New York – In a shop, on a small side street in Kyoto, a father, his gaze focused and hands steady, teaches his son how to make onigiri.
“Make a triangle. Squeeze. Squeeze. Squeeze and roll,” he says. As the son, his head shaved like his father’s, squeezes the rice together, a small and subtle smile drapes across the father’s face. It could be any dish, in any country, at any moment in time. The act is universal, and the emotion is immediately recognizable: The father is proud and delighted; he is doing what he loves, with his son.
The scene is from an episode of “Waffles + Mochi,” a new food show for kids from Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. The message of the show, visualized through cartoon and travel, is that children should learn not only what to eat, but how to eat. Each episode is an exploration of the taste and texture of a single ingredient, such as a tomato or a mushroom.
“I think we should just get kids excited about food and the health aspect of it will follow,” Jeremy Konner, the show’s co-creator with Erika Thormahlen, said in an interview with Newsweek.
The show is hosted by the titular puppets (and aspiring chefs) Waffles and Mochi, who meet and learn from a who’s who of international chefs, celebrities and culinary experts. They are the perfect hosts: Naive of ingredient and flavor, the budding culinary stars learn about food and food culture without an othering gaze. To them, mushrooms — discovered in aisle 51 of the world’s friendliest grocery store (talking mops and all) — are unfamiliar and strange, and any usage of the fungi, whether pureed in Modena or grilled in Japan, is equally unapproachable — at first.
The effect, as the food writer Helen Rosner reviewed in The New Yorker, is that “the foods and people filmed in Italy, Peru and Japan are treated as no more exotic than those in California, from a dad in Kyoto making onigiri with his son to a Peruvian vendor selling mazamorra morada, a purple-corn pudding.”
In this way, the show is a departure from the unconventional-yet-formulaic norms of most food travel shows, which emerged in tandem with the early 2000s rise of the celebrity chef. At the apex was chef-cum-writer-and-TV-host Anthony Bourdain.
“You watch the Bourdain shows because you like him, his character,” says Momoko Nakamura, a cultural conservationist who often goes by the moniker “Rice Girl”; she plays host to the puppets in Japan. “You buy into his character, and you also forgive him because of his character.”
In recent years, though a range of shows — such as David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” and Samin Nosrat’s “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” — have transformed and elevated the genre, they all remained tethered to a single host, who filters an audience’s experience of a region’s food and culture through their eyes.
As an epicurean destination, the food of Japan has always been a mainstay of the food-travel show. But when compared to shows for an older audience, the diversity of perspective offered on every banal ingredient, each of which forms the basis of a “Waffles + Mochi” episode, pushes the boundary of the genre.
There is no episode devoted to Japan, no Tokyo deep dive (no Tokyo at all for that matter) or sushi expose. Instead, each time Waffles and Mochi visit, they arrive with a set purpose and clear question: How do we cook with eggs? This, Motokichi Yukimura, Kyoto-based chef and burgeoning YouTube celebrity, answers with omurice. Who are the ancestors of Mochi, a character filled with strawberry ice cream and speaks in adorable “meeps”? Together with Nakamura and a mochi maker in Osaka, Waffles and Mochi watch men, wooden mallets in hand, beat and transform cooked rice into mochi.
“You have this cross-cultural cross border conversation while also tapping into the experiences and expertise of various people on that same topic,” Nakamura says. According to her, it is a “town hall effect,” where a chorus of voices offer their take on the same ingredient. Within this town hall, Japan is but a repeat stop, one of many culinary contexts explored by the show.
The way “Waffles + Mochi” treats learning about Japanese food mirrors what Samuel H. Yamashita, a professor of history at Pomona College in California, calls the “Japanese turn” in American fine dining, a multistage process beginning in the 1980s of Japanese ingredients and chefs entering into the upper echelon of the country’s kitchens. It paralleled booms of ramen and Japanese street food, which all helped spread understanding to the masses.
The conclusion? Japanese culinary heritage extends beyond the bounds of typical tourist haunts, and, thanks to guests like Nakamura, “Waffles + Mochi” helps introduce this lesser-known side to a younger (mostly American) audience.
“My (day to day) is spent practicing the knowledge deeply embedded in the kitchens of our grandmothers and the farmland of our grandfathers, and the hints that lie within the traditional Japanese microseasonal calendar,” Nakamura says of her work outside the show, which includes a subscription service, Rice Girl, that purveys microseasonal blends of Japanese, brown and organic rice.
More focused on culinary tradition and ingredient usage than famed restaurants and guidebook haunts, the show — despite (or perhaps because of) its peewee audience — tenders a nuanced lens into Japanese food. “Waffles + Mochi” comes at a time when the purview of Japanese food is expanding even further, notably in the inclusion of culinary exploits from the countryside, represented in the show through a farming family that teaches the duo how to make miso.
“Now so much of what happens to Japanese food (in the U.S.) in the future depends upon extraneous factors. For example, if the United States opens up immigration again, if universities suddenly become more affordable, if COVID wanes, rather than waxes, these are all things that will have a tremendous effect on what we are eating in five years,” says Robert Sietsema, a New York-based senior critic at Eater. The culinary horizon is wide open.
“Waffles + Mochi” is part of this culinary zeitgeist, familiarizing and connecting disparate food cultures, and persuading kids to embrace diverse ingredients and cuisines. “Japanese vegetables have become very popular in (New York) farmers markets,” Sietsema says. “And that’s another way that Japanese food can re-enter the American marketplace.”
Who knows what would happen if kids at these markets followed the motto of “Waffles + Mochi”: “Listen to your vegetables and eat your parents.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.