TikToker Soy Nguyen Talks All Things AAPI Month And Vietnamese Dishes - Exclusive Interview

Whether you're looking to find new recipes or follow crazy food trends, TikTok is the place to be these days. First, it was air fryer pasta chips; then, pesto eggs; and now, the infamous salmon rice seems to still be making its way to "for you" pages. It's also Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and TikTok has named some of its rising stars as trailblazers. One of them is Soy Nguyen — presently with over 955k followers and 41 million likes — who is also navigating through content creation as a Foodie Influencer of the Year.

During an exclusive interview with Mashed, Nguyen talked about her favorite cultural dishes, the TikTok food trend that she loves the most, and why being a Vietnamese American influencer is so important to her. The TikToker described her mom's kitchen recipes, as she often makes an appearance in her viral videos. Nguyen also explained how she is eating her way through Los Angeles and how being a positive presence online helps change the negativity that often comes with a social media following. 

Soy Nguyen reveals how she began creating TikTok videos

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started on TikTok?

I started around the end of 2019, like everyone else, making those silly lip-syncing videos — not for any idea of blowing up or something, but more for my own entertainment. I remember the first TikTok I ever made was to that Charlie XCX song about boys. Do you know that trend where it was "Boys"? One of my friends and I dressed up as little Harry Styles — we wore a bunch of different wigs and played with that sound. 

Originally, when I was using [TikTok], it was for my own entertainment to make little memes or little fun skits or things that I felt I couldn't express anywhere else. And then around 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I was like, "Oh, I make a lot of food content elsewhere. Let me try to make content that could help support the small businesses around LA during the pandemic." At that point, I started making food adventure videos where I take people out on food adventures. 

At that time, everything was closed in LA, but I was like, "Let me eat food in my car. Let me show people what it's like to see their small businesses." I really do feel that there's power in video that you don't get from word of mouth or from pictures, where you're like, "Oh, I sense a story at this restaurant," or "I want to help this mom-and-pop shop." I started making more intentional videos in the middle of the pandemic when I [realized I could] use this platform to help connect people with food in that way.

Then it eventually started growing a little bit more, where now people were asking me, "Where do you get food?" During the midst of the pandemic, one big aspect of my content is mental health and making "eat with me" videos where you sit down. That was also born because of the pandemic. So a lot of my TikTok experience up until now ... The pandemic's been almost two and a half years right now. It's been mostly me making videos during the pandemic.

What being a Vietnamese American influencer means to her

Now that you were named a Foodie Influencer of the Year and also a TikTok API Trailblazer, how does it feel to have both those titles?

A little surreal, and I'm filled with so much gratitude because both of them are things I never thought would be something that I could ever have dreamed of achieving. It's basically a testament of how strong my community has become, because both of them are community-driven things. The Foodie of the Year Influencer Award was voted [on] and nominated by my followers and people in the community that were like, "Hey, I believe in what she's doing." I was against some amazing TikTok chefs and recipe creators, and I was mind-blown that I actually won because some of the other creators had millions of followers and I didn't at the time. I was like, "There's no way I'm going to win," but never say never.

Then, for the Trailblazer Award, it's also a community-driven thing where people in the creator community nominate, and then the peers review the accounts and everything. It's definitely an honor to see that my content has now been supported by the community.

Do you ever feel any pressure or pride in representing your Asian culture, since you mentioned you have a good community in a time where Asian hate crimes seem to be heightening?

For sure. Regardless of whatever's happening around the world, my biggest identity, or one of my biggest identities, [is] being Vietnamese American. That's something that I truly encompass in my content, because if you watch a lot of my content, there's a lot of Vietnamese cooking, a lot of Vietnamese cultural aspects. I represent Lunar New Year and some of the traditions we might have as Vietnamese Americans, or I have a lot of recipes [from] my mom. That's always been an integral part of the content that I make already. But especially during "Stop Asian Hate" where ... It's still going on. [There are] so many people and so many crimes being committed, and each day, you open the news and there's something terrible happening to an elder or someone getting hurt or something that's out of our control.

I don't think that there's a time where I'll ever stop advocating for that. There's no way. It's a part of my identity to see people that look like me. During that time, more than ever, I was a lot more vocal than before. Before — especially growing up in Florida, where I didn't have a lot of Asian representation — I was like, "Yeah, there wasn't a lot." My first time seeing another Asian kid was maybe elementary school in eighth grade. We had the same last name, and I was like, "Are we related?" But we weren't. There were so few Asians in my school, and I didn't feel super connected with my Asian American identity until college, when I was able to join my clubs.

