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Want to make authentic Japanese food? Just One Cookbook’s Nami Chen is here for you

Nami and Shen Chen

If you’ve ever looked to the internet for a ramen recipe, or maybe some tips on how to brew the perfect cup of matcha, chances are your search has taken you to Just One Cookbook, the website of Namiko Hirasawa Chen. Nami, as she’s known to her legions of fans, has become synonymous with traditional, authentic Japanese cooking and her clear, step-by-step recipes are revered by many home chefs, including myself.

I chatted with Nami and her husband and business partner Shen—known as “Mr. JOC” on the site—one recent afternoon over lunch at Fang in San Francisco, where we talked about everything from their new collaboration, to their commitment to authenticity, to Asian-mom guilt. Nami is every bit as charming and humble as she comes across on her website and in her videos, and talks about her audience with true appreciation.

And her mission is perfectly clear: whether you’re an advanced home cook, or someone just about to attempt their first batch of dashi, she’s there to help you make delicious, authentic Japanese food. “I’m always cooking for my readers. I need to make sure they’re happy with what they make, and that they get help from me,” she says of her audience, that since the site’s start in 2011, has risen to number in the millions.

How did the name “Just One Cookbook” come about?

Nami: When I started out, I was just sharing my recipes on my personal Facebook page, and I called it Nami’s Kitchen. The purpose of this recipe collection was that I really wanted just one cookbook of my family recipes to pass on to my children. So we took that ‘just one cookbook’ as part of our name.

Shen: We want something to pass on to our kids because so many Japanese moms and grandmas don’t write anything down.

Both Nami and Shen came from families who appreciated food, and they met and bonded over their love of a good meal when they were both working at a digital map company.

How did food and cooking bring you to where you are today? 

Nami: My maternal grandfather was not a chef, he was more like a business person. He had a restaurant business, an import business, a real estate business, then he started a Chinese restaurant. Then he moved on to a high-quality meat type of business. So his interest was always food, and the whole family is into food.

Turns out, Nami was just like the rest of us as tweens, who weren’t too excited about doing chores.

Nami: For me, cooking in my mom’s kitchen and helping her was more like a chore. Every day mom would call me, and I had to help her. It wasn’t always fun. I wanted to read, I wanted to do other things because I was in middle school, but I had to help her.

Shen: My mom always loved discovering new restaurants and we always ate well. And my brothers and I, we all love food. When [Nami and I] were dating, we realized we both loved food. That’s a huge common denominator between us. We just loved discovering new food together, which we still do today.

Our happiest moments are when we go to a new restaurant, and say to each other, “This is so good!” And then we want to bring our kids back to try it.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is, have you ever thought of starting your own restaurant?

Nami: No, no no (laughing). I prefer eating. I always tell people that I’m not a chef. Some people are very creative, and they want to cook and want to open a restaurant. I’m just like, really a mom who likes to cook.

I also realized I know how to cook because of my mom teaching me, and I enjoy the process of teaching others, too, more than actually cooking. When I cook, I need to make sure all the information is laid out—so my focus is more about how I can teach other people. So that's more fun for me.

Shen: Especially during the pandemic, so many restaurants closed. So we're happy just to support restaurants.

Nami is without doubt, a great teacher. She’s known for her meticulous instructions, with photos identifying all of the ingredients and each step painstakingly photographed.

I know I’m not the only one who prints out your recipes to follow along with the photos when cooking, and brings them along to the Japanese market to find certain products. We all appreciate your attention to detail.

Nami: It’s really important for me to share the steps because in Japanese cookbooks and cooking shows, it's all about the process. And I like to plan ahead. If I know that you’re not going to find a certain ingredient, I can mention substitutes.

How you cook is very important, so in Japanese cookbooks it’s all step-by-step pictures. Cookbooks [in America] are very pretty, but it’s usually a nice picture and just a paragraph. To me, it's not how pretty it is, it’s how you show them the process.

The recipes are a labor of love in more ways than one; each recipe requires 3-4 hours to produce and shoot (not including the prep and testing time beforehand) and each dish needs to be made twice
once for video and once for still photos. And there are the working-with-your-spouse dynamics to consider.

How do you make your partnership work? 

Nami: I think we don’t fight for the same things. I do what I need to do, which is different for him.

Shen: I do the technical and financial stuff for the company and she does all the creative, editorial, testing, and scheduling. But we don't really argue because we know eventually we have to make a recipe, anyway. (laughing)

They do have their disagreements, like when Shen suggested some Americanized dishes that might score higher in a Google search.

