Sliced Tomato for Burger Buns: Can Health Food Websites Stop Ruining Our Favourite Snacks?


Sliced Tomato for Burger Buns: Can Health Food Websites Stop Ruining Our Favourite Snacks?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Looking back, I can see that the trouble began with a tomato. But first, let me give you some background.

Like most bhukkads, one of my chief guilty pleasures is scrolling through recipe videos on Instagram. There’s something oddly soothing about these rapidfire depictions of magically chopped onions and saucepans simmering on electric hot plates, all coming together onto a cute, colourful little plate at the end of it. Even though ingredients like panko breadcrumbs and premade pastry dough are hard to find at your humble kirana shop, it’s always nice to daydream about food — especially when it’s made to look so easy, without the tiresome prep work or dishes to wash up.  

That’s why recipe videos are pretty much guaranteed to catch my attention as I idly scroll through social media. But I’m certainly not alone in this useless pursuit, as recipes continue to be up there with cat videos as some of the most popular — and, thanks to sponsor products, most profitable — on the internet.  From YouTube cook-along channels to snacky minute-long clips on Facebook or IGTV, we all enjoy the satisfaction of seeing someone else make delectable, yet impossible, and often plain bizarre dishes. And when our feeds are usually filled with apocalyptic news updates, who can blame us for craving the relief of a glossy recipe video, complete with manicured hands and upbeat music?

Still, this is the internet we’re talking about, which means even this entertaining waste of time was always bound to take a dark turn. And so we return to that fateful tomato. One night I had paused to watch a recipe for a seemingly innocent gluten-free burger on a popular Instagram page — only to find that the video in question had replaced the standard burger bun with… a large tomato, sliced in half crosswise. 

Clearly, this was a sign from the universe to put my phone down and call it a day. But I lay awake, seething at the indignity of this so-called “recipe”, deprived of the dopamine hit that food videos are meant to bring. You don’t need to be a chef to know that chomping down on a burger patty wedged between slices of pulpy, juicy tomato is a culinary disaster. And can you imagine dishing up these monstrosities for your friends and loved ones, when they’re expecting a delicious burger on a bun? You’d be lucky to escape alive, and your kitchen would resemble a gruesome scene from La Tomatina. 

On one hand, the ill-conceived tomato bun illustrates the perils of food channels attempting to adapt to every new diet trend, perpetually coming up with questionable keto, vegan, and Whole 30 spins on traditional favourites. While their creative thinking is laudable, surely we can all agree that spiralised zucchini makes a salad, not a pasta dish. 

While their creative thinking is laudable, surely we can all agree that spiralised zucchini makes a salad, not a pasta dish.

But recipe videos are also changing our food culture in less obvious ways. The fact is, for all its failings as an edible food item, the offending burger looks totally stunning. Its shiny red dome and oozing cheese is a feast for the eyes, so much so that the unpleasant thought of biting into the thing is rendered irrelevant. In this age of social media, we’ve reached the most literal interpretation of food porn: Who cares how awful the experience would be, provided you can gawk at the money shot at the end? It’s now considered polite to wait for for your fellow diners to finish taking photos of the food before commencing to actually eat it.

This new food philosophy has also given rise to a whole new type of scam: The fake recipe video. To keep up with the high demand for clickbait content, popular channels come up with recipes and “hacks” that will never work if viewers try to replicate them, but make for addictive watching. YouTuber How To Cook That, in real life an Australian food scientist called Ann Reardon, tests out unlikely recipes for ice-cream frosting, microwave-dried basil, and jelly made of gummy bears — all of which involve way more convoluted methods than simply buying and using the correct ingredients in the first place.  

So why do so many channels go to the trouble of putting together these nonsense recipes? Of course, a large part of it is to entice us foodie viewers with supposedly innovative ingredients that set one recipe apart from thousands of others. Then there’s the fact that running a legitimate test kitchen to perfect recipes can be both costly and time-consuming — not ideal when getting the most views means uploading as often as possible. Plus, changing an ingredient or two — however unnecessarily — allows creators to flog an old recipe as a fresh piece of content. 

In a media landscape rife with misinformation and fake news, you might wonder whether the scourge of unethical recipes is the hill I really want to die on. But if the stats are to be believed, I’m not the only one who is dead-serious about my late-night food video consumption. The lesson for all of us is Internet 101: Never trust what you see on social media, no matter how gorgeous it looks.