The Silent Star Behind One Cookbook, The Internet’s Favorite Japanese Recipe Blog

“It wasn’t a choice,” she said. “I wanted to read or something, but my mom said come and help. So cooking wasn’t my favorite thing, because it was a chore. There was no proper training or anything like that. It was more like I just figured it out just looking at her.

But when Nami turned 20 and was preparing to travel alone to California to continue her studies, those nights spent dreading the kitchen alongside her mother became her reprieve. Three thousand miles apart, her mother’s presence lingered in the air as Nami cooked the simple meals of her childhood. She made Japanese-style pasta and remembered her mother’s korroke – crispy croquettes breaded in panko and filled with soft mashed potatoes and tender beef. No grocery store or restaurant could quite replicate her mother’s work, so she stopped looking for that nostalgic taste outside.

Even as the author of the internet’s authoritative Japanese-to-English cookbook, Nami still relies on handwritten ingredient lists. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Upon arriving in the United States, Nami studied environmental studies with a focus on geography and geology at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. She eagerly ate dorm food and spent free time exploring American culture she had previously only experienced through movies and television, rarely feeling homesick. After graduating, she found work as a digital map specialist and met Shen Chen, a colleague with a similar love for food. They started dating and got married soon after.

By 2011, the two had quit their mapping jobs and Shen worked for an online marketing company while Nami cared for their two children at home. She started thinking about how she would compile her recipes in one place for her children to use when they were old enough. It was also during this time that Shen’s friends would ask him for simple Japanese dishes to cook.

“So I was helping them by sending emails. And it became too much work. So I was sharing on Facebook, and Facebook started having a different user interface,” Nami explains. “And then someone suggested, ‘Oh, you should start a food blog.’ And I had never had a blog before, but I think that’s how we started.

When Nami posted his first entry on New Year’s Day in 2011, she was excited but unsure. “I haven’t told anyone about this website yet,” she wrote in the post. “There is so much to learn…but my resolution for 2011 will be to keep adding new recipes to my collection and updating my website.

A woman carefully pours a separated egg yolk into a bowl.
Nami lays an egg yolk on a dish as her husband, Shen, watches. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Meanwhile, the food blogging landscape was dominated by elaborate remixes of American mainstays like Caesar salad and roast chicken, and a desire to infuse bacon into everything. Trends faded as quickly as they came, and the same could be said for the most popular sites of the time. The magazine Flavor awarded prizes to a number of blogs that have since become inactive or completely disappeared.

So when Nami started, there was hardly anyone to model. In the early 2010s, most Japanese food-related blogs were centered around reviews and travel: DIY Blogspot or WordPress pages with diary-like entries and photos of daily life interspersed with musings on ramen and the sushi the writers had tried abroad. There was a to place who documented Japanese hospital food, another one who loved school lunches of natto and miso soup – and yet very few who provided actual recipes for Japanese home cooking.

From the start, Shen pushed for a more discerning approach. Due to his experience with SEM and SEO, he was particularly attentive to keywords, site name and the headers used. He was wary of the typical “journal” style of blogging common at the time. However, this period of creation was certainly not the one that readers of Just One Cookbook know today. Scrappy and born from a spark of serious excitement, those first posts featured grainy photos that were taken in dim lighting at dinner. But after the first year, the blog grew in popularity and the couple started investing in better equipment. Since Shen was still working full-time, the two had to cram their photo shoots into weekends, when they often worked until 2 a.m.

The hard part was that their growing success coincided with the growth of their children, with whom they often had to sacrifice time to work on the blog. Their friends also stopped calling, knowing the couple would be busy creating content all weekend.

“But when I put my mind [to something], I’m not giving up,” says Nami. “I said, ‘We have to do this. “”

A woman uses her mobile phone to take a picture of a bowl of noodles projected onto a large flat screen.
Part of what sets Just One Cookbook apart is the accuracy of the recipes, with a photo or two accompanying each step of the cooking process. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A line cook at work

Ultimately, the popularity of Just One Cookbook can be attributed almost entirely to the quality of the recipes themselves. Each is crafted with a level of detail and care that sets it apart from the crowd of food blogs scrambling to appease an evasive algorithm, ramp up production, and play with trends. This isn’t one of those minimalist recipe pages with little more than a fancy picture of the final dish and maybe a few brief personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout. Few bloggers go through the painstaking effort that Nami puts into documenting every step in the process of making a dish.

“She’s so thorough,” says writer Eater McCarron, who notes that while food media has expanded into platforms like TikTok and YouTube, the written food blog format is unique in that it allows writers to be as long as they wish. “I think she’s a great example of what a blog can do and why those long, contextual recipe headnotes are so helpful.”

Take, for example, his message on shio ramen. Aside from a very brief introduction, it’s all business. There’s a section that distinguishes the salt-based broth of this style of ramen from other types and a detailed breakdown of the dish’s five most important components. Keeping in mind its varied audience, some of whom do not have easy access to Japanese ingredients, Nami offers alternatives, substitutions and resources early on. It includes a clear ingredient list, with timelines for each step of the cooking process. And she offers practical advice that eliminates any sense of intimidation or mystique – “simmer the broth, don’t boil it.”

In another recipe, for baked chicken katsu, Nami guides readers through kannon-biraki, a traditional Japanese cutting technique used to achieve a tender, evenly cooked cutlet. She goes into great detail on the proper way to slash a chicken breast: “Stop before cutting all the way to the edge; then open it like a book.

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