After that, I saw the power of community and how you can bring people together and hold up [a] space where you feel like, "Hey, we deserve to be here." We deserve to share our joy, spread our awareness and our culture and our love for food, entertainment, whatever have you. It became such a big part of my upbringing, especially through college. Then, after I graduated and then now through TikTok — any time people ask, I say I'm Vietnamese American.

Why she chooses to ignore negativity online

That's wonderful. Do you feel your fans respond well to all of that?

It's awesome because my community that I've driven or have helped build through TikTok is really positive in most aspects. A lot of comments I get are from people that see my recipes or see me going out and trying foods or showcasing my Vietnamese food. They're like, "Well, I've never seen this before. Thanks for showcasing it. Thanks for explaining it in such a way that now I don't feel intimidated to go out and try it."

Even for myself, I have an open mind when it comes to trying new things and new foods. I'm always like, "Hey, this is my experience and I want to share it." And I think because of that energy being given out in the universe, the same energy is attracted where the people that follow me usually have the same positive mindset, where it's like, "Oh, this is really cool." In a way, me creating this type of space is helping them validate that it's okay for them to have whatever space they want to have.

I like that a lot. I like how you said that if you put it out there, you're attracting it too, because it could be very easy to get washed up in all of the negative energy.

I've had negative comments before, from people that ... When videos go viral, you get it on a part of the internet you don't want it to be a part of — not an intended audience, and then sometimes you get comments, but it's best to not give those comments too much attention. Early in my career, I was like, "Okay, let me duet to that. Let me show up and prove them wrong." 

But then I realized that doesn't do much in the eyes of the person that made that comment. Usually, when people make those types of comments, they're going through something else that might not entirely be about you. It might be about their life, and they project it onto you. So it's better to reserve that energy for the people that actually want to support you and want to see your content flourish.

Soy Nguyen shares her mom's homemade recipes

That's a great perspective. You mentioned your mom, and I saw that she's featured in a lot of your videos. Are there any recipes or specific kitchen tips you have learned from her that you wanted to share?

This is ultimately one of my favorite things to share because a lot of the content you see on TikTok and recipes and cooking, I was so inspired by it. I'm not a traditional chef or cook, but I remember growing up, and my mom's passion for food has always been something that I love. She's not trained classically or anything, but she makes the best food for the church every Sunday, and all her family gatherings are about food. Everyone loves her food. I've never met a single person that's ever tried any of my mom's food and they're like, "This isn't good" or "This is at par." Everyone's floored and amazed by it because there's something about home cooking. 

Particularly, I love when she shares [in] her Vietnamese videos Bún bò Huế, which is this beef noodle soup that was pretty fun because a lot of people were able to create that dish. They couldn't get it elsewhere. I had moms commenting from Texas going, "I've never had this dish before I tried this recipe. It was so easy; my kids love it." That's a fun one.

Then she made this beef noodle stir fry that, originally, I wasn't going to make a video for, because I was like, "This is so basic." It's macaroni and beef. What she makes is a comfort dish. But I remember being home and filming her on a story going, "My mom's cooking for us, just a basic thing," and then I got so many DMs from people going, "Can I get the recipe?" We made the video that night because if people want the recipe, we'll share it.

It's just a small thing. But it ended up being one of my most-liked videos because there's something about comfort food and being able to see something — even though it's easy — that people can recreate at home and share. That's what it felt like. I love that feeling, because I thought that was probably one of the best videos that people recreated — seeing people shoot pictures and videos and being like, "I tried your mom's recipe." I always share them with my mom, and she was so happy. That was a really cool recipe.

Also, I don't want to go on a tangent, but there's one more. There's this crab rangoon video that blew up on the internet as well. That video was a lot of fun. My mom makes those at home for us, because every time we go out to get Chinese takeout or something, there's six of us. We would love that dish, but it gets expensive when you're feeding six kids. So my mom learned how to make it and then readjusted that recipe, and she makes it often for us. At that time, I happened to be at home, and she wanted to make it for us. I recorded it, and she's in her PJs. It's really lax. It's a chill vibe, and that video blew up. It was on Good Morning America and everything. That video's fun.

I love featuring my mom, and it's been a cool way for me to connect with my roots and to connect with my mom through making the videos, [and] to share her part of the creative process.

Soy Nguyen describes her favorite Vietnamese American dish

That's wonderful that she can be a part of that with you. You mentioned three dishes. I was going to ask you what your favorite Vietnamese American dish is — did you mention it, or is there a different one?

