To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.
Home chef and social media influencer Vivian Aronson receives fan mail from all over the world, but one of her favorites is from a 13-year-old girl in Germany who was adopted from China. She thanked Aronson for sharing Chinese traditions and recipes.
Many Chinese Americans and fans from a variety of backgrounds routinely reach out to the YouTube and TikTok star expressing appreciation for her videos, which have been viewed millions of times. Their notes or tags on social media often include pictures of their culinary creations inspired by Aronson’s videos.
“It always makes me feel good when I see these,” said Aronson. “I’ve come to realize people don’t know as much about traditional Chinese food, and I want to introduce people to the food that I grew up with.”
Her fun and approachable content–a combination of humor, sound effects, and music–focuses mainly on Chinese home cooking and culture. Aronson’s three younger children, who she lovingly calls her “circus;” her oldest daughter, Wendy, who is in college; and her husband, Chris, also make appearances in her videos. She uses TikTok for simple recipes and YouTube for long form content where she shares more complex dishes and about her day-to-day life and background.
“You’ve gotta grab someone’s attention within the first three to five seconds with TikTok, and I put a lot of thought into what to show there,” said Aronson whose Chinese name is Yuan Qian Yi (袁倩祎). “If you don’t, someone will just swipe. I always try to show or say something interesting so they want to watch more.”
Aronson, 44, definitely captures viewers’ attention. She has over 2.6 million followers on TikTok and 1.64 million YouTube subscribers. And her following on Instagram and Facebook continues to grow. And she’s just as approachable and engaging in real life, sharing stories about her journey from China to Minnesota and discovering Chinese food in America.
A small sampling of her viral cooking-related videos include, “One tomato lazy rice.” “16 year old pickle brine.” “Stir fried cabbage the Chinese way with bacon.” “How to season your wok.”
She’s appeared on Good Morning America, the Drew Barrymore Show, and Season 10 of MasterChef. Aronson recently spoke with Sahan Journal from the kitchen where most of her videos have been shot. Her eyes light up when she talks about her family, creating delicious dishes for them to try, and the many connections she’s made providing a wider platform for traditional Chinese cooking.
Aronson lived in the Twin Cities area for more than 17 years, and now splits time between Minnesota and Florida.
“[My style] is just natural. That’s my personality–it’s how I talk to my kids or husband. It’s my everyday life,” said Aronson.
And she’s just as approachable and engaging in real life sharing stories about her journey from China to Minnesota and discovering Chinese food in America. “Some people think of Chinese food as egg rolls and orange chicken,” she said. “I had never even had these before–and what is this fortune cookie?”
Cultivating a love for home cooking
Born in Chendgu, China, the capital of Sichuan Province, Aronson learned to cook from her grandmother, aunt, and uncle, who own and operate several restaurants in China.
“Back then during that time, we always ate at home. Now there are a lot more options and people generally eat out more often,” she said. “We didn’t have a refrigerator until the ‘90s, so we were cooking fresh meals every day.”
CookingBomb references Aronoson’s roots in Sichuan cooking, which she describes as an “explosion” of flavors. The cuisine is often known for its spiciness, but it also incorporates additional depth through combinations of sour, pungent, sweet, bitter, and salty flavors.
“I cook more traditional Chinese food like the ones I grew up with and some other Asian food from other countries,” she said.
Last year, Aronson released her first cookbook, The Asian Market Cookbook: How to Find Superior Ingredients to Elevate Your Asian Home Cooking, in response to fans asking for tips about navigating Asian grocery stores. Each chapter discusses an ingredient and includes recipes for it.
Aronson’s pantry staples are Sichuan chili broad bean paste, Chinese soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, Chinese vinegar, Sichuan peppercorns, and Sichuan chili peppers. On her kitchen counter sits a 16-year-old pickle brine in a large glass jar topped with a bowl shaped lid that rests in a moat of water running around the rim to create a seal.
“I have a recipe people can follow, but you won’t get this type of flavor for another six months with the culture and fermentation,” Aronson explained.
Aronson first started sharing videos over the Chinese platform, 56.com, after she moved from China to Minnesota in 2005.
“I didn’t even know it was social media then,” she said. “I thought of it as a video website. I didn’t speak as much English then, so I would do a lip sync, show my life here or a travel video. I would use video editing software and camcorder, and had a small following in China for a few years.”
During this time, she also dabbled in the fashion industry for a couple of years before leading painting parties in the metro area for four years. After appearing on season 10 of MasterChef in 2019, she began causally posting cooking videos of food she made for her family.
That led to the more frequent short videos on TikTok that catapulted her following on that platform in 2020. ”When my Sichuan style lamb skewers on the grill video got over 60,000 views, I couldn’t believe so many people were watching. I had 10,000 followers and had made a video to thank them,” she said.
When youTube began featuring “shorts”–videos that last about a minute like TikTok videos–in 2021, her 20,000 subscribers on YouTube took off as well.
“I spend a lot of time making and editing my videos. It can take a couple of hours to set up and film my recipes followed by editing which can take a few hours for a shorter video,” she said. “A longer YouTube could take a full day.”
Aronson’s husband, Chris Aronson, said it’s not surprising how popular she’s gotten on social media.
“She’s really great at it. She’s very outgoing and artistic,” he said. “You forget sometimes that people see you in videos, and sometimes I’ll get asked at work what I thought about different restaurants.”
When asked about their mom’s cooking, the younger children–Oscar, 8, and twins, Sydney and Julie, 9– were more shy compared to their rambunctious appearances in Aronson’s videos. But they said they enjoy making food with their mother, including rolling out dumplings and flipping pancakes. Their favorite foods are miso soup, dumplings, and a crowd pleasing answer of “anything.”
Her followers have their own favorites. Two of her most viewed TikTok recipes–”One tomato lazy rice” and “Stir fried cabbage the Chinese way with bacon”–can be found in the cookbook, “As Cooked on TikTok,” which features recipes from 40 food creators.
The same two TikTok videos posted to her YouTube channel have been viewed a combined 13.5 million times.
Aronson’s cooking shares her culture with the world with a touch of flair and humor. One of Aronson’s favorite go-to lines while cooking is, “Measure with my Chinese eyeballs,” as she drops ingredients into a sizzling wok without measuring them out.
“With some cooking videos–when there’s something novel or fancy–I always wonder, ‘Who’s going to eat the food?’” Aronson says. “I record the food that we actually eat every day. When you watch my videos, there’s a recipe so you can go home to make the dish.”
What’s next for Aronson? She hopes to continue building her brand through a product line.
“People have been asking about my Sichuan chili sauce,” she said. “I hope to launch it sometime this year and cookware such as a wok and chopsticks may follow.”