Shen: I said, let’s make—and I’m making this up—teriyaki chicken fried rice. But Nami said, “No, I will not do that because you cannot find that in Japan. I will not make dishes just for the sake of ‘being found.’ I’m Japanese. I want to share what I grew up eating.”

Nami: He took a long time, but I was finally able to say, “See, I’m glad I didn’t do it.” But it was a struggle, and we argued a lot about it.

Shen: We started seeing a lot of bloggers at the time switching to more generic kinds of dishes, and I said, “Let’s do the same thing.” But she said “No, I refuse.” I’m glad she persevered.

Nami and Shen are currently collaborating with the documentary Come Back Anytime, about Bizentei, a ramen shop in Tokyo. On the JOC site, Nami recreated the recipe for the restaurant’s signature shoyu ramen shared by the owners, ramen master Masamoto Ueda and his wife Kazuko.

Tell us about Bizentei and what drew you to the project.

Nami: [Director John Daschbach] really likes Japanese culture. The things that he features are very Japanese. It’s very different from some American documentaries that can get lost in translation. He sees things that we see—the beauty in the relationship between the shop and their customers. It’s very heartwarming. 

Shen: The ramen shop is really tiny, six seats downstairs, six seats upstairs. They’ve been there for almost 50 years. The director met the chef through a friend, went there to eat and slowly got to know the chef over time. He treats his customers and regulars like his own family. As we were watching it reminded us of [the Netflix series] Midnight Diner.

Cultural appropriation and authenticity in cooking are big talking points right now. What are your thoughts?

Nami: If somebody wants to share a Japanese recipe, I have no problem with that. But, I see a lot of people making miso soup with, say, chicken stock. And I do cringe sometimes, because miso soup—you really need dashi, right?

But I also think this is a really good stepping stone towards making more authentic dishes. It’s like an education, and I think the willingness to make foods that are different from your own culture is always good. I don't want to discourage that.

Shen: One that bothered us recently is strawberry mochi. Traditionally strawberry mochi in Japan is strawberry daifuku, with a strawberry and red bean paste. But what's trending is strawberry flavored mochi filled with cream or jelly.

And because those products are trending, Google starts lowering our authentic recipes. From Google’s perspective, what the audience is looking for is what’s trending on social media. It kind of takes the authentic voice away.

For someone just starting their Japanese cuisine journey, what's an easy dish that anybody can make? 

Nami: I would say oyakodon because you just need egg, chicken, rice, dashi. That’s what we learned in middle school—even kids in Japan can make this. And I would also say Japanese curry, with the pre-made curry cubes, is easy and also something we learned to make as children.

And what was one of the more difficult recipes you’ve made?

Nami: Pon de ring. It looks like a mochi donut. I was trying to make the Mr. Donut pon de ring, and there was so much trial and error to get something similar. Our kids really loved it when I was testing—it was two whole weeks.

Even though to me it wasn’t a success, the kids didn't mind. But I cannot eat them anymore! And since then, I really haven't made any because I was so tired of it. The kids keep asking, “Can you make this?” But I refuse. That’s how much I don’t want to go back there.

You guys must have the best dinner parties.

Nami: I’m not somebody who enjoys cooking that much all the time. Some people are like, “Oh, I will cook for you!” but I need a break. I need somebody to feed me. So it’s not fun like it is for other cooks who enjoy hosting.

And hosting’s too much pressure—the pressure that I put on myself, really. I feel like I just have to, you know, succeed.

Shen: Even when our kids’ friends come over she's like, “I need to cook something,” and I say, “No, you don’t. You’re completely creating this stress for yourself.”

I don’t think I’ve ever related to anyone more in my life. #AsianMoms

Nami: Because you know, being Japanese, you feel that you have to entertain properly, right? If you invite, you do it the proper way, not halfway.

I think we may have fist-bumped after that. By then we’d been talking for hours, and Nami and Shen had to get back to pick up their kids at school. But Nami wanted to make sure to get this message out:

I want to say this: All the people—the Niseis, the Sanseis, all the people who support us—it means so much to us. You’ve all been so supportive of Just One Cookbook, and it’s brought us so far. Because without all of you, we don’t exist. If nobody’s reading, we don’t exist. So thank you.


© 2023 Marsha Takeda-Morrison

Bizentei Come Back Anytime (documentary) Food Just One Cookbook Nami Chen recipes Shen Chen