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How everyday things like cooking can be a powerful storytelling tool: 6 Good Questions with NPR Hot Pot producers Rhitu Chatterjee and Ben de la Cruz

Spend some time on social media, and you’re sure to see food videos — maybe featuring a restaurant’s unique dish or showing the process of decorating a dessert. NPR is keying into audiences’ appetites for this trend in their recent project NPR Hot Pot.

NPR blogs The Salt and Goats and Soda teamed up to launch a six-part series that connects people around the world through food-related memories. The name is a nod to hot pot dishes, which are warm, food-filled pots found in many different cultures.

Each episode of NPR Hot Pot includes a video of a person making a favorite dish from their own culture. That’s accompanied by the recipe and an article that dives into cultural issues related to the dish. Collectively, the episodes cover a variety of cultures, foods and topics. NPR also published a social media callout asking audience members to submit their own food-related memories and favorite dishes with the hashtag #NPRHotPot.

After the second video was released, we talked to Hot Pot producer/reporter Rhitu Chatterjee and producer/director Ben de la Cruz about the project’s development process, the merits of using food to frame deeper issues, and points to consider when starting multimedia projects.

How did the project idea originate?

Ben de la Cruz

Ben de la Cruz | Image courtesy Ben de la Cruz

DE LA CRUZ: The idea for Hot Pot is trying to create a new type of food video, at least on the web. The idea was to create this video where you learn about the food and you hear a very personal story about a memory while they’re making food. It’s sort of a hybrid of a story, hence the title “Hot Pot: A dish, a memory.” So that’s how it began. I mean, it’s not an entirely unique thing because there’s “Chef’s Table” and stuff on Netflix that have done this, but it hasn’t been done online — at least we haven’t seen it done so much.

CHATTERJEE: Food videos are incredibly popular online, but the vast majority of them are based on a how-to approach showing what the ingredients are and the steps in making it. They’re very beautiful videos, but as a storyteller — and especially somebody having grown up elsewhere in the world and having done global journalism — I’m always trying to find connections between cultures. And I’ve always watched these videos and left craving a little more connection to the place where the food comes from and the people.

That’s why we decided to go for this approach where you still get to see some of the steps in making the dish, but it’s really also using that as a medium to connect viewers to the place and to the people — what it means to them and the emotions around that food.

DE LA CRUZ: Food videos are sort of mesmerizing — I use this word “mesmerizing” because you can’t stop watching them. We wanted to keep that aesthetic while also including this emotional part as well, this story part. So that’s what our goal is.

CHATTERJEE: There’s magic that happens in creating something beautiful out of very basic, everyday ingredients and there’s also magic involved in making and sharing that food with people you love. What we wanted to get across in these videos was the magic in both the chemistry of the food creation and the relationships between people.

Do you know any other examples of projects using a universal topic like food to connect to deeper issues?

Rhitu Chatterjee

Rhitu Chatterjee | Image courtesy Rhitu Chatterjee

CHATTERJEE: I have to mention The Salt, the blog I work for, which has already been doing this for several years. What we’re doing is using food as a lens to look at a whole range of issues. We look at diet and nutrition, politics through food, agriculture, economics, environment — it’s an endless list. Food is such a basic human need and the basis of so much of the global economy and people’s lives and culture, so I have to say it sort of came naturally from what The Salt already does.

DE LA CRUZ: There’s a great series on Netflix called “Chef’s Table” that is very inspirational in the way they cover food. Visually, that’s something that was in my head. There’s lots of documentaries about food out there that are pretty interesting. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is another one. So that sort of aesthetic as well as the personal story behind people and the food they make is sort of a model in some way. Obviously this is so much shorter; they’re doing 45 minutes to an hour. So it was just more like, can we make something cool like this for the web or Instagram, which has its own aesthetic and time limit.

CHATTERJEE And obviously we’re not going for famous celebrity chefs. We wanted to feature people not for their success in cooking, but for how central food was to their own lives. And that’s true for a lot of us. That’s what makes them more relatable. The other thing we should also point out is that this was a very low-budget creation. They were mostly all shot at NPR, and this is an additional project we all took on. Created in-house, shot locally, and featuring regular people.

What’s the value in approaching stories through the angle of food?

CHATTERJEE: Right now, not just in the U.S. and in many parts of the world, it seems that we’re living in very divisive times. To me, not just as a journalist but also as a human being, the value is bringing up the universality of many human experiences through food. To me, that is one of the values of this project. NPR, like a lot of the work we do, is about connecting people and crossing borders, and this is sort of along the same lines.

From Hot Pot episode 1 | Image courtesy NPR

DE LA CRUZ: I think it’s also a way to humanize people. We say in these videos, it’s this picadillo as shared by Wilma Consul. We purposely phrased it that way because we want it to be about the idea of a communal experience. I think that we’re just trying to show there’s more than one way to think about certain areas of the world.

What considerations were important in choosing a group of subjects for the series?

CHATTERJEE: First of all, with these six videos we wanted to cover different parts of the globe. In addition to that, with any story you want to find the core part, right? The challenge was, “What is this story about? What is this food video about?” And it’s preferably something that takes people by surprise.

