If you are a recent entrant to the Indian TikTok universe or have been tracking the trends on Instagram and Youtube over the years, it’s hard to overlook the impact that food-related content has had in the past few years.
Be it Ulhas Kamathe, who became a global sensation with his trademark ‘Chicken Leg Piece’ videos, or 56-year-old Porchezhiyan (aka Saapattu Raman), who makes Parotta Soori's feat in Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu look like child’s play, social media has witnessed an increasing number of people taking part in ‘mukbang’ videos, gobbling dizzying amount of food, and then, there are millions of others, who find themselves stunned when they witness such a spectacle.
What is Mukbang?
Mukbang (an eating show), where the host eats food and broadcasts it online, first began in South Korea around 2010 and since then, it’s become a rage in the West. The trend spawned several food challenges, where hosts try to race against time to eat as much food as they can within a short duration, and each video accumulated millions of views. It was just a matter of time before this wave hit Indian social media too.
Sabari Kumar, a 25-year-old medico who runs the Saapattu Raman channel on Youtube and other platforms, recalls watching such ‘mukbang’ videos while he was studying medicine in Ukraine back in 2017.
“I was so intrigued by those videos that I kept wondering if we could emulate it in India too. Back then, no one had videos like that in Tamil Nadu,” he recalls. So, when he came back to his native village, Koogaiyur near Chinnasalem, Tamil Nadu, he convinced his father, Porchezhiyan, an AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy) doctor who specialises in electro homeopathy, to take up a food challenge - 4 kg jackfruit eating challenge in 7 minutes. And there has been no looking back for him ever since.
Eating is a family affair
Since Sabari Kumar started the channel in 2018, he has produced nearly 115 videos (one every week on average) and sometimes, he takes part in the videos, along with his father and mother, turning the videos into a family affair. Some of the most popular videos like ‘9 plates white rice & fish gravy challenge’, ‘2.5 kg country chicken biryani’, ‘5 kg mutton biryani challenge’ have more than 4.5 million views.
My father has always been a big time foodie and he makes sure he doesn’t eat at hotels or weddings much. Home-cooked food is the only secret behind why he’s able to eat so much and thankfully, he has never had any health issues despite eating so much. We have our own farm in our village and everything grown there is organic. Initially, people used to criticise my father for indulging me so much and tell him that no one will come forward to marry their daughter to me (laughs), but after seeing how popular the videos have become, everyone in our village has been very kind and sweet to us,” Sabari adds.
Another popular food vlogger, Sanket Sankpal, a 22-year old civil engineering graduate from Mumbai who runs Wake_n_bite channel, has added his own twist to the food challenges. Right from pizza to panipuri, and even the beverage Maaza, the wide range of food challenges that Sanket has taken up in recent times is testimony to the popularity of such videos on the internet.
“Until two years ago, I used to make dance videos; however, the reach wasn’t so much because there were others doing similar stuff. By then, food challenges abroad were quite popular on YouTube, but very few people were doing it in India. The thing about food is that everyone likes it and you can’t hate food-related content. And it’s so much fun when you involve your family and friends while making such videos. Ever since I started making videos, I’ve shot different series of videos - Mom Vs Dad, Superwomen, Kids, Girls etc. People love it when you show how your family members take active part in such videos. When they see us eating all that food, they feel they can also do it; however, it takes a lot of effort and practice to eat so much,” Sanket says.
Eating as Performance Art
TikTok, in particular, has seen a dramatic rise in food-related videos with hundreds of people piggybacking on the ‘Chicken Leg Piece’ phenomenon, first created by Ulhas Kamathe. All it involves is the host saying ‘Chicken Leg Piece’ aloud before eating it and some have put their own touch to the format by saying aloud the name of the dish they are about to eat. It’s no less than a performance art and has become a video format in itself.
Ulhas Kamathe himself is flabbergasted at the popularity of his videos and says that he didn’t do anything special to go viral.
“I love eating chicken and it’s been part of my diet for over 20 years now. Even today, I make sure that I eat 2-3 chicken leg pieces for lunch every day without fail. I uploaded a few such videos on TikTok of me eating chicken leg pieces and sometime last year, it just blew up,” Ulhas says.
The popular TikToker reveals that his monthly expenses just for his food run up to Rs 12,000-15,000 and after his videos went viral, the meat supplier even offered to sell chicken for free; however, he politely refused the offer.
