Food nourishes us. Cooking connects us. Every day for the past six years, Namiko Chen, who goes by just “Nami” online, has been sending recipes from her cookbook of Japanese dishes out into the world from her home in San Francisco via her website and through a mix of social media channels. And every week she receives an array of messages from friends and strangers around the world.
Many are messages of thanks. Sometimes the messages arrive with photos of her completed recipes on serving dishes, some are queries about specific ingredients such as yuzu citrus fruit or udon wheat noodles, for example. Chen, a mother of two, says that it takes time to respond to them all, but she tries to reply to all correspondence. It’s important, she says, because it motivates her to be a better cook and decoder of Japanese food.
Recently she received an email from an elderly man in the United States: His Japanese wife had become incapacitated and could no longer cook, so he had taken up cooking. He stumbled across Chen’s website, JustOneCookbook, and started following the step-by-step instructions. Making Japanese food was a way of comforting and supporting his wife. He contacted Chen to share his story and say thanks.
“I think a lot of people just want to say, ‘I didn’t know how easy it was (to make Japanese food) until I found your site and followed the recipe,'” Chen says of the messages. “I feel like I have to work harder to share more recipes.”
Chen, 40, never expected to be a full-time English-language Japanese food blogger. As a student she enjoyed studying English. “I was good at it,” Chen admits. After high school in Yokohama she enrolled in a two-year English language course at a college in Kanagawa Prefecture before transferring to study environmental science at California State University, East Bay.
While she admits that she loves eating, cooking as a career was not something she gave much, if any, thought to growing up in Yokohama. Looking back, however, the signs were there that cooking would be a central part of her life.
Her mother, a homemaker, had a kind of four o’clock rule. Come the hour her mother would beckon her to the kitchen.
“I wanted to read a book or something, but my mom would say, ‘Time for cooking,’ and so I had to go help her.”
For the longest time it involved menial preparation work such as peeling vegetables and washing dishes. Actual cooking “like using a frying pan” would come much later, but observation and Japanese mothers are great teachers.
“I basically learned tips from watching her as she would explain to me why she was doing something.”
Chen’s too busy to implement a four o’clock rule in her house in San Francisco’s Bay Area, but she does want to teach her son and daughter to cook. “It’s really important that everyone learns to cook,” she says.
Chen took an interest in writing up her recipes for Japanese cooking and sharing them when she became a full-time homemaker. After graduation and prior to starting a family, she worked at a digital mapping company, which is where she met her husband, Shen, who runs the back end of JustOneCookbook.
“A lot of people around me were working mothers and they wanted to cook Japanese food, something easy, so I was always sending my recipes through email and on Facebook.”
When Facebook withdrew a function that was key to sharing the information, this group of moms weren’t long telling Chen that she should start a blog or a website. It was from one of these friends that the name JustOneCookbook came, because she wanted “to create just one cook book for my family.” The name stuck and, six years later, it’s home to hundreds of Japanese recipes, with everything from bean sprout salad to miso soup and anpan.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Chen. In 2011, when she started blogging she was posting a recipe every weekday, as well as looking after her 3-year-old daughter. Chen says it wasn’t hard because she was treating the effort as a hobby: just cook, take pictures, write and post. “They were horrible pictures,” Chen recalls, laughing, “but that’s how I started.”
At this point, her husband stepped in to give the blog a face-lift. From the beginning he knew the site had potential, Chen says, as there were very few English-language blogs focused on Japanese cooking. Also, Shen had been an unofficial recipe taster for years.
The rigorous schedule of posting a recipe every day quickly dropped off but the site also became more professional looking. Six years on, Chen posts two recipes during the week and weekends are filled with shooting for her YouTube channel (Shin operates the camera). In between all that, there’s researching recipes, testing and tasting, experimenting with ingredients and the constant flow of inquiries from home cooks all over the world, as well as rearing (and feeding) a family.
While Chen appraises herself as a “typical housewife who knows how to cook,” she has turned the blog into a full-time business in six years. She is now supported by five employees who look after different aspects of the website and the community of readers. If you type “Japanese food recipes” into your search engine, there’s a strong chance you’ll land on a link to JustOneCookbook.
Marc Matsumoto, a chef and recipe developer who runs the home cooking website No Recipes, says that Chen’s blog is one of handful of sites satisfying the appetites of home cooks who want to make the type of Japanese food that’s not kaiseki cuisine or sushi.
As Matsumoto points out, while established players like Cookpad and NHK are trying to spread the gospel of Japanese home cooking in English, they’re not really accessible to the rest of the world because of language and ingredient barriers.
“What Nami’s doing, along with a handful of other food bloggers, is taking the best of Japanese home cooking and presenting it in a way that’s easy to understand and appealing for the Western world,” Matsumoto says. “Add to that some beautiful photography and easy-to-understand videos and you have an invaluable resource for people who want to learn how to cook real Japanese food.”
Chen plans to keep the focus on Japanese food, and to keep the recipes authentic and natural — recipes that could pass muster with her mother back in Yokohama.
As she says, there is so much to the pantry of Japanese home cooking and now that she has built up a global community of readers who trust her, she looks forward to introducing dishes that are completely new to them.
Name: Namiko Chen
Profession: Food blogger / YouTuber
Key moments in career:
1997 — Moves to California
2011 — Starts JustOneCookbook.com
2013 — Starts Just One Cookbook on YouTube, publishes “Just One Cookbook Essential Japanese Recipes” eCookbook
2017 — Blog reaches 2 million page views
Life philosophy: “I try to be true to myself.”
Things I miss about Japan: “Seasonal Japanese food, summer festivals, autumn leaves, sakura season and onsen.”
Likes to make: Croquettes
2011年 JustOneCookbook を始める
2013年 YouTube を開始、ebook のレシピ 本を出版
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5