Whether you're a foodie or not, we can almost guarantee that you've heard of MOB Kitchen, the cooking collective that continuously inspire us to try new foods and get into the kitchen. Seema Pankhania is a food producer at MOB, and we caught up with her to talk TikTok trends, how to cook whilst minimising food waste, and to find out about the London restaurant that gives you free manicures in the waiting room.
PS: Have you always loved food?
SP: I went to uni and I did neuroscience, but halfway through, I realised that it wasn't for me. I knew that I wanted to do food, and the ultimate goal was always to do something like Buzzfeed Tasty or Bon Appétit, because I loved it so much growing up. Doing all my research, it seemed that the easiest way to do something in food was to work in a restaurant, so I got a job in one of the Gordon Ramsay restaurants and I spent a year there. During lockdown is when I learned how to do photography and I did a few videos and Instagram Lives, then I started working with MOB Kitchen.
PS: Where do you find your recipe inspiration from?
SP: It can be from TikTok. It can be from Instagram. It can be from reading books. A lot of the time it depends how many recipes I need for the week. I'll look at cookbooks because that's faster but a lot of the time, I get the best ideas from just being out at a restaurant. Any time that I experience food, basically. Oftentimes if anyone I know is going to a nice restaurant, I always tell them to send me a picture of the menu and pictures of their food, because it actually helps so much for inspiration, especially somewhere that I've not been before.
PS: Speaking of TikTok, what are some of the food trends you've noticed emerge as a result of the platform?
SP: I think one thing is the concept of satisfying food. Not satisfying to eat, but satisfying to watch. Things that have a lot of chopping and ASMR, that sort of stuff that tends to do really well. It's the process of it that is quite satisfying. I've noticed that the things people like more are not the usual things like sandwiches, but [they're] things like ramen. The Asian dishes I do are particularly more likely to go trendy because it's different for the Western audience of TikTok and it's stuff that they've [usually] already got in their house. It's a different combination they might not know about, and it's really, really quick to make.
PS: How has that knowledge changed the way you work at MOB and on TikTok?
SP: As soon as lockdown became something real, it felt nobody cared about those [polished] videos that we used to do. They wanted handheld, rustic, personality-based videos more, and then we kind of transitioned into that where we did more chopping and less polished content because that just seemed to work so much better. I think people like watching things that they can emulate. If you watch something that's very glossy and high definition, it feels more intimidating. But if you see someone just crudely making it in their kitchen, you're like, 'oh, well, I can do that', and then you're more likely to watch it, more likely to share it, and make it.
PS: Nice! How do you think that TikTok has helped younger generations get into food?
SP: I think it's just made it so much more accessible. When I was younger, the food [videos] that I used to watch was the glossy, high definition stuff. Because I was really, really obsessed with food, it was fine because I was happy to spend six hours making things. But now, you don't need to spend all that time cooking. You can still cook really good dishes and food in a short amount of time that are actually quite easy to do, especially in uni. There's so many recipes on TikTok that I'm like, 'Oh my god, I wish I had this at uni. I wish I didn't make the same old, boring pasta salad every weekday'.
What I also love is that when you go into this community of everyone cooking, you learn so much. Even with Indian food, a lot of the time I'll see a video and I'll be like, 'Mum, what's this?', and then she'd be like, 'Oh, this, this, and this, but we do it differently.' It just opens up so much more that you wouldn't even have heard of.
PS: Are there any recipes you've come across on TikTok that have now become your favourites?
SP: Definitely the salmon rice one! I make mine with tinned tuna because I always have tinned tuna lying around. I don't use sriracha because I don't love it, I just make a quick, gochujang [red chilli paste] sauce, but a version of that is definitely something that I really, really love.
PS: And you developed a whole new recipe as part of your work with Samsung KX, right?
SP: I developed a really, really cheap, easy recipe. It was a miso mushroom risotto, and I chose this for so many reasons. One, risotto is something that people find really scary, but it's really cheap and easy to make, and it requires very minimal ingredients. It's not expensive at all. I put miso paste in it because it's something that's becoming quite accessible, but also a bit trendy.