“I’ve been running a gym in Ghatkopar, Mumbai for the past 10 years and I also own 6-7 gyms in other parts of Mumbai. I do try to keep myself fit and exercise for an hour at least every day. Thanks to these videos on TikTok, I’ve earned quite a loyal fan following and respect. Some people have travelled all the way from Punjab just to meet me. It feels so nice to be recognised like this,” he says.
The challenge behind food challenges
As mouth-watering as such food challenges might seem, the people behind them acknowledge that it takes a lot of effort and a voracious appetite to complete a challenge. “I can only eat what I can,” Ulhas says, adding, “There was a challenge where we had to eat 20 chicken lollipops, but I could only finish 15 within the stipulated time. One of the biggest challenges was finishing the Hind Kesari Thali in Nashik. It was meant for 8 people and the thali itself costs Rs 5000. When we took up the challenge, there were three women and two men in the group and we almost finished the thali, but couldn’t complete it. We were so exhausted in the end (laughs).”
Sanket recalls another challenge which made him dizzy because of a sudden spurt in the sugar level.
“Once, I finished chugging 1.3 kg honey in 1 minute and 34 seconds, and I started feeling so terrible because there was so much sugar in my system. My mother had to tell me to sleep for sometime. We do take time off to detox and cleanse our system after doing such challenges,” Sanket says, adding, “All these food challenges require a lot of practice and strategy. To take part in the Maaza drinking challenge, I first check how fast I can drink a bottle of water. Since the densities of water and Maaza are different, I can make a rough estimate of how much time it would take to finish chugging a bottle of Maaza. Similarly, if you are taking a thali challenge, make sure that you finish eating the rotis or chapatis first because if you keep it for later, it’ll become hard and dry, and it’s difficult to eat. Always eat rice in the end because it’ll still be soft.”
Even Saapattu Raman has had his tough days, especially when Sabari was shooting the 9 plates of white rice and fish curry challenge.
“It was just too much to handle. We couldn’t finish the challenge on time,” Sabari says. “Since we shoot these videos only on weekends, we have to make sure that we keep ourselves healthy for the rest of the week and never stay too hungry before taking up a challenge.”
Economics of food content
Ravi Tej Ravuri, co-founder of Street Byte, is one of the most popular food vloggers among Telugu netizens and has produced almost 650 videos in the last five-and-a-half years.
“The food scene has really exploded in India in the last few years, and the popularity of these food challenges have more to do with the curiosity factor. At times, they bring in their own family members or elderly people which is something that viewers find interesting,” he says.
In recent times, Ravi Tej has shot quite a few videos where he's shared a meal with a popular celebrity, including Nandini Reddy, Anish Kuruvila, Karthikeya, and Sampoornesh Babu.
“People have a misconception that I eat a lot, but that’s not true. My appetite is very low. I think the only time I went overboard was when I shot a video with Nandini Reddy, and we ended up tasting 22 dishes,” Ravi Tej reveals. “More than food challenges, I have always tried to make informative videos so that people know what they could try when they visit the restaurants we feature. I’m also making inspirational videos with people who started with street food and have grown quite popular.”
The popularity of influencers and YouTubers like Ravi Tej Ravuri has given a new lease of life to restaurants which have gone through a lot of turbulence with the rise of food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato over the years. Some restaurants have been approaching influencers to post content to promote their business, which results in a spike in business for a week or so; however, YouTube is still the king for such food-related promotions, since the content stays relevant for much longer and doesn’t get lost amidst a deluge of other posts.
“There are a lot of restaurants which look forward to weekends because their business has changed a lot, of late. The best way forward for any restaurant or eatery is to space out their promotional campaigns, and give at least 4-5 months gap before they launch another major campaign,” Ravi Tej says.
So, why do people even like watching other people eat, whether it’s in movies or mobile screens? Turns out that one possible reason dates back to how human beings have evolved over several thousands of years. Talking to Washington Post, Craig Richard, a professor at Shenandoah University and the founder of ASMR University, said, “Millions of years ago, when our ancestors might have encountered someone who looked friendly eating in front of them, the cues were clear: Here is a non-threatening person in possession of food that is demonstrably edible. When you see that, that is reason to switch your brain from fight-or-flight to a calm state.”
Eating food or watching other people eat food sparks a wide range of reactions. And on social media, it translates to millions of views which have turned scores of food vloggers into celebrities.