On March 30, a video analytics company released a report on the most popular Indian video publishers on Facebook. The first two ranks hardly surprised: on the apex was the media giant Times of India, with Aaj Tak coming right after it. Third only to these goliaths was Hebbar’s Kitchen, a food blogger shooting videos with a DSLR camera in her kitchen in Australia, with more than 94 million Facebook video views.
For a blog with such a large following, very little is known about the people who actually run it. Conspicuously absent is an About Us section. There are no photos of the author, no cute personal details drawing the reader into her life and her interests. Just recipes and videos centred around a South Indian kitchen.
The blog takes its name after the Hebbars, a community of orthodox Brahmins in Karnataka, originally from the Udupi-Mangalore belt, whose vegetarian diet is built on produce that is local to the region. What is central to the community’s food philosophy also remains at the core of Hebbar’s Kitchen.
When we emailed the address listed on the blog requesting an interview, we received a prompt response from Archana who said she would prefer to do the interview over email, and that she would rather not share a photograph. At a time when bloggers are celebrities in their own right, lured by goody bags from brands that want access to their audiences, anonymity is almost unheard of. But Archana stands her ground. “I like to keep my personal things very personal,” she writes. “I get lots of Facebook requests that I am not able to manage. I do not like [to] ignore those requests, but I need my personal space too. Hence I avoid sharing my photos and try to keep a low profile. I hope you understand.”
Archana currently lives in Australia with her husband, Sudarshan. She grew up in the temple town of Udupi where she completed her education, before moving abroad three years ago. Hebbar’s Kitchen began as a food blog with photographs back in 2015, and switched to the short-video format in early 2016, around the same time that Buzzfeed Tasty videos were gathering storm on social media. Inspired by their success, and the absence of channels showcasing Indian recipes in this style, Archana and her husband decided to try their hand at it – and received an overwhelming response.
In an uncharacteristic moment of unguardedness, Archana talks about the difficulty of finding South Indian restaurants, let alone an Udupi hotel, in her new home in Australia – although there is no shortage of North Indian restaurants, she tells us. Being a vegetarian further limits her culinary options because most restaurants consider egg and fish to be vegetarian.
“Overall, it is not [an] easy experience but I am now used to it,” she writes. “These days I do not look at the menu in some of the fast food joints, as I already know the menu and options available there.”
Many of the recipes on Hebbar’s Kitchen are old-school and traditional. Items like sambar powder and iddiappams that are bought off-the-shelf in most of urban India are painstakingly made at home, accompanied by a step-by-step guide. Archana proselytises the values of cooking at home, eating fresh and healthy, avoiding the easy ready-to-eat options that are usually loaded with preservatives.
Despite her community’s prerogative to only cook and eat with ingredients grown in the region of their hometown, Archana confesses she enjoys exploring different foods and cuisines, testing out new dishes and their vegetarian variations with her husband as guinea pig. Despite the depth of content on the blog, she feels she “doesn’t have much compared to other successful blogs. I [am] trying my level best to fulfill my readers’ requests”.
Keeping fresh, healthy, simple, nutritious cooking central to her blog ethos, Archana aims to celebrate homemade food, for people who love to cook and eat with their families. Where Indian recipes tend to be high on the calorie meter, she scales back to keep things in check without compromising on taste or flavour. “Fresh and healthy meals to keep the family healthy and safe,” she writes.
Hebbar’s Kitchen, she explains, is a hobby that turned into a passion-profession in that serendipitous way that hobbies turn into passion-driven professions.
Archana says she was always interested in cooking but never dreamed of blogging. As a former software testing professional, finding a job in Australia turned out to be harder than she had expected, and to while away the time, she created a free Wordpress account and began posting step-by-step photos along with recipes. Initially, the response was tepid, but her short-format videos changed all that. The overwhelming feedback from her audience pushed her to up her game on both shooting and editing: what began as videos on the iPhone and a selfie stick rapidly evolved to more sophisticated equipment. Her husband bought her a DSLR and professional video editing software on a high-end desktop to shoot and edit high-quality video. From there on there was no looking back. The blog is now monetised through partnerships with Google, Facebook and YouTube and occasionally runs sponsored videos as well.
How does she manage to grow and nurture an audience of this size? She credits the videos. She posts a new video every day, keeping the daily connect with her audience strong. She and her two-member team of husband and friend, Shreepada in Mumbai, also make it a point to reply to reader messages and recipe requests, even doing the occasional Skype chat. She writes, “I believe Hebbar’s Kitchen’s readers are nowhere less then my family members.”
Ultimately, she says, her online strategy comes down to just cooking: “I do not believe in having [a] strategy when it comes to cooking, as cooking itself is the biggest strategy. I don’t use fancy equipment or unpronounceable ingredients; I use the same pan to prepare most of my recipes. I try to share simple, healthy homemade food with an interesting video so that everyone would learn to love with their families.”
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