Meet Namiko Chen of Just One Cookbook

Editor’s Note: Portions of this interview were used in a previous post on Nikkeiview.com and in the Pacific Citizen.

Namiko Chen’s Just One Cookbook has become a go-to source for anyone who’s interested in cooking authentic Japanese food at home. Her media empire of a popular Website, social media and YouTube Channel all offer recipes galore, and since the summer, so has the Nichi Bei Weekly. Home cooking has become an obsession for people stuck inside and unable to go out to eat, and Japan in recent years has become a popular destination for tourism, culture and culinary curiosity.

JustOneCookbook.com has become a popular destination for the curious as well as the already knowledgeable — Chen’s audience is growing.

Her YouTube channel has 721,000 subscribers so far, and some of her videos, like one explaining how to make omurice as shown in Netflix’s “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” series, has reached 1 million views. Her video on making mochi ice cream boasts 2 million views.

Her printable recipes on the Website are key to Chen’s popularity, but there’s a secret ingredient that she adds to her posts that makes her an important ambassador for Japan in the U.S.: cultural context. She goes to great lengths to add context for her cooking, whether it’s a look at the history of a dish, or an explanation as to why certain dishes are made for holiday celebrations.

She knows about the history and culture because she was born and raised — and learned to cook from her mom — in Japan.

“I was born in Osaka and raised in Yokohama. I spent most of my life there until I moved to the U.S. to go to college,” Chen says. “My mom’s family is from Osaka, so we go often to visit my grandparents. Having the opportunity to be in both the Kanto (Tokyo area) and Kansai (Osaka area) regions since childhood exposed me to authentic flavors from different regional foods of Japan.”

She absorbed her mom’s skills as a young girl. “My mom is an amazing cook who is very creative in the kitchen. I was required to help her in the kitchen since middle school so I got to see how she prepped and cooked all the delicious meals,” she recalls.

And there was cooking on a professional level in her family roots. “My maternal grandfather operated teppanyaki and shabu shabu restaurants so food was always an important aspect of our family. Maybe because of this, my family loves food and cares about the ingredients.”

Her mom’s kitchen was serious training, even if it was in a restaurant. She says, “My role was always the prep helper, while my mom was in charge of the actual cooking. I learned about how to pick ingredients and how to cut them differently based on recipes. Even today, I remember why we have to sprinkle salt on vegetables to withdraw moisture, how to listen and see the food being deep-fried, or how to season the food in a specific order.”

Once she grew up, her childhood training led her to Just One Cookbook. “I realized many years later that prepping the food daily for her was the best training I received,” she admits. “All the years of helping my mom allowed me to comfortably and confidently cook Japanese food at home when I moved to the U.S. for college. When I had my own children, I wanted them to know how to cook the precious family foods. My mom had never written down her recipes, so I started recording recipes on a blog. That’s how I started Just One Cookbook!”

The JOC media empire is a family affair, with her Taiwanese American husband behind the scenes for the photo and video shoots and the Website’s techie needs, which have grown with the audience, thanks this year to the pandemic.

“We are seeing three times as many visitors to our Website compared to a year ago, along with increased interactions and followers on social media,” she notes. “When I talk to other food blogger friends, they are seeing the same increase as well, so we are not the exception. With limited restaurant availability, people around the world are going to food blogs to see what recipes they can make at home. “

But her success is also due to the interest in authentic Japanese cuisine. “We did not expect Japanese food’s popularity to grow so quickly in the U.S. Even just 10 years ago the typical Japanese restaurants only focused on sushi, tenpura, and chicken teriyaki. As Japan became a more affordable travel destination, visitors got a taste of true authentic Japanese food and this started to create a demand for wider options outside of the standard offerings. People are also showing interest in cooking Japanese home cooked dishes and unique regional foods.

“Having said that, we still have a huge population in America who have never tasted Japanese food besides teriyaki. There is definitely still plenty of work to do.”

That’s why she focuses so much on not just recipes but on the cultural context for the food. “I believe that food and culture are often intertwined, especially for a society like Japan.

When I started sharing the history and background of Japanese cuisine, I realized that many of my readers appreciate the learning of it. It is like a revelation as to understand why the Japanese do certain things in particular ways. Why we eat beans on Setsubun, soba on New Year’s Eve, chirashi sushi on Girl’s Day, etc. There’s a larger meaning behind the food that we eat.”

She continues, “We also received a lot of requests from readers on travel recommendations to Japan. Since my family visits Japan every year, it is only natural for us to share Japan travels and tips on the site.

“With food and travel, we then started exploring other cultural tidbits that we think could be of interest to readers at large. There is a potential with the work that we do at Just One Cookbook. More than just a recipe site, we think it’d be so much more meaningful if we could also make it an educational and learning experience for anyone who is interested in Japanese culture.”

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