Beijing-Shanghai, March 13, 2020 – Apron-clad Zhang Xuesi adjusted the flame on his cooking stove, while wielding a spatula to flip in his pan the ingredients for a dish of Cantonese-style prawns coated in breadcrumbs.

“It ruins the dish if you burn the breadcrumbs,” he said into the camera on his mobile telephone, advising hundreds of viewers of his livestream to maintain a small flame.

Stuck at home because of China’s tough measures to rein in the spread of a coronavirus, millions of people are discovering an unexpected interest in cooking, with restaurants closed nationwide.

Viewers flocking to regular broadcasts by chefs like Zhang, to learn how to make Chinese and Western dishes, are driving up sales of baking and roasting equipment, and even egg-beaters, on e-commerce platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo.

Downloads of the top five recipe apps more than doubled in February to 2.25 million at China’s app stores, such as Xiachufang, from January’s 1 million, said research firm Sensor Tower.

In the month since the virus outbreak began late in December, cooking and food-related content drew more than 580 million views on its platform, Chinese video streaming firm Billibilli said.

Zhang works for online video cooking producer DayDayCook, which told Reuters its new users in February tripled from January, as a how-to recipe for stewed bean curd and shrimp garnered the most viewers during the epidemic.

“We have never gained new users with such speed since we launched the service in 2012,” said founder and chief executive Norma Chu.

Many new home cooks are young people living in cities, say industry executives, marking a shift in habits for a group that had grown up accustomed to eating out regularly, which is cheap in China, or relying on swift and convenient food delivery.

Wu Shuang, a 30-year-old who works for an internet company in Beijing, the capital, said she spent most of her time indoors in February learning how to make bread and Chinese rice noodles, usually through online platforms.

Besides watching cooking shows, she reads users’ comments to learn from their mistakes, she said, with the only downside of her experiments being the washing up afterwards.

But she has found a remedy, of sorts. “I have moved my hand cream from the bathroom to the kitchen,” she said.

Online interactions also give learners an emotional outlet beyond just aspects of cooking, chef Zhang added.

“In the past, users were only interested in learning cooking tricks, but now we talk about all kinds of subjects.” – Reuters