The first video was about this young girl at the age of 7 under unusual circumstances having to step up and step into the kitchen to help her single mother take care of her four siblings. And even though her circumstances may have been kind of unusual, I knew from having covered gender-related issues that this was also something that millions of girls around the world could relate to. That’s a surprising story and yet relatable to many people, especially girls and women. The second one was again, finding something surprising yet universal. Here, it’s about how people get creative during times of shortage.

And the other thing is finding something emotional. Obviously with the first one it was a lot more emotional than the second one, but even there you have Alina sharing memories of being a little girl, helping her mom make these cookies while stealing bites of the crumbly bits into her mouth. That’s a lovely little memory that a lot of people can relate to.

DE LA CRUZ: When Rhitu and I chat about the subjects, we also talk about what food they’re going to make, because that’s what we’re going to see in the video. Like choosing a subject in terms of geographic diversity, we also wanted food diversity. And we also wanted food that people could somehow relate to as well. Oftentimes, the food is sort of determined in part by the story and the memory, but we also need to film a certain amount of steps. It needs to have a certain amount of complexity, so that we can show something being created that looks interesting.

CHATTERJEE: Mesmerizing.

DE LA CRUZ: And, yes, something that can be mesmerizing as well. You can watch it on screen as you hear a story unfold. That is a sort of consideration. Something that only takes five minutes to make, for instance, may not be a dish that we want to film because we want different steps. Alina’s story about the oreshki was great because she had a really interesting utensil that she used to make it. We thought people probably hadn’t seen this, at least I hadn’t. In fact when we looked at the comments on social media, some people wanted to know where they could find that utensil.

From Hot Pot episode 2 | Image courtesy NPR

What are the most significant things for journalists to remember about using multimedia to connect different audiences?

DE LA CRUZ We think about each platform of social media and multimedia as very specific in terms of audience and the way that you reach them. So we’re trying to create customized versions of these platforms.

CHATTERJEE: It’s about getting to your audience where they are.

DE LA CRUZ: For instance, on Facebook, you see a very low rate of people who actually listen to sound — at least that’s historically been the case with Facebook videos. So we include the subtitles so that people can view them the way they want to. In that example, I think we’re trying to make sure that no matter what platform we’re on, we’re understanding how people consume the content.

CHATTERJEE: For journalists wanting to do these multimedia projects for different online platforms, the questions they should ask are: Which platform or platforms am I going to use and why? Do I have to use all of them; is that justified? And what am I going to count as success?

And think about these things early on. Ben had to create different things for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Be aware that each platform has different needs and each will require a lot of work and targeting and outreach. So really think about if you really want to use all, or which do you want to use and why.

Just because you put it on a platform, doesn’t mean that’s the end of your responsibility in terms of getting people there. … Each platform has a whole list of to-do’s that you have to check off to make it successful.

DE LA CRUZ: Rhitu touched on an important point there. Just because you put it on a platform, doesn’t mean that’s the end of your responsibility in terms of getting people there. A lot of the work also has to do with reaching out to influencers on the platform. Each platform has a whole list of to-do’s that you have to check off to make it successful.

CHATTERJEE: For smaller newsrooms, that may not be possible so they might have to decide if it’s wiser to go with one or two platforms. Think of these questions well in advance, when you’re conceptualizing the process — it can’t be an afterthought. It can’t be the traditional way of working where the story’s the main thing, you put it out there, and then you do a little bit of social media outreach. It has to be part of the thinking upfront.

Finally, we’re curious to know: What’s your own #NPRHotPot memory?

CHATTERJEE: I have so many. I’m from India, and my home’s in the state of West Bengal. I come from a culture where family discussions are often around what meal shall we eat next. These discussions often happen while we’re eating the current meal, so there are countless!

My favorite hot pot dish would be a simple meal of rice and masoor dal, which is the red lentil. This is a very basic dish back home. You boil the lentils with turmeric, then you use sauteéd onions and a five-spice mix. It’s a very simple meal, rice with lentils — this kind of thin, watery lentil, not any kind of lentil you’ve had in any Indian restaurant here in the U.S. You squeeze a little bit of fresh lime on it, and then you eat it plain or with fried fish, fried potatoes or okra.

That is my go-to food when I’m desperately craving comfort, and especially when I don’t have the energy to make too much. It can cure homesickness, it can cure a mild case of the virus, it can cure me of longing to see my mother or go back to my childhood days. Masoor dal is one of the first dishes I learned to cook when I moved to the United States in 2002. I’d resisted learning cooking when I was back home, but it’s one of the first things I wanted to cook when I moved here. I called my mom and she guided me on the phone — and many, many times after that in the years since.

DE LA CRUZ: I was born in Manila in the Philippines, and I came to the U.S. when I was five and grew up in Baltimore. I have a younger brother who’s a year and a half younger than I am. When we were kids my parents always took us fishing — it was one of our favorite things to do. We used to go fishing all over in Baltimore.

We weren’t the “catch and release” type of family. When we caught fish, we took it home to eat it. One Filipino dish that my parents always made was this soup called sinigang, which is a sort of sour soup made with tamarind. You can use fresh tamarind, but most people just use these tamarind packets. You make a soup that has a little bit of onion and some greens, and then you put the fish in. You can even put meat and fish in it, or shrimp, but just fish is my favorite. And it’s just a really comforting dish that you have with rice, usually jasmine rice. It’s a simple dish, doesn’t take long to make, and it tastes healthy. For me, it just really reminds me of family time with my parents and my brother.

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