Ferial Pearson never thought that she would be TikTok famous. When the pandemic first hit, her youngest child started uploading TikTok videos of her cooking delicious foods that soon gained a lot of traction online. Now, Pearson releases cooking videos almost daily on her channel, @MamaBeastska, everything from designing sourdough bread to preparing butter chicken in an instant pot. All of the videos are filmed, edited, and produced by her child Iman. (The channel currently has 48.6K followers as of 7/31/20.)
In addition to sharing new recipes and changing our palate’s, Pearson is a changemaker in today’s society. She is the founder of the Secret Kindness Agents project, which became the subject of a book, a TEDx Talk, and was the focus of her dissertation for her doctorate in Educational Leadership. Currently, she is nationally recognized and award-winning high school teacher and an instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Urban Asian spoke to Pearson about her cooking journey and the inspiration behind her delicious recipes. Here’s how Pearson started TikTok and became the fascinating food creator that she is today. (Her responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? When did you start cooking?
I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and came to the United States when I was 19 to pursue a college education. I’m the oldest of four girls, and I was the first in my immediate family to go to college because my parents never had the opportunity to do so. I come from a family of really good cooks, as well as a family that loves to try new foods and restaurants. Kenya is a very multiethnic place, so we were lucky to be surrounded by people and food from many different cultures around the world. My parents and grandparents had friends from all over the globe who were happy to share recipes and food with us. I started cooking as soon as I was old enough to stand on a stool at the kitchen counter. I remember breaking eggs and scrambling them when I was really, really small. My favorite memories growing up are being with my grandmother (we called her Ma) in her kitchen, watching her taste something and her eyes lighting up when it was just right, and the way her hands looked when she was kneading dough or frying puris. I loved the organization of her pantry, which we called “the store” and how beautiful the different colors of spices and grains and lentils were in their glass jars. I enjoyed watching her cook with her sisters, joking around, and teaching us what true sisterhood and kindness looks like.
What inspired you to start your TikTok Channel, @MamaBeastska?
This was my youngest child, Iman’s fault! Iman thought our friends would enjoy seeing what was happening in our house while we were quarantining since we usually always have our friends over to our house to drink chai, eat, share recipes, laugh, and hang out. I never thought my audience would be more than just friends and family! I’m glad it is though; family can never be big enough for me.
How long have you been cooking?
I’m 42 years old, so I’d say about 40 years! I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been cooking. Even when I was in college, I found a way to cook food from home. Before I was even dating him, Danny (The Tall Whiteman, aka my husband) and I wrote a column for our college newspaper where I would cook something, and we would have people taste it and then we would write about what their reactions were and also publish the recipe. We were barely paid anything for the column, so by the time we bought ingredients and cooked, we were actually paying to write it!
Your family is multi-ethnic, interfaith, and international. How has this influenced your cooking?
Our family is like the United Nations! We have family members from different parts of India (Gujarat, Goa, Kucch, etc), Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, the United States, England, Germany, and so on. We are Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Atheist, and more. So, we are never stuck in a rut with our food. We are always eating something different and changing up the menu. I feel really lucky that I was exposed to so many different kinds of people in my family because it gave me an open mind. I never thought that our religion/culture/ethnicity/food was better than anyone else’s because I was surrounded by people who were all so different from each other. It helps me get along with and respect all kinds of people. I believe that everyone you meet is a teacher, so I love to learn from people, and recipes are just one thing that I have been taught by the different members of my family. I’m also fascinated by which cultures influence each other in their food because some of my favorite food is a blend of Indian and Swahili cultures since my family has been in Kenya for so many generations, and so the transformation of recipes and why different people eat different things is super interesting to me.
How did you get your family involved in cooking? What advice would you give to someone who wants to bring their entire household cooking in the kitchen?
My parents and grandparents taught my sisters and I to be independent and self-sufficient, so I wanted the same for my children. I made sure that as soon as they were old enough to hold a spoon and stand on a stool, they were in the kitchen with me, even if they made a huge mess! At one point some friends gave us a toy kitchen, but they never played with it because they were busy cooking in the actual kitchen. When we went to the supermarket when they were small (especially the international grocery stores), I let them each pick out a fruit or vegetable that looked interesting, and when we got home, we would research what it was, how it could be cooked, and where in the world people eat it. Then, we would cook it and rate it. We still do this, but have expanded to more than fruits and vegetables. I am a busy working parent, so I don’t have time to make a buffet meal and make something different for the children, so they have always eaten what we eat. When they were babies, I would feed them off my plate all the time, so they have not really been picky eaters. Being involved in the kitchen also helps them see what’s in their food and be curious about what it tastes like. The best advice I would have is to make it fun! We are really goofy in the kitchen; the Black Pepper Dance is just one example. We play music loudly and sing and dance while we cook. We take in all the senses, too; how things smell, look, taste, sound, etc. We also watch cooking shows that teach us about the politics of food; it’s important for us to know where our food comes from and what sacrifices people have made so that we can eat well. My son Ilahi is going to college next year, and he has already started a list of things he can cook in a college dorm room that are cheap, healthy, and easy to do in a microwave or InstantPot (which he wants as a graduation present). Many of my kids’ birthday presents have been things to try in the kitchen, like a pasta rolling machine, an Aebelskiver pan, squid ink, etc. Before quarantine, the kids were doing a pop-up restaurant in our house called Jikoni Masala (Jikoni means kitchen in Swahili). They were serving three-course meals to people who would make a suggested donation. They would donate a portion of the proceeds to a different charity each time, so they felt like they were doing some good while also learning about business, accounting, service, chemistry, hospitality, and so much more.
What is your favorite meal to cook, if you have one?
I get bored easily, so I rarely cook the same thing twice in a week. My favorite meal to cook would probably be a new recipe or a new ingredient that I want to try in the kitchen!
What inspires your recipes? Do you ever try to recreate really great meals from restaurants?
Most of my inspiration comes from my friends and family! When I eat at different people’s houses, I’m eager to get into their kitchens and see how I can help so that I can learn how and what they are cooking. I write everything down and think of ways to find shortcuts (like I said, I am a busy working parent, so there’s no shame in those shortcuts) or to tweak it to my taste. I also get inspiration from Pinterest and from cooking shows and restaurants. I definitely try to recreate wonderful meals from restaurants, so I will watch YouTube videos to figure out how they cooked something.
What advice would you give to food bloggers and digital content creators focusing on food who would to start a TikTok channel?
My advice above all is to have fun, not take yourself seriously, and be open to learning from others. I didn’t do this to get a bunch of followers; it was to share my love of cooking with my family with the people that we miss being around during quarantine, and I’m just happy that more people have joined in as well!
To connect with Pearson and her community of viewers who share the same passion for cooking, join the Cooking with Mama Beast Facebook Group.