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China’s Greatest Pop-Culture Export Is A Bunch of People Cooking on YouTube

It has, I swear, as much to do with life as it does food

Whether it’s about fermented bean curd, chili paste, dried beef or “drunken” crabs, you can expect every video from Li Ziqi to feature a prominent theme: A nostalgic yearning for life in the countryside, contrasted with the precise, thoughtful work of a craftsman in love with their trade. 

The footage of her life in rural China, shot and edited with production value that makes it look like a high-end Chinese soap opera, drips with aesthetic beauty. Watch as she grinds soybeans in a tire-sized stone mill and strains the milk in a sagging cheesecloth bag. Consider the pace of her life as she picks crimson-hued peppers in a field. Admire her as she fries those peppers in a massive wood-fired wok, wordlessly sprinkling spices and chopping meat as she prepares a traditional stir-fry.

Li Ziqi used to live in the hectic urbanity of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, scraping together odd jobs and DJing at night in order to hustle some money. But in 2012, word of her grandmother’s poor health brought her back to the forested hills of Pingwu, four and a half hours away by car. Four years later, she decided to upload self-shot videos of farming and cooking. Something must’ve struck a chord with viewers, because today, Li Ziqi has 6.6 million subscribers, having collected 817 million views along the way. In the process, her reach has transcended China’s borders, attracting hordes of international fans, many of them young people. 

That includes me. For some reason or another, the YouTube gods decided to toss Li into my recommended list last month. That algorithmic decision opened up a wormhole — one that now transports me from my mediocre one-bedroom in L.A. into a fairy-tale world full of color, new tastes and unintelligible language, all for the cost of a click on the internet. I always knew that China was beautiful, mercurial and a hub of cultural history. What I didn’t expect is that a bunch of young Chinese people making food on YouTube could speak existentially about what I love about life — and what’s missing from the one I occupy. 

Li seems to understand this aspect of the fandom, maybe because she sees her own urban exhaustion in the fanbase. “In today’s society, many people feel stressed,” Li told the South China Morning Post. “So when they watch my videos at the end of a busy day, I want them to relax and experience something nice, to take away some of their anxiety and stress.”

Thanks to the blue-hued color grading and the cinematic camerawork, Li’s videos have a highly professional vibe, but you can find an array of aesthetics once you enter the wormhole. Dianxi Xiaoge, another young woman who left post-college life in the city to work on her family’s farm in rural Yunnan Province, chooses a more naturalistic approach. Wang Gang, a professional chef in Sichuan Province, keeps it even more simple, with basic camerawork (likely using a phone) to frame his exotic-looking recipes and vlogs about his visits to rural farms owned by friends and family. 

 

There are a lot of ways to learn how to cook Chinese food, and YouTube is maybe the single best platform to do so. Channels like Chinese Cooking Demystified and longtime experts like Fuschia Dunlop have done an incredible job of codifying Chinese cookery for Americans, and it’s important work — despite our national love affair with Chinese food, we’re still drowning in stereotyped dishes and ignorance about the true vastness of China, whether we’re talking dialects or regional cooking. 

But while those sources find virtue in teaching techniques clearly, I found myself drawn to Dianxe and Wang exactly because I couldn’t understand anything. Given all that Mandarin writing and speech, international viewers like me are left just… watching. It reminded me of watching my mom cook something Korean that I couldn’t discern. So often, that foreignness sparked my curiosity about the context and the world that birthed the dish, and my mother’s fondness for it. 

Bless my mom, but cooking non-Korean food was never her strong suit. Why would it be? She came from the farmlands outside of Seoul, and didn’t take to American tastes with the vigor of my dad. When she made dinner, it meant traditional Korean stews, stir-fries and sides — and, perhaps, the occasional family favorite of overcooked spaghetti with jarred Prego sauce. 

So, at the bright-eyed age of 11, I took it upon myself to learn how to cook, well, everything else. Eggs were cheap, so I toiled away at recreating Gordon Ramsay’s soft, saucy scramble and Jacques Pepin’s perfect French omelet. Eventually I graduated to the actual chicken, taking notes on Thomas Keller’s golden roast bird and Julia Child’s coq au vin. I sprung up at 6:30 every morning to have (now-disgraced) chef Mario Batali teach me the wonders of fresh pasta and regional Italian sauces before school. As a teen, I worked at my parents’ sushi restaurant, reading Morimoto’s cookbooks while frying frozen tempura in a repurposed closet. 

For some reason, I found a way to ignore much of Chinese cookery on my path to becoming a confident, well-rounded cook. Was it my own assumptions based on American stereotypes of how sloppy the food is? A misguided belief that woks are simple to use? It had to be something stupid, given that experts view the cuisine of China as one of the world’s most complex, rivaling and arguably surpassing French cookery in terms of technical finesse. Apparently, I’m not alone, as the comments on YouTube and Reddit reflect a widespread sense of discovery from Westerners. “It’s sort of cool how foreign some of the techniques are,” one redditor wrote on a Wang Gang thread. 

A swarm of fans are now creating English captions in the wake of every upload for creators like Wang and Dianxe, but I find myself leaving them turned off unless I have a burning curiosity about a particular ingredient. There’s a quiet beauty to not understanding, as if someone went out of their way to invite me into their world. Wang and Co. have no hustle — they’re not selling a product, there are no catchphrases, nobody reminds me to hit the like button, there’s no self-aware humor, nothing. I sit there, soaking in my ignorance and finding catharsis in the daydream of life in Sichuan’s mountains. Better still, you can find these types of videos from every country; India is a popular source, as is Indonesia. 

 

Perhaps it’s a form of weird cultural appropriation to lay in bed at midnight, fetishizing life away from my godforsaken laptop and next to someone like Li, in a field, feeling the weight of fruit on my back and the burn of the summer sun on my neck. I’m addicted to the feeling. It’s almost like some weird, spiritual form of ASMR. “I’m filming my life, or rather, the one that I want,” she told SCMP. It’s obvious that millions of other people want it these days, too.

Writing this, I also think of Anthony Boudain, who spoke of how travel (and maybe, you know, watching videos in bed) can teach us of the scope of the world around us. “It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn,” he said in an episode of No Reservations. “Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

How far, indeed. But first: I need to buy a wok.