It happened to me: The name “Emily Mariko” kept coming up in Slack chats at work and on my various social media feeds, and by the end of the week, I was seriously considering putting an ice cube on top of leftover rice, and wondering how the heck I got here.
If you’ve spent any time online recently, I’m going to assume that something similar has happened to you, too. In the past month alone, the fresh-faced food-fashion-and-lifestyle influencer with bright kitchen lighting, a wardrobe of minimalist athleisure, and a knack for making easy, healthy-looking food with Asian roots has grown her following on TikTok from 70,000 to more than 2 million, without her ever saying so much as “like and subscribe.” She’s also spawned countless other “reactions” online, or videos about her videos.
“See, I really thought — I really thought — I was immune to being influenced by aspirational lifestyle content,” said my former coworker and now Vogue editor Sarah Spellings in her own TikTok video this week on the subject. “And then she came along.”
Why is she — Emily Mariko, a 29-year-old from the Bay Area — so addicting to watch? What makes her simple-seeming recipes so special? In addition to growing her preexisting YouTube channel, she’s also launching a Substack newsletter called “Emily’s Life Plan for the Week,” because of course she is. And you’re telling me all this is because she smashed a bunch of leftover salmon with a fork? (That video, posted September 21, currently has more than 33 million views.)
Viral TikTok recipes come and go, but something about Mariko and her intoxicatingly milquetoast vibe seems more significant. According to Embedded, a newsletter about the internet by Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci, that salmon-Sriracha-mayo-rice-bowl-with-avocado-and-dried-seaweed recipe was so popular that “people get excited when she has recently eaten salmon — because that means she’ll be using the leftovers for the rice bowl any minute now.”
But why? Below, I spoke to a handful of TikTok enthusiasts in an attempt to break down what, exactly, makes Emily Mariko’s content so appealing.
On a basic level, we are all human beings who salivate at the sight of food. (I’ve had to stop and make myself a snack like three times while writing this.) Unfortunately, I cannot reach through the screen and take a bite of Emily Mariko’s meals. I cannot smell them. I cannot taste them. But I can engage in the sensory pleasure of hearing her prepare them. Clearly, she knows this, and she makes full use of her tools and surroundings, performing the world’s most delicate version of Stomp in her immaculate, empty kitchen. In that viral salmon video, for example, we hear ice cubes rattling around as she opens her freezer drawer, the faint squirt of Sriracha, the squish of salmon under her fork, and the crunch of seaweed as she takes her first bite. Because she says so little in her videos, the recipes speak for themselves.
Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s her healthy lifestyle, but Emily Mariko seems to have very clear skin and well-conditioned hair. She’s often dressed like she has just come from a workout, or will work out at some point in the near future, or has just been having a cozy, chill day at home. But her wardrobe isn’t flashy or sexy. She doesn’t wear a lot of bright colors or luxury sweatpants. Like her recipes, her style is tasteful and easy. She doesn’t seem to be trying too hard.
And her food looks pretty good, too
While I cannot say that I’ve actually tried any of Mariko’s meals (what am I supposed to do, pull out a pen and take notes from TikTok?) I will say that they look pretty filling, which is not normally my takeaway after seeing someone prepare themselves a healthy-looking lunch.
“She’s eating real food,” said the Cut’s beauty director, Kathleen Hou. “I think it’s the start of a new type of wellness. Less lemon water. ‘Hot girls drink regular milk,’ but they also eat bread.”
Sure, Mariko eats a lot of farmers’-market veggies and enviably fresh-looking California avocados. “But she looks like she actually has balance,” Hou continued. “Like, she eats Philadelphia cream cheese. I can’t remember the last time any wellness featured cream cheese.”
Hou also pointed out that because Mariko is not offering precise measurements or any actual recipe instructions, her videos feel less didactic, more friendly. “Her food is healthy without being strange or preachy about it,” she said.
“There’s something about her that makes her more palatable to the influencer jaded,” Spellings added.
It seems easy enough to make
As someone who never cooks and is generally terrible at feeding herself, the fact that I can watch a video of Mariko preparing herself a meal and think, Hm, I could probably do that, is not nothing. Scrolling through her feed is kind of like looking at art in the MoMA; I know I can’t actually cook as well as she can (and certainly not as neatly), but her videos make me want to try.
“I think I like her because it’s all very clean and minimalist and almost … pseudo-aspirational?” said Spellings. “Like, what she does is so within reach for me to do. She just makes good food for herself and her partner. It’s not really that intensive.”
But mostly, it’s just easy to watch
For some people, Mariko’s videos are inspiringly attainable. For others, it’s just nice to watch someone else accomplish something, and Mariko seems like a high-achiever.
Daise Bedolla, the Cut’s senior social-media editor, described the experience of watching Mariko’s videos as yielding “the pleasure of watching someone do what you wish you had the energy for.” Or, the “opposite of Schadenfreude.”
“I think I like watching Emily’s TikToks for the same reason that I like watching Home Edit,” she continued. “Everything just seems so put together in a way that I don’t have the discipline for. Like meal prepping? Tried it once — forget it. All of these TikTokers/Instagram people have that sort of charisma and charm, where they make it look so easy and then you try it, and it’s not the same. But it sounds nice!”