You can see the glimmer in Ty Jones’ eye as soon as he unscrews the top off a brand-new jar of kimchi. He knows it’s Korean, and that it’s made from cabbage, but otherwise, Jones is in the dark. “Was not expecting it to pop when I opened it,” he says to the camera, taking a deep whiff of the container. “Wheeew. That smells like salsa. And spicy. It smells good!”
He takes a bite of a sliver on a fork, worried about the spice level — but it’s fine. Better than fine, in fact. Jones puts his phone down and takes another bite, then another, tasting the kimchi’s alchemy of salt, peppers and effervescent acidity. “I’ve eaten half this jar, and it’s been about five minutes,” he admits at the end of the clip.
Jones, 26, grew up in a little community named Hicks (“I wish I was kidding”), tucked alongside a river in the rural northwest of Arkansas. It’s the kind of place where folks have more than a few suspicions about things deemed unfamiliar or foreign; his dad once cautioned him about getting sick from eating, of all things, a California sushi roll. “Back where I grew up, people can seem real closed-minded. They don’t know what they don’t know,” Jones tells me.
But like a lot of small-town kids, Jones felt an urge to go the opposite way, curious about cultures he knew nothing about. A major step was moving to Manhattan — that is, Manhattan, Kansas, where he lives and works (selling cars) today. Though it’s just a six-hour drive from his old house in Hicks, Manhattan is a big change of pace, Jones explains. It’s an actual city with a far more diverse population, and crucially, there’s an Asian food market just a mile from Jones’ place.
Access to that shop has enabled Jones to launch his self-proclaimed “redneck foreign-food reviews” on TikTok, and the kimchi taste-test is one of his most successful to date. Still, every occupation has its hazards. What no one mentioned to Jones before his introduction to the national food of Korea is that, given that it’s basically a pickle with lots of healthy probiotics, kimchi can really do a number on your insides — especially if you’re, say, a white guy who grew up in small-town Arkansas, sans fermented foods. “I thought it was like coleslaw, and I figured, ‘Okay, I’m eating a little too much, but it’s just spicy coleslaw.’ I was marveling at how my sinuses cleared up. I felt like I was running a hundred percent,” Jones tells me. “And then I nearly died.”
“Don’t eat a whole jar of kimchi,” he posted.
All those probiotics? They triggered several days of, er, enthusiastic gastric activity, with Jones even dropping nine pounds in body weight, all thanks to a torrid first encounter with pickled cabbage. The kimchi epilogue is now Jones’ most-viewed clip on TikTok, but it’s bookended by forays into red-bean mochi, garlic-shrimp chips, super-spicy Korean noodles and all manner of sweet drinks.
Whatever the dish, I can’t stop watching. I’m not sure why a cherubic white guy with gauged ears eating kimchi made me stop in my tracks while scrolling through TikTok. I guess that, like many others, I half-expected Jones to be weirded out by it, not embrace it after a single whiff. Kimchi became a sore point in my childhood when I got teased at school for eating such “smelly” food, after all. Watching Jones become instantly infatuated with the stuff reminds me how much things have changed since I was a kid — and perhaps how valuable it is to witness cultural barriers crumble, even when the stakes are low.
Jones never intended to fall into TikTok food reviews. If anything, he figured his niche would be to flex his stand-up, cracking punchlines about alt girls and life as a bisexual guy in the American Midwest/South (“With a gay dad, which was fun growing up”). Instead, a chance visit to the local Asian market with a friend became his Alice in Wonderland moment. He had never seen so many worldly snacks in his life, and couldn’t resist making content out of his newfound awe.
In one way, Jones’ pivot to taste-testing foreign food led to a real-world relationship: a friendship with Fanny Fang and her parents, who run the market. “They told me they liked my content and said I should come into the shop for a gift, and they gave me a red envelope. It was a check so I could finally open a P.O. box to receive snacks from around the world,” Jones tells me. “I didn’t know this, but that red envelope is often given to family on special occasions. I guess the way I was showing off others’ culture, and helping a small business, made me family in a way. That was special.”
Jones’ burgeoning food reviews on TikTok is, in many ways, just a meta-evolution of the food and travel content genre best described as “white people doing foreign stuff” — usually a hetero American guy, dropped into some far-off land or meal and instructed to react. There is a long tradition of this form of entertainment in America, arguably perfected by the late, great Anthony Bourdain, whose unusual sensitivity and grasp of cultural context put him worlds beyond the competition — say, Andrew Zimmern and his (somewhat problematic) show Bizarre Foods. But it’s no longer enough to merely be weirded out by the unfamiliar, and the ethnocentrism of defining “foreign” foods is falling apart, too. These days, Afghan villagers and North Korean defectors are the ones going viral on YouTube while eating American foods. An Alabama man gagging on sushi? How passé!
You won’t find that sort of negativity on Jones’ TikTok, and that’s a big part of the draw. It’s fun to witness someone struggle with spice or general unfamiliarity — as with the kimchi hijinks — but, for me, watching Jones is like watching a buddy fall in love with the things you love. There is no grand exaggeration in his words, nor the feeling that he’s milking views. It’s just a guy in Kansas, realizing there are so many delicious things in the world to explore — and me, 1,700 miles away, nodding along in vicarious excitement.
“The outpouring of support has been immense. People tell me, ‘This is the wholesome TikTok I needed.’ I’m glad that I can supply that,” Jones tells me. “And I do like breaking the stereotype. Everyone’s just expecting me to spit stuff out or not really give things a chance. But even if I don’t like something, I’ll take another bite or a sip, three or four times just to be sure. I think that’s important.”
His audience has grown exponentially since he started the taste-tests — Jones now gets requests from an oddly sizable Swedish fanbase as well as supporters in the Middle East. Besides, there’s only so many regional snacks he can get from his Asian market; thus, he’s now on the hunt for other regional specialties, including the infamously aromatic canned fish surströmming.
Not that he’s done craving Asian treats. Case in point: These days, instead of sipping on his usual Monster energy drink in the morning before work, he reaches for a can of boba tea instead.