When looking back at Japanese food and cooking in the past decade, the stand out trend is the tremendous influence of social media — Instagram and Twitter in particular — on the way many Japanese people cook and eat.
The visual appeal of food has always been important in Japan, and online outlets have been a great way to spread the appeal of food you cooked. The 2000s were a great time for recipe bloggers, especially makers of highly decorative, complicated and almost entirely visual bento box lunches called charaben or kyaraben.
As the 2010s progressed, however, even food that was not nominally decorative became to be seen as photogenic. Instagram, which made its debut in Japan in 2014 and now has around 26 million users, was a major factor in this change. Photogenic — or insuta-bae (“looks good on Instagram”) encompasses any food and drink that evoked a “Mmm, looks delicious!” or “I want to be seen eating/drinking that!” reaction in the predominantly female subscribers to the platform.
The photographic skills of the uploader became very important and, at the same time, there were many examples of food that wasn’t just made for show that became wildly popular because it was ba-e (good looking). Few foodstuffs demonstrate this as well as bubble tea, called tapioca milk tea in Japan. Tapioca had an early peak in popularity in the 1990s, but the big tapioca pearls in the milk tea introduced from Taiwan around 2015 were deemed to be particularly ba-e, and millions of Instagrammers pose with cups of the cute drinks.
While Instagram helped to popularize the notion of regular food as visually attractive, most people (women especially) no longer seem that interested in making highly complicated food. Short and sweet recipes are now the norm, and choi-tashi (adding just a bit of something to packaged food to make it different) recipes are very popular. One internet star, who goes by the name Ryuji, has had a lot of success taking advantage of this trend — including multiple bestselling cookbooks. He mainly uses Twitter and YouTube to introduce short and simple recipes that make people want to try them impulsively. One typical Ryuji recipe, Jagariko Aligot, a take on the classic southern French potato and cheese aligot dish, went viral this summer — his version uses the popular Calbee Jagariko potato snack vigorously mixed with boiling water and string cheese.
In stark contrast to Ryuji is the venerable Yoshiharu Doi, who has been teaching cooking on TV and in print for decades. On his highly popular Twitter account, he uploads pictures of the type of comforting, traditional Japanese home cooked food that he’s been advocating for years — a simple bowl of miso soup or a bowl of simmered vegetables. Like Ryuji, his posts are short and simple and have great visual appeal, even if the food is just “regular.”
This recipe is for onigirazu (meaning “not an onigiri” or “not formed into a ball”) rice sandwiches, which became hugely popular thanks to social media around 2015 and are still popular today. They look great, fulfilling ba-e requirements, and are quite easy to make.
Recipe: Two types of Insta-friendly onigiraza
The key to onigirazu (rice sandwiches) is to season the rice. Try mixing in chopped umeboshi plums or furikake rice sprinkles instead of salt.
Ingredients (makes 4; 2 of each flavor)
• 800 to 900 grams hot cooked rice
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 4 sheets nori
• 1 large egg
• 4-6 small wiener sausages
• Salt and pepper
• Oil for cooking
• Ketchup (optional)
• 100 grams corned beef
• ½ medium onion, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
• 2 lettuce leaves
• Lettuce leaves and boiled carrot stars
Beat the egg with a pinch of salt and pepper. Heat up a small frying pan over medium-high heat with a little oil. Add half the egg and make a thin omelette. Repeat to make two thin omelettes.
In the same frying pan, cook the sausages, rotating them until they are lightly browned on all sides. Season with a little salt and pepper.
Roughly chop up the corned beef. Mix with the onion, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Mix the salt into the hot rice.
To make the sausage and egg onigirazu, place a sheet of nori diagonally on cling film, so one corner is pointing toward you. Place ½ of a bowl of rice (about 100 to 120 grams) in the middle, forming a small square. Fold the omelette and put on top of the rice, followed by 2 to 3 sausages and a little ketchup. Top with another ½ bowl of rice, and fold the corners of the nori over toward the center. Wrap with the cling film. Repeat to make another onigirazu.
Make the corned beef onigirazu in the same manner, using the lettuce (folded up to fit the rice) and ½ of the corned beef mixture in the middle.
Rest the onigirazu for 5 to 10 minutes to let the nori soften a bit. Cut in half carefully through the cling film, scoring it first with the tip of your knife. If using for bento, pack on a bed of lettuce. Garnish with optional boiled carrot stars.Decade in Review