Every week, the Kitchen Story Facebook page posts a single instructional food video. A pair of hands and a calm voice speaking Khmer guide you through the ingredients needed for the recipe and steps to make it.
This week, viewers were guided through the brining of a whole chicken, then slathering it in herbed butter and roasting it with crispy potatoes. English subtitles and rudimentary graphics make the experience enjoyable for viewers unable to speak Khmer.
But, that is all viewers get, a voice and two hands. The owner of Kitchen Story’s popular Facebook and YouTube pages, Duong Thida, told VOA Khmer that she intentionally keeps her identity secret so that her audience can focus on the videos and the food she cooks.
The display picture for the Kitchen Story page is the illustration of a bespectacled woman. Viewers may be left wondering if this is an illustration of Duong Thida. They will likely never know.
The page has grown immensely popular, with the videos generating millions of views on Facebook and an equal amount of engagement on YouTube. Facebook users are hooked to the videos and engage routinely with Duong Thida through the comments section.
“I love cooking and I’ve noticed that more and people are paying attention to cooking [videos],” Duong Thida said.
“What makes me happy the most is when the audiences practice the recipe and try to cook the meals, take photos of it and send me the photos or comment on the post,” she said.
Duong Thida is from Kandal province and moved to South Korea in 2016 with her Korean husband. She lives 30 kilometers outside the capital, Seoul, in Yangju-si. Being away from home was not easy for Thida and she struggled to assimilate into her environment.
To make things worse, an existing medical condition made it impossible for Duong Thida to work in South Korean factories, much like a lot of the Cambodian diaspora in the country.
It was not until 2018 when she was scrolling through food videos – a widely popular genre on social media – that she realized she could use her passion for Khmer food to produce similar videos, while keeping her busy at the same time.
That is when she started Kitchen Story, and it has been a success for the young entrepreneur.
“On YouTube, an increasing number of people are sharing their cooking passion, so I thought that I could do that too, so I could also share what I know about [cooking].”
Duong Thida had no experience in producing these videos, which is evident in the production quality of her early videos. The lighting was a little dark in a few of them, the subtitle graphics were not designed well and the general aesthetic was not up to the standards of existing, and popular, food videos.
That soon changed. As her videos got more popular, Duong Thida’s videos were brighter and airy in appearance, the graphics were fine-tuned and a lot of care was taken into the design of her kitchen and cookware, giving the videos a very IKEA-esque feel.
And the reaction was better than expected. Duong Thida said social media users started thanking her for the videos.
“They said ‘I’ve followed your recipe, it tastes really good, thank you,’ read one of the comments on her Facebook page.
One of the most popular videos on the page has been her recipe for cured beef salad, called ‘plea sach ko’ in Khmer. The video has attracted 9 million views as of publication, and more than 250,000 reactions on Facebook.
It seems to be Duong Thida’s delivery of the recipe and the cadence of her voice that has attracted her viewership, especially in the crowded Cambodian online space; where everyone from news organizations, activists, cosmetics, clothes sellers and a new Tik Tok generation are vying for digital space.
Cambodia had close to 9 million Facebook users in 2019, 70 percent of whom are in the 18 to 30 age brackets. The social media platform is almost synonymous with the internet, though YouTube, Tik Tok, and Instagram are gaining popularity as well.
One of these young Facebook users is Rom Molyka, who is the head of content strategy for a private media startup company in Phnom Penh. The 27-year-old woman said she was a fan of Kitchen Story and often would cook the recipes for her friends.
“After watching the video, you feel like cooking it because the cookware she uses, like the pots, plates, and the decorations is refreshing,” said Rom Molyka.
But it is the attention to detail and the Duong Thida’s attempt to get multiple shots for her videos that most impressed Rom Molyka.
“The angles of the video, for example when she slices [vegetable] and when she fries them, she has the camera set on top. I really admire it when she executes the content. It has clear sequences,” she said.
Among her more popular followers is human rights activist Thida Khus, who used to be the executive director at women’s rights NGO Silaka. Thida Khus said she is a fan of the videos, occasionally tagging her family in the comments section to alert them to a favorite recipe.
“I like her page as it gives out recipes of familiar foods I like. I like to see how people cook,” Thida Khus told VOA Khmer via Facebook Messenger.
Probably most proud of Duong Thida’s success is Ten Sophone, her mother. Ten Sophone said Duong Thida had liked cooking from a young age, which really helped the family.
“[My husband] was very busy and so was I. I worked as a garment worker,” Ten Sophone, 50, recalled. “When I came back from the market, Thida would hurry to me and tell me ‘let me do the cooking’.”
Ten Sophone was unaware that this youthful enthusiasm for the culinary arts would help her daughter express herself creatively, but also earn money. Duong Thida earns around $600 a month from social media advertising, a lot of which is used to sustain her operations.
“At first, she did not really make an impression, but as parents, you know, we kept encouraging her that ‘you're doing great,” she said. “I never thought that my daughter would do this great,” she said.