PS: That does sound good, I've also noticed that you don't tend to find sweet foods on TikTok as much?
SP: I definitely think that's true. Even at Mob, we tend to steer away from sweet because it just doesn't perform as well which, at the beginning, was quite hard because I started off as a baker. I like making cakes and that's how I originally got into food. When I was young and watching TV, I used to bake and make people's birthday cakes.
PS: Why do you think sweet things don't perform as well?
SP: I stopped making sweet things when I was at uni, because making sweet food isn't a necessity. It's a luxury. And if you're already looking for very accessible things, you're not looking for something that's more than you would already do, right? You would make a dessert or a sweet thing maybe once a month realistically, if that. They take just as long, if not longer, than making a meal. So you're already adding an extra few hours onto your cooking time for something that you don't necessarily need to do.
With baking, it takes skill. Also the ingredients and equipment you need for baking are a lot. You need so much stuff that unless you're committed to doing it very regularly, you wouldn't have oils, different baking pans. You need all these different baking pans, tart tins, measuring cups, all the stuff you wouldn't usually have.
PS: Definitely, it also feels like younger generations are also more health-conscious, and maybe don't have as much of a need for super indulgent stuff?
SP: Yeah, they're also more sustainable and more environmentally conscious. I think as generations go, they're becoming a lot more aware of what they're putting into their bodies and also how it affects everything else, which is obviously a good thing. It's really interesting and something I think about when I'm developing recipes. For example, if it was cream, I'll try to always use the measure of cream that you get [in supermarkets] because I know cream is something that you wouldn't necessarily use a lot of and then you'll just throw it in the bin. Things like that I try to consider when I'm cooking, if you're using spring onions, use a whole bunch of it. If you're cutting peppers, use three instead of one because they come in packs of three.
PS: Speaking of the younger generations then, what advice do you have for students or people moving into their first places, when it comes to cooking cheap and healthy meals?
SP: What would actually really help, is if you chose a few cuisines that you really like. If you chose Chinese food, and then just got the ingredients you need for that [cuisine]. If we're at home and making a curry, for example, I have all the spices, it's probably going to cost me only two pounds to make a curry because I've already got everything. All I need to buy is maybe some chicken and some veg. So if you use that concept for the cuisines you like the most, a lot of the time, you just have to buy a big bottle of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and then you can make a lot of the things.
PS: On the topic of ingredients, what are three things you'll always make sure to have in your kitchen?
SP: Soy sauce, garlic, and chilli.
PS: Do you have any secret food hacks that other people might not know about?
SP: Kikkoman soy sauce bottles, they come with a special lid and it's to make sure that you can be precise with how much soy sauce you're putting in. Soy sauce is salty and so many times you can end up putting too much over your dish, especially if you're putting it at the end. If you hold the end of the lid it creates a vacuum or something like that, and then nothing will come out, so you can be super precise! I keep the lids and if I buy a different soy sauce bottle I'll just use this lid.
PS: OK, that's a pretty great tip! What advice do you have for people who want to get into cooking, how do they start?
SP: I would say, find a niche that you like and just do a deep dive on YouTube. I think YouTube's the best way to learn new things. If you find something that you like, just watch more videos on it, read about it, whatever media you like. The way that I learned cooking isn't the way that I learned science. I've never written notes or things like that but I still remember it. For some reason, [probably] because it's something that you're interested in, you can just pick it up a lot easier and enjoy it.
Another tip is that if you see a recipe and you think, 'I don't have this or I don't have that', don't think you can't make it. Just Google substitutes and half the time, you can find substitutes in your house, or you can just leave out and it'll be fine.
PS: And for those who prefer their food to be cooked for them, do you have any favourite restaurants or places you recommend?
SP: Hoppers! Oh my god, and Haidilao, my mind was blown. Actually, Jesus Christ. It was blown. They're so incredible. It's probably the best place I've been to in my life. You get this big pot of soup and you get all these meats and you get to make your own sauce and they give you snacks. The service is so good. And there's a waiting room where you can get free manicures. That's not even a joke. In the waiting room to get into the restaurant, you can get your nails done for free.