We thought it was all about dance. We also found it… weird. How was every routine going viral? Why were the kids copying each other, rather than making up their own moves?
As TikTok entered the lives of teenagers around the world over the last few years, parents struggled to see how mimicking “influencers” could ever be productive. One bewildering fad replaced another at breakneck speed. And this new app didn’t seem like it would ever inspire teenagers to do anything creative or useful – like, say, cook dinner. So we thought.
In February 2019, the same month that TikTok reached a billion downloads worldwide, Finnish food blogger Jenni Häyrinen (liemessa.fi) published a recipe on her blog for pasta with oven-baked feta cheese, and gave it a hashtag: #uunifetapasta (oven feta pasta).
Jokingly, she asked her readers: “Have you tried this viral pasta? I have, this morning when I came up with it”. She had no idea she had just shared a prophecy.
Last month, TikTokers celebrated International Uunifetapasta Day, cooking for their families and boosting sales of feta cheese around the world.
The recipe is a simple one – basically Greek “bougiourdi” (baked feta) with pasta: Place a block of feta and a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes in a baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and top with chili, salt and pepper. Bake, and mix the creamy goodness with some cooked pasta and basil.
Häyrinen knew it was a good recipe, but never could she have imagined that the simple dish would go on to impact sales of feta cheese as it did, first in Finland, and then, riding a viral wave on TikTok two years later, worldwide.
Her original blog post in Finnish has over 2.7 million views. To put that into perspective, consider that Finland is a country of 5.5 million people.
Still, those numbers are nothing compared to what happened after American blogger MacKenzie Smith (grilledcheesesocial.com) translated the recipe. Seeing it go viral on her Instagram, she then posted a video tutorial to TikTok in January.
Yumna Jawad (feelgoodfoodie.net) liked it and posted it too, using the hashtag #fetapasta, which now has over 600 million views.
“It’s overwhelming,” Häyrinen, who loves Greek food, says in an email. “I knew it was going viral in the States, but the final confirmation was when I was contacted by newspaper US Today and they told me it was viral after big accounts posted it. After that I decided to join TikTok too”.
The Wall Street Journal reported that feta sales at supermarket chain Fresh Market Inc. went up 45%, and Walshe Birney, who oversees the specialty-cheese counters at US supermarket chain Kroger, was quoted in the New York Times saying that “This is the largest and most geographically broad interest and sales increase in a product that I have personally ever seen.”
While in Europe feta cheese is a PDO (protected designation of origin) product, meaning that only cheese made in Greece with milk from ewes and goats may be called feta, that’s not the case in the US, and American cheesemakers have seen a huge increase in demand of their product.
However, Krinos Foods chairman Eric Moscahlaidis reported to the New York Times that they were also able to persuade some supermarkets (Walmart and Costco) to run trial sales of real Greek feta as a direct result of the TikTok trend.
“I only use authentic Greek feta in my baked feta pasta and in my kitchen,” says Häyrinen. “The feta sold in Finland is imported from Greece. It does make a difference.
“In Finland, there is also a similar cheese that is often called ‘salad cheese’ but it’s really not the same at all. It does not melt in the same way and the taste is not really that good. It is a simple recipe, so I would pay attention to the quality of the ingredients.”
And it’s not over yet. TikTokers are still racing to get as many likes and follows as they can out of the recipe, and there’s even been a bit of fighting in the comments, as followers disagree on who should get credit for the idea (some Finns remember a similar recipe by blogger Tiiu Piret, posted in 2018).
Meanwhile, Häyrinen has now made several new versions of the pasta, including one with spinach inspired by Greek spinach pie, while Smith made a popular variant using butternut squash, and Jawad made it with strawberries.
It’s not the first time during the pandemic that sales of a product has soared thanks to a social media food trend. Earlier in January, it was tortillas for folded quesadillas, and before that, it was instant coffee for a beverage that could’ve also been Greek – Dalgona coffee (essentially the classic Greek iced coffee drink, frappé), which was made viral in South Korea.
It remains to be seen whether uunifetapasta will make a permanent impression on the Greek cheese industry. For Häyrinen at least, the recipe is a new staple: “I’m already waiting for the first asparagus in April so I can make baked feta with asparagus.”
And if you’re interested in what else you can try with the classic white cheese beyond the latest TikTok craze, here are some more recipes to try: