A young man squats on the ground picking small yellow wildflowers. Gentle piano music tinkers as the scene cuts to a stream, where our star fills a hollowed-out bamboo stalk with ingredients, using a verdant leaf as a tablecloth: There’s raw chicken feet, red chili peppers, and soy sauce, along with other things that look like they’ve been foraged from the earth. Cooked over a fire, the bamboo opens up to reveal stewed chicken feet stained dark by the sauce, glistening with juices. As the man tears at the meat with his teeth, the piano music suddenly shifts to upbeat Cantonese pop, and the camera drifts away from our hero to rest on the surrounding nature.
Ok I think i figured out how to post these things without turning them into terrible gifs. Will post a couple more. pic.twitter.com/9Jhmkuc8is— kang (@jaycaspiankang) March 29, 2019
This pastoral scene isn’t from a costly Netflix production or hyped global food show like Parts Unknown. Like the meal itself, it has more down-to-earth beginnings and the potential to reach great heights. It comes from TikTok, the world’s biggest app unknown to most people above the age of 25. The app — formerly known as Musical.ly, before it was bought by a company in China where it’s is called Douyin and is also hugely popular — is home to an endless number of videos, ranging from lip syncs to meme challenges like the ones that recently propelled Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” into a bona-fide hit.
TikTok user @bashan0915’s videos don’t quite fit in with the hyperactive, music-dependent clips that the app is best known for. In the videos, men cook elaborate, delicious-looking outdoor meals in what appears to be rural China (the “巴山” of the user’s screen name “巴山美食” ostensibly refers to the Daba Mountains near the Sichuan province). Wordlessly, they pluck vegetation from the soil, wash ingredients in the clear waters of flowing rivers, and cook directly over hot fires and on the flat surfaces of rocks. I find these tranquil videos, which I first discovered thanks to the tweets of writer Jay Caspian Kang, endlessly addictive, hunger-inducing, and relaxing. @bashan0915’s devoted following of more than 290,000 fans clearly do, too.
Looking up this young man’s rates for ‘one day cooking w me in this stream’ pic.twitter.com/SvZHmuiUHr— kang (@jaycaspiankang) March 29, 2019
@bashan0915 isn’t the only TikTok account in this family of beautiful “outdoor cooking in the Chinese countryside” videos (see: @michaeladamswarren6, @babyremix_, and @jesicahaynes712), but it is likely one of the most prolific, as well as the most illustrative of the form.
What’s the appeal of these videos to viewers who, at least on the non-Chinese version of the app, presumably share very little in common with strangers preparing wholly unfamiliar dishes in the apparent mountains of Sichuan? That foreignness to an English-speaking audience may itself be part of the draw, along with the use of cooking methods that seem totally anachronistic to people who are used to using stoves and microwaves. Common refrains of “you do know you can just use a kitchen, right?” and “my man out here in the 1800s” (as well as predictably, racist suggestions that the Chinese men are cooking dog meat) litter the comments, highlighting the distant and clumsy lens through which many non-Chinese users view these videos.
Another selling point is the beauty of the surrounding nature. The cooking scenes are interspersed with shots of snowy hills, babbling brooks, and lush greenery, all conjuring a landscape straight out of a Chinese tourism advertisement (Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has in fact been used by local governments to market rural counties in China). Many of the videos close with a lingering shot of wildflowers or a waterfall, leaving the viewer with a profound appreciation of the great outdoors, at least for the second or two before the video replays from the beginning.
What’s most satisfying is seeing how the cooks make use of their environment, living out every modern office drone’s survivalist fantasies by demonstrating a resourcefulness that most viewers will never have or need. It’s the same appeal of the videos by Ms Yeah, an enormously popular Chinese YouTuber whose claim to fame is MacGyvering everyday office equipment to cook feasts for her coworkers. Making barbecue on the spare parts of an air conditioner? No problem for Ms Yeah! Frying rice atop an oil-slicked rock over a hot fire? A breeze for the silent stars of @bashan0915.
For fans, the cherry on top of the cake (or fried chicken foot on top of the leaf) is the voyeuristic pleasure of watching someone eat something delicious (see: mukbang). The men of @bashan0915 polish off their meals by taking huge bites of meat-stuffed flatbreads and demolishing entire wok-fuls of stir fry. As with all cooking videos and lifestyle content, there’s an aspirational aspect to the consumption of the content: Watch enough of these videos, and you, too, may someday be able to cook like they do — and eat like them, too. Until that day, you can watch TikTok.