Indian recipes. In November 2015, spurred by a lack of decent Indian food around her home in Australia, and with a lot of time on her hands, she began a blog where she shared step-by-step photo recipes before moving on to videos in February 2016. The initial videos were shot using an iPhone and a selfie stick and edited on a laptop, but, once viewership picked up, Hebbar upgraded to professional equipment and software. Today a team of three—Hebbar, her husband Sudarshan and her friend Shreeprada—run the site.

Gobble’s take on a Cheese Garlic Naan. Photo Courtesy: Gobble

Around the same time, Sanjyot Keer of Your Food Lab was experimenting with similar recipe shoots in his kitchen in Mumbai. Keer, a passionate chef, knew that professional kitchens weren’t his calling and wanted to combine his love of food and technology in a unique way; in fact, he bought the domain name in May 2015, before he had any concrete business idea. His time as a food producer with reality television show MasterChef India gave him insight into the way viewers relate to food. “I showed chef Vikas Khanna (one of the judges on MasterChef) my videos before releasing them. And I remember him asking me why I thought people would watch these recipes. While describing my process, I realized that whether or not I had convinced him of the idea, I had convinced myself," Keer says. He began by filming on weekends and released the first series of videos in April 2016. He put out a recipe for a pizza dosa on the official Your Food Lab (YFL) Facebook page—it got 30,000 views within the first 24 hours.

For Anirudh Pandita of Pocket Aces, a digital entertainment company based in Mumbai, it was the buzz around food-related content on Facebook that caught his attention and pushed him to start Gobble in June 2016. “We were seeing that food videos were the fastest-growing video segment on Facebook," Pandita says. The idea was to appeal not just to aspiring chefs and people who love to cook, but also to those who “simply love watching food art", he says.

As others entered the scene, people like Hebbar, Keer and Pandita had to step up their game. Home kitchens were replaced by professional studios, dedicated teams were hired and more videos were put out. Today, these outlets release one-two videos a day, adapting and innovating recipes. Most try and find a niche. For Hebbar, it’s traditional, home-style vegetarian recipes that remind you of your granny’s cooking. Keer is inspired by Indian street food and tries to give it a gourmet twist. As Pandita explains, recipe selection is a continuing process: “We’ve found a few areas that we know our audience appreciates so we consistently create recipes around those themes. Additionally, we keep trying new types of cuisines and recipes to see what clicks."

The efforts seem to have paid off, if numbers are anything to go by. Hebbar’s Kitchen has over 6.3 million followers on Facebook, Your Food Lab has 1.6 million followers and Gobble, 1.2 million. According to video analytics company Vidooly, Hebbar’s Kitchen videos got over 82 million views in August alone, with Your Food Lab clocking nearly 35.5 million; Pandita says Gobble amassed 33 million views in September. Though these pages prefer tracking user engagement (through shares and comments) on their videos, these views are what get them noticed by brands and companies. In addition to ad shares from social media platforms, product placement, brand integration and native advertising are important revenue streams. Wonderchef Cookware, a range of equipment from Sanjeev Kapoor, has tied up with several of these brands, offering their pans and utensils for videos or including links to their online store on these Facebook pages. Other partners have included Saffola and Penguin Random House India.

Given the potential that these videos have, companies and chefs are constantly working to stay ahead of the curve. Buzzfeed expanded the Tasty universe to include Proper Tasty, Tasty Japan and Tasty Junior. Hebbar hopes to engage with more audiences via her iOS and Android apps, while Keer and Pandita are exploring ways to target new demographics. In November Keer launched tiffin-friendly recipes on Your Food Lab Junior which is hosted by his five-year-old nephew Iyan.

Indian companies might one day emulate Buzzfeed’s strategy of launching customizable cookbooks made up of recipes selected by clients and introducing cookware, like a smart hotplate called Tasty One Top, which syncs to a mobile app.

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