No, I didn't. This is a hard question. This is probably the hardest question I've had in a long time.

Oh, good. It gets you thinking.

[It] gets my noggin going because I have so many favorite Vietnamese dishes, but I love gỏi cuốn, which is spring rolls with rice paper rolls, and I love it. This is a classic one. Since I [was] a kid, I loved that you can eat and then customize it the way you want and enjoy it. That's one of my favorites. 

I also love bánh bèo, which are these little rice cakes. They're flour rice cakes, and on top, there's some shrimp, some pork skin — [it's] crunchy. Then you put fish sauce, and you eat it in a little ramekin, and it's a beautiful one-bite situation. That's really good. I also like a lot of egg noodle dishes — so a lot of Mi Vit, which is a duck egg noodle dish. It's really good too.

That's so exciting. I love egg noodles.

Egg noodles are my favorite. This is a controversial hack, but I don't care. I do it anyway. [At] a lot of the pho restaurants here, you can actually change the pho noodles to egg noodles.

I didn't know that.

Yeah. I prefer that because rice noodles get a little too soggy sometimes, and I don't eat fast enough to enjoy [them]. Egg noodles have a better consistency and texture. But every time I post [that] on my stories, people are like, "You're not eating pho when you eat egg noodles." I don't care. I like it like this. 

I'm going to take that tip. I'm going to do that.

I want to see you try it. If it's good, let me know. If it's bad — no, there's no way. If you like egg noodles, it'll blow your mind.

She explains how she finds the restaurants in her TikToks

How do you go about finding restaurants to feature on your page? Is there a process that you go through?

This is a good question, too, because I don't think anyone's ever asked me that. That's a good behind-the-scenes question. I moved here [in] 2014, so I consider myself an LA local now. It took a while to get there because LA's so big, but at the beginning stages, I was exploring everything. Going on Yelp every day was the first thing I did when I woke up. I was like, "Okay, what can I try now?" — not because I wanted to make videos at that time, but because I didn't have friends in LA, and I was like, "Oh, let me explore LA and try to share so that when my friends or family visit, I'll have a list of places to go to."

I don't use Yelp as much anymore because not all the best restaurants are on Yelp. But I have friends now in LA, and a lot of [the restaurants] are recommended by my community too — people DMing me. You know when someone is super passionate about the place, because why would you go out of your way to write a paragraph essay on why I should visit a place unless it's really good? I take those recommendations into consideration because I'm like, "Dang." When I'm super passionate about something, and I want to share it, it's super good. If someone else is giving me that energy, then I should try out this place. A lot of those gems that I find are from my followers recommending me places.

My family that lives in Orange County is also a big foodie community. My cousin [is] always like, "Oh, there's a new sushi spot we should try." Every time I'm down in Orange County, we go try it. I definitely credit a lot of my Orange County recommendations to my family down at Orange County, because even though they don't make videos and they're not a part of that, food is such a big part of our family that I learn from them. They're like, "This place is good. You have to go." Or we'll go all eat family dinner together here. I'm blessed in that sense that I have such good people around me always giving me recommendations. It's so cool that I get to try it, and apparently, people [are] listening to what I say about food.

That's great. Do you have a go-to place in LA that you can't live without? Is there anything like that for you?

Honestly, I don't.

LA has so many places that it's probably impossible.

Exactly. This year I made it a purpose and a goal, especially with things opening back up again ... I need to stop going to the same places because that's too comfortable. It doesn't help me develop a better palate. So this year more than ever, I've been going out to try more different cuisines outside of my cultural reference. I was like, "Okay, I'll try Ethiopian food again this year." It was really, really, good versus [the] last time I tried it. Now that I know that was good, I can keep exploring different types of restaurants, but more so than a place that I recently went that I enjoyed.

That's a good answer.

I don't think there's one I can't live without. We can't be dependent on other people. We got to be strong ourselves.

Soy Nguyen names the one chef she wants to cook her dinner

I went to this 17-course sushi omakase in Encino. It's a hidden speakeasy called Scratch Bar. It's so good. I made a whole video on it [because] I wanted to go eat there, and they seat you with 15 other people. It's very private and you have to book in advance, and it's so much fun because the three chefs are in the front explaining each sushi omakase dish to you — next, next, next, next. The environment's cool, and the people in the conversations were great.

I like that it wasn't just about the quality of the fish — it was fantastic. The rice was great, but also the little details. [They added] the sauce that was local to Anaheim and this wagyu. The way that they were presenting their little bite wasn't ... It was thoughtful, but it also tasted good. Sometimes there's food that's super expensive or super crazy thought-out, and it's creative, but it doesn't always taste the best. This was a situation where you had a melting pot — creative and fun and also really good-tasting food.

