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Welcome to Make/Buy/Zhuzh, a series where we plan a get together with three components: one thing you make from scratch, one thing you buy straight off the shelf, and one thing you accessorize to completion.
Mariella Mahal is on a mission to make sure everyone looks forward to lunch — even if that means downing a sushi bake onigiri while running between classes. The 23-year-old cooking influencer and master’s student in chemical engineering produces TikToks about budget-friendly, easy, flavorful recipes like kimchi jjigae with spam, bulgogi kimbap with rotisserie chicken, and those onigiri with spicy shrimp and imitation crab filling.
Mahal remembers days in college when her bank account was down to $6 and, “I was just eating sleep for dinner. That's what we called it,” she says. When she lived off food stamps, she made spreadsheets to determine the cost of each meal. Feeding herself was even harder because she knew next to nothing about cooking. A native Angeleno, she grew up with her Filipino grandmother making the family meals — and Mahal was never allowed to hold a knife in her Lola’s kitchen.
She started cooking when she was 17 and wanted to lose weight. She followed fitness YouTubers, watched how they portioned their meals, and learned how to make chicken, broccoli, and rice. Through trial and error, she grew her cooking repertoire by drawing on memories of the special occasions when her family ate at Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Korean restaurants.
“I never thought that I would put my cooking on the internet. It was a big part of my life that I didn't think people cared about because I was an average home cook,” Mahal says. Instead, she used TikTok to post dance videos where she also answered questions from followers about getting into college and being a student.
When she moved back home during COVID, she filmed a video about eggs over rice with furikake — one of her go-to recipes. Within the first 24 hours, it had a few million views. “I think people related to the story of having a go-to ‘broke meal,’” she says. The response made her reflect on what she wanted to share. She never looked back.
“I am so passionate about making sure that everybody eats,” she says. “That’s why I make sure my recipes are budget-friendly, that my recipes are very approachable but still taste good.”
She wants her platform to be a place for followers who need support or the guidance she wishes she had received when leaving for college, writing a resume for the first time, and starting her first job. “I didn’t have that big sister or role model to ask,” she says. “I want to be able to share all those experiences with other people, so that they can get their questions answered — or at least know that they're not alone.”
When she’s not busy making TikToks or studying, Mahal likes hosting friends for lunch. For this party idea, she’s keeping things manageable by making air fryer shrimp toast, buying boba for dessert, and zhuzhing DIY handrolls. Here’s how she does it.
Make: Air Fryer Shrimp Toast
“This version of the classic Vietnamese dish makes a crispy and delicious appetizer ready in under 15 minutes,” explains Mahal. Slices of toasted baguette are topped with a creamy mix of shrimp, imitation crab, and shredded mozzarella and then blasted in an air fryer (a convection and even a conventional oven will work, too). The toast is “great to serve to a party because you can make so many batches in one go; it’s so simple,” she adds.
It’s also one of the first dishes Mahal shared with friends when she started posting about recipes on TikTok. “That was the dish that proved to someone other than myself that this is more than just [about] the video,” she says. It proved that she could cook.
4 oz shrimp
4 oz imitation crab
1 stalk green onion, sliced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup Kewpie mayo
¼ cup shredded mozzarella
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped parsley, to garnish
Cut baguette into slices diagonally. Air fry at 325°F for 5 minutes.
Add shrimp and garlic to a food processor and blend until it becomes a paste.
Shred imitation crab using a fork, then chop.
Add shrimp and garlic mixture, crab, celery, green onion, mayo, cheese, and salt and pepper to a large bowl. Gently mix until well combined.
Top each baguette slice with mixture and air fry for 8-10 minutes until shrimp is cooked through. Garnish with parsley.
“I really like having boba for dessert because everyone gets to choose their own and personalize their order,” Mahal explains. She also likes that she doesn’t have to make both a mocktail or cocktail and dessert. If friends want to, they can sip on their boba throughout the meal instead of saving it for dessert. And since there’s no alcohol involved, everyone is fully functioning after the meal, she says.
Her go-to boba order? A floral tea like oolong or jasmine that’s 75 percent sweet with a cheese foam or sea salt cream on top.
Zhuzh: DIY Handrolls
Like the boba, every guest gets what they want with these DIY handrolls. Mahal buys some sashimi cuts and puts them out with sushi rice that she makes ahead of time. Also on hand is seaweed and veggies like sliced cucumber, avocado, and radish sprouts. Everyone gets to choose their favorite combos. If you’re not sure where to start, Mahal recommends avocado with unagi (eel) or salmon that’s fresh or marinated. She compares this part of the meal to going out for all-you-can-eat-sushi — but in the comfort of your own home.