Egyptian-American sisters Alia and Radwa Elkaffas had already been giving their audience simple, delicious recipes ranging from nutritious lunches to indulgent desserts for six years when their TikTok food channel, Food Dolls, went viral. With their unique voiceovers and their dedication to simplicity, they caught the eyes and stole the hearts of 1.3 million followers.
Egyptian Streets reached out to Alia and Radwa to hear the story of how they got started and how a video of a one-dish, oven-baked pasta turned their cooking career around.
I first heard about Food Dolls when you were featured on BuzzFeed. How did that come about?
Radwa: They had contacted us back in July before our super viral video went out and they asked us if we were interested in doing a video with multiple recipes in it. We said yes, and then we didn’t hear from them. And then we had that super viral video. Two weeks after that they added that video in, even though when they messaged us we hadn’t even filmed it yet.
Alia: They messaged us and said ‘We love what you guys are doing on TikTok, we love your voice overs,’ but we never heard from them after that. And then someone Radwa knew messaged us and said ‘Hey, I just found this on Twitter,’ so we didn’t even know it was published until we heard from our friends.
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But you were cooking long before you were contacted by BuzzFeed. What is the whole story?
Radwa: We started about six years ago, and we actually started as a clean eats page. That’s what we were called, ‘CleanEats’. We were trying to find our vibe, and what we were trying to share with everybody, and we decided to change our name because CleanEats held us back from posting all different kinds of food, it was very limited, and there was this controversy around what could be considered healthy, and what could not. We just didn’t want to exclude anything. We wanted to do all kinds of food.
Alia: Not just that, you know, Radwa and I, we do like to eat healthy, but not all the time. We wanted to show moderation, you know? The 80:20 rule.
Radwa: We do eat healthy, but we also like to indulge.
We first started on Facebook and Instagram and recently we started TikTok and that’s kind of changed the game for us, because we strictly just do videos, and since TikTok is just videos and not pictures, we feel like it just vibed really well with what we’re doing. And once we got our viral video, that’s when traction started to happen.
Alia: And we only started our voice overs like three months ago. We just said ‘Hey, we should start talking together and see what happens!’
The voice overs are so engaging. When you two talk, and when you call each other by your names, it makes it all the more personal and I think there’s so much appeal in that. How did you come up with this?
Radwa: We were just like ‘Do you want to do a voice over?’ ‘Sure!’ and we went with the first video, and we realised that people like that, so we kept doing it.
Alia: At first we were taking turns doing the voice overs so I would do it on one video, Radwa would do it on another video, but we were together one day and we said ‘Hey, should we try doing it together?’ It was nothing planned, nothing scripted.
So you don’t script any of it, it’s really just the two of you having a conversation.
Radwa: Yes, and usually we try to think back to how we came up with this recipe. So in the conversation we try to incorporate that. Or sometimes we just say what’s on our mind.
Alia: Because half the time when we call each other and say ‘Hey, Radwa, what should we make today?’ That literally is our conversation. ‘You have to add some more sauce, or you have to add some more cheese…’ In a way it’s like the back end of our thought processes when we’re making a recipe.
You have ‘Egyptian-American in your bio, so I was wondering: does being Egyptian have an effect on your work? What is your connection to Egypt, both personally and in your cooking?
Alia: Well, our parents are obviously from Masr, we spent our summers in Egypt, so it’s a huge part of our upbringing. It’s a part of us that’s always going to be with us. We love Egypt and we haven’t been there for such a long time because of COVID and we had kids, and all sorts of things, but it really a big part of our upbringing. And you know how food is in Masr. Everything is about eating and family. And our cousins are here on our dad’s side of the family, so it’s really a big part of us.
Radwa: We hadn’t really posted on our social media that we were Egyptian-American at first, but that’s who we are. And if anyone doesn’t like it, we don’t really care. That’s why we wanted to let people know.
And does Egyptian cuisine have any impact on your recipes? And do you ever cook Egyptian food for your families?
Radwa: Oh yeah, we cook Egyptian food all the time! And my mom is always sending us food and we cook with her and we bounce ideas off her.
Alia: We weren’t posting any strictly Egyptian food, but we did do things like Baklava cinnamon rolls, and just recently we did rozz maammar, and we’re working on a lot more Egyptian recipes and we do have the intention of doing more.
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I’ve also noticed that so many of your dishes are one-pot or one-pan, they all seem quite practical to make. Why is that?
Radwa: You know what, people just want easy recipes. That’s what we initially wanted to do: easy recipes for people to make. You don’t have to be a chef to cook. Alia is basically the one that taught me how to cook. Especially when I first got married and I didn’t have a clue, she had cooked so much more than I did growing up, so she was really the one that taught me. But it was always: you can make something really simple at home, you don’t have to sit and spend 10 hours in the kitchen making bread and fresh pasta. You can put together something that’s quick and easy and still tastes delicious.
Alia: And I think in the US we live such a busy, hectic life, both parents work full-time, kids are in school activities, so a lot of times people just don’t have time to cook, so they end up picking up some takeout. But realistically, if you just have a few ingredients, you can just put something together, pop it in the oven, and you have dinner. So we’re just trying to make it simple for people.
What are your future plans for Food Dolls?
Radwa: Oh man! You know, that’s such a loaded question, and I’ll tell you why, it’s because when Alia and I talk and we talk about what we’re going to do next, we talk about it all. We’ve talked about creating a cookware line, we’ve talked about all the things we can do to expand and things we can do for our followers, more than just creating recipes every day, but creating an e-cookbook to make it easier for people, or making meal plans. We really just want to listen to our audience, and see what they want. We just released our e-cookbook, actually, and hopefully there will be a cookware and bakeware line out soon. We try to respond to as many of our audiences’ DMs as possible. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming and you can’t respond to everything, but when you keep seeing ‘I want a cookbook, I want a cookbook,’ we try to listen to what they say to us.
Alia: And we always like to add it to our stories when people send us photos or videos of themselves cooking our recipes. It’s fun to see that, we love seeing it.
What’s your message to your Egyptian viewers?
Alia: Stay tuned for easy Egyptian recipes. We’re not going to spend hours making mahshi, we’re going to make easy, simple Egyptian food.