The recipe is more than just an internet trend. It's the closest thing to communal dining in the age of COVID.
It's shocking for a few reasons that it took me so long to make the feta pasta that went viral on TikTok a few weeks ago. First, it is almost ridiculously easy to cook. Second, despite having a whole library of cookbooks, I seem to almost exclusively pick up new recipes from TikTok these days. Finally, I already eat so much feta it feels like Greece might one day thank me for personally contributing such a significant wedge of my income to its GDP.
In case you haven't already heard of it, the TikTok feta pasta is a recipe that can be traced back to Finnish food blogger Jenni Hayrinen, who told Today that it became so popular in Finland that stores there ran out of feta. At the end of January, a number of TikTok creators picked up on the recipe and helped send it viral. (The feta pasta hashtag on the platform now boasts almost 515 million views.)
After seeing the recipe pop up on my For You page a dozen or so times and then seeing it cross over to Instagram, I finally decided to take one of the several blocks of feta that sit in my fridge at all times and give it a whirl.
I had some reservations -- we're going all-in on fresh tomatoes in February? Really? -- but as someone who would eat pasta for every meal if that was a socially acceptable lifestyle choice, it didn't take much to convince me. So you might be wondering, as many people in TikTok comments have wondered, is it actually any good?
It's pasta, cheese and tomatoes -- of course it's delicious. I knew it would be, simply because I've been making variations of this dish since I was 14 years old and started cooking up afternoon snacks for my friends and me to eat in bed during school holidays. It didn't change my life or blow my mind, but it did bring me comfort and joy on a cold, gray February evening. That's the magic of cheesy pasta for you.
Some users and food reviewers have been underwhelmed or downright unimpressed with the TikTok pasta, saying the recipe is overhyped, but I'd argue they're missing the point. What we have here is a communal food event that anyone can partake in, at a time when coming together to break bread isn't possible.
The fact that thousands (or millions, if you go by TikTok views) of people around the world have in recent weeks gone to their kitchens, placed cheese on a tray, licked the salty residue from their fingers, heard the soft thuds of tomatoes cascading down around it, drizzled the oil, sprinkled the seasoning and smelled the hot, sweet garlicky air gasp from their ovens, before crushing everything together to make a swirling pink carby mess -- it's kind of remarkable when you think about it.
Eating meals with others has been a bonding experience since the dawn of human civilization. It's quite heartening to know that in spite of everything holding us apart right now, we are still finding ways to make food a shared cultural experience.
That the recipe is simple and fail-safe isn't a flaw in my eyes. Instead, that's what makes it wonderful and appealing, likely contributing to its viral success. This ain't Bon Appetit, but it's accessible cooking for all levels -- something food TikTok should get credit for more widely. The rookie can embark on this journey and gain confidence. The expert can throw it together and find comfort.
The combination of accessibility and the payoff -- four hearty portions -- sets this apart from other viral recipes that have whipped the internet into a frenzy over the last year amid a pandemic-driven lockdown. Unlike sourdough, banana bread or "the cookies," at the end of the day you were always going to make dinner. So why not make this?
It probably shouldn't be overlooked that many of us have hit a wall in one way or another. If you're anything like me, the endless cycle of cooking and washing up (even with a dishwasher, so much washing up) that comes with eating every single meal in your own home has made it hard to find the energy to try something new. Then there's the sense that if you do branch out, the recipe should be elaborate or exotic and add new skills to your culinary arsenal.
But there's no need to turn making dinner into some misguided self-improvement exercise. The TikTok pasta shows it can be as easy as switching up how you choose to apply heat. If you want to jazz the TikTok pasta up and make it your own, that's cool, but it's also great just as it is.
I've seen people add extra veg or honey or balsamic, or make it with boursin instead of feta, or use spaghetti squash instead of pasta. (You do you, but carbs aren't your enemy, this recipe comes in at under 500 calories for dinner, so eat the pasta if you want it.) Sometimes though, especially in times of high anxiety, it's nice just to have nothing more to worry about than four ingredients, some seasoning and a little oil.
And with that, here's how I made it (it took around 40 minutes in total, and I did an online exercise class while it was in the oven):
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius).
2. Place the feta in the center of roasting pan or tray, add in the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves around the side, trying to ensure everything is in a single layer.
3. Drizzle over the olive oil, sprinkle over the seasoning and then give everything a good shake or mix with your hands (or both).
4. Pause to take a photo for your Instagram stories.
5. Place tomatoes and feta in the oven and bake for 35 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until it's al dente, then drain, but reserving some of the pasta water in case you need it.
7. Remove tomatoes from the oven and using tongs, remove the garlic cloves.
8. While you let them cool for a moment, take a fork and mash up the tomatoes and feta, being careful not to let hot tomato juice jump up and hit you in the eye. If it's too dry, add a little of the reserved pasta water to loosen it up a bit.
9. Squeeze the garlic cloves from their skins, mash them up and stir them back into the tomato feta sauce with the pasta and some torn-up basil.
10. Serve in four equal portions. (It keeps great in the fridge for lunch the next day.)