Do you have a favorite food TikTok trend?

The nature's cereal one was very interesting to see everyone's different reactions on it. I was super excited to try it. Do you remember it? It was ice, and then it was berries, and then it was coconut water.

Lizzo did it, and a bunch of people did it. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I want to try it." It looked so good, but it literally just tasted like coconut water and fruit. I made a really fun video, and I made a tart out of it at the end. Sometimes you're given something in life and you're like, "Hey, this is not what I like, but it's okay because it's an experience," and I made a tart with [the] ingredients afterward.

It was fun. It was a fun video, too. That was a cool trend because I saw such a cool divide in people's opinions. The cool thing about something like that is there's no wrong way to look at it. It's all based on taste, and taste is so subjective. Some people are like, "This is the best thing ever. I'm going to eat it every morning. I love nature's cereal." On the other hand, I was like, "I don't think I can eat this again," but it's okay because that's what it's all about.

Who is the one chef that you would choose to cook you dinner? 

There's so many great chefs. This is a little bit odd, but I would love to ... I'm personally a fan of Guy Fieri.

I love Guy Fieri. That's not odd.

A lot of times when people mention his name, they reference him as a meme type of guy because he's such a character. But there's something really earnest and sincere about how he connects with people and food. I feel like he's the people's people of any chefs. He showcases stories and foods in such a way that is such a fun vibe. It'd be a fun experience to have him cook dinner personally. I feel like there [would] be a lot of cool things in the kitchen that he would do, like lighting things on fire and making it a whole show and performance. That would be fun. [I'd also choose] Alton Brown because he's so intelligent when it comes to food and ingredients. He would also be another fun chef to watch.

She divulges her favorite fast food order

Is there one ingredient that you could never live without?

Since I'm Vietnamese, I'm going to have to say fish sauce. It'd be wrong to say anything else. It's in my blood. It's in my veins. It's an ingredient that adds umami [to] dishes. At the same time, [it] adds that saltiness that you don't have to use salt for. It's a great supplement if you want that. I love a good fish sauce.

What is your go-to fast food order and from which restaurant?

You're asking such hard questions. I have so many fast food restaurants that I like. I'm going to have to say McDonald's because there's nostalgia involved with it. My mom worked really late hours, and that was the place that was always open. She would always bring home McDonald's so that we could eat together. I grew up with McDonald's, but my go-to order once I'm at McDonald's is to get the hamburger.

I really like the bun. I like it more than the Big Mac bun. It's that soft, nice little bun, the hamburger. Then they add lettuce to make it feel more adult. I'm like, "Hey, can I get a burger and you add some lettuce?" and they're like, "Okay." I get a large sweet tea because it's consistently good. It reminds me of Florida. The sweetness factor is so sweet — I love it. [I also get] a large fry and then some ranch, hot mustard, and sweet and sour sauce. That's basically my go-to order.

That sounds good. I'm curious — since you live in LA and have been everywhere, how do you feel about In-N-Out? I was there and I've heard mixed reviews, but I want your opinion on it.

What is your opinion on it? I want to know.

I liked it. I feel like it's over-hyped, but I felt like it was the best fast food I'll eat, if that makes sense.

That makes sense. I like In-N-Out. There's nothing wrong with it and sometimes I crave it, but the people that really like In-N-Out have a specific order. The thing is, I haven't found my specific order because I haven't gone enough, but one of the things I wanted to do, now that you mentioned it — I wanted to go and try people's In-N-Out orders to find my In-N-Out order because I don't have one yet. When I go to McDonald's, it's so basic because I know that's the combination I like, but I don't think they have even ... They don't even have lettuce at In-N-Out. That's probably why I don't like it. I think it's onions, tomatoes, and no lettuce.

Really? I didn't know.

Yeah, [with] animal-style and all that stuff, you can do onions in so many different ways there. But the ingredients and the price factor is such a low-cost price for what they can produce. Personally, I like the fries, and McDonald's [fries] are a little bit better.

I think so too. It was the fries. They weren't as good as I thought.

Yeah, but it's good. It's an LA favorite, but I don't crave burgers in general. I crave Asian food a lot more, so I'm definitely not the best person to ask that. If someone would ask that, I'd be like, "Oh, I like hamburgers."

Head to Soy Nguyen's TikTok page for more videos or TikTok's press release in honor of AAPI month.

This interview was edited for clarity.