Food for thought: the shifting landscape of culinary blogging

Tracing the rise and fall of Dubai’s first food blogger network Fooderati Arabia, Sudeshna Ghosh explores how current marketing and media trends are impacting the world of food blogging

Once upon a time – well, only just at the turn of the decade – there was a young girl who’d returned home to Dubai from the US, and wanted to start writing about food.

Having seen the growing popularity of blogging stateside – a concept that was just about beginning to take off here – Arva Ahmed, decided to launch I live in a frying pan, a blog that was as much about sharing her passion for food as it was about championing the city’s lesser known culinary gems.

Around the same time, UK expat Sally Prosser set up Mycustardpie, a food blog chronicling her adventures in the kitchen, on a whim.

As two of the pioneers of food blogging in this region, their paths naturally crossed. And when they discovered a shared enthusiasm not only for food, but also for bringing other fellow food bloggers together on a common platform, to connect with and support each other, Fooderati Arabia was born.

“This was the early days of food blogging in the UAE, and the goal was to allow us as bloggers to connect, share best practices, lend a troubleshooting hand and meet and eat together,” explains Arva, a former management consultant who has since turned into a successful entrepreneur running food tours off the back of her blog.

“We started off small but it grew very quickly. And although managing Fooderati would take up quite a large amount of time, like our own blogs it was something we cared a lot about,” adds Sally.

There's also a sense of entitlement that I've seen emerge with many bloggers over time, and that’s sad, because blogging was about having fun, and doing what you were passionate about

Arva Ahmed, Blogger at I live in a frying pan

A truly collaborative platform, Fooderati saw the active involvement of several other pioneers of food blogging – such as Samantha Wood of Foodiva, Tala Soubra of Fork it over Dubai, and Ishita Saha of Ishitaunblogged. Some of them have gone on to build brand extensions and businesses that were borne out of their blogs – from dine-around tours to food magazines - while many others have moved on from the world of food blogging entirely.

They have been replaced, however, by an ever-growing tribe of bloggers and influencers, whose approach is quite different. “When we all started out, the main reason was to share our enthusiasm for food, there were no invites, sponsors or freebies,” says Prosser. “This is not a judgement on the situation but just an observation. Now, many blogs and other channels are set up to benefit from these perks, and there’s been an explosion of platforms.”

Arva, who is quick to reiterate that she doesn’t consider herself a food blogger anymore, elucidates: “Part of the reason I moved away from food blogging was because I felt that the general level of quality control and ethics was dropping. People seemed to be starting a blog for free food rather than their passion for good food, and posts didn't feel objective anymore.

“There's also a sense of ego and entitlement that I've seen emerge with many bloggers over time, and that’s sad, because blogging was about having fun, and doing what you were passionate about. But at the same time, there are some who have consistently done this right – passionately and ethically.”

The conversation around the ethics of influencer marketing, in an age of fake Instagram followers and social media bots, is global. Being completely new forms of media, these are shifting sands of authenticity, quality, big budgets, and regulations. While more mature markets such as the US now have strict guidelines and disclosure laws in place, the UAE is still in the early stages of formulating such regulatory framework.

In Dubai, this changing landscape of blogging has led to a proliferation of new self-proclaimed ‘food critics’ – every other person seems to be firing up a food blog these days: across different social media platforms, with multiple influencer groups and meet-ups being created.

food blog photo
An of the images from I Live in a Frying Pan. High quality photography has become a vital part of a food blogger's repertoire

With brands eager to tick the ‘influencer outreach’ box, this has led to a vicious cycle of wildly variable standards, and questionable practices (think: demanding money to review restaurants, paid-for positive reviews, and excessively blagging freebies) becoming disturbingly commonplace. Many so-called bloggers do not even run proper blogs, but focus instead on reviewing on other user-review websites or Instagram posts.

This conflict of motivations and unmanageable growth is probably why Fooderati Arabia has faded from being the active, vibrant virtual hub of passionate foodies it once was, into simply an un-moderated list called UAE Food Bloggers.

But it isn’t all negative.

For all the ‘fake influencers’ out there, there’s a handful of solid bloggers who operate by an unwritten code of professional ethics – many of whom were part of the original Fooderati crew – and have carved out successful careers thanks to their blogs.

As Sally and Arva emphatically agree, they wouldn’t have it any other way. "We all gained so much from the community that came together,” says Prosser. “I wouldn't change a minute of my own journey, due to the wonderful people I've met and experiences that have been open to me. We had so much fun and all benefited from each other's support and company.”