The Quiet Star Behind Just One Cookbook, the Internet's Favorite Japanese Recipe Blog

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An Asian woman in a dark blue apron smiles while standing at the stove with a ladle and a pot lid in her hands.
Namiko Chen shoots all of the photos and videos for her blog Just One Cookbook at her home in the Peninsula. In the 11 years since she started the site, it has grown to become the internet's most popular English-language resource on Japanese home cooking. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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t first glance, Namiko “Nami” Hirasawa Chen is like any other friendly neighborhood mother.  Her cheeks are flushed and crinkled with a smile, and her home is warm and open, smelling of fresh soap and whatever is cooking in the kitchen. Dressed in a loose gray shirt and dark blue apron wrapped neatly around her waist, she scurries back and forth between you and the kitchen, the pitter-patter of her bare feet across the wood floor ever present. Each time, she returns with a new snack and refreshment in hand.

As Nami steps up onto a small stool in front of the stove to poke at slivers of ginger cooking in sesame oil, she’s preparing a meal that will not only feed her family of four — but also her online audience of five million readers.

From her home, tucked away in rolling hills of lush shrub on the Peninsula, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, Nami runs the esteemed food blog, Just One Cookbook. Here, she shares staples of Japanese home cooking, including savory classics like gyudon and fluffy loaves of shokupan. If you Google the name of any home-cooked Japanese dish, one of Nami’s recipes is often in the top search results — if not the very top listing. With over a thousand recipes, the blog is quite possibly the most popular English-language resource on Japanese cooking on the entire internet.

Though it has yet to achieve the same level of mainstream name recognition as the most famous recipe blogs (say, a Maangchi or a Smitten Kitchen), Just One Cookbook has a cult following of dedicated followers who turn to the blog on the weariest of evenings in search of simple, comforting Japanese meals — and are quick to sing its praises.

“[The recipes] always work and they work really well,” says Meghan McCarron, senior correspondent at Eater, who recommended the blog in an early-pandemic guide that she wrote for novices learning to cook at home for the first time. “I do think Just One Cookbook is one of the most authoritative and complete and ever-updating sources for how to do this kind of cooking that's so homey, so satisfying.”

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Bay Area-based freelance writer Jacquelyn Tran is one of the many millennial digital natives who look to the internet for cooking inspiration and who refer to Nami as their default resource for Japanese recipes. “Every time I was curious about any recipe — she came up,” says Tran. “She became sort of a staple in my learning how to cook Japanese food and just cooking in general.”

A woman preps food in the kitchen while a man photographs what she's doing; there's a double exposure of this image.
Twice a week, the Nami and Shen Chens' home kitchen transforms into a photo set. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And Rui Zhong, a writer for World Politics Review, often returns to Nami’s curry dish or somen noodle soup which, like many of Just One Cookbook’s other recipes, are accessible and customizable, making use of things like store-bought curry cubes.

“She’s not Chrissy Teigen,” Zhong says. “The recipes are very no-frills and they’re approachable for someone at my cooking level, which is not terrible but not like a fancy home cook. She gives people the confidence that they can make their own stuff.”

When Cooking Was a Chore

Raised in Yokohama, Japan, Nami grew up in a family that was embedded in the local restaurant scene. Her grandfather ran a Chinese restaurant and a Teppanyaki style steak house, something she says influenced her family’s “very picky” taste in food. Then, as an early teen, her mother inducted her into the kitchen. Together, around 4:30 every afternoon, they’d stand side by side, her mother rattling off orders and Nami hurrying to keep up.

“It wasn’t a choice,” she says. “I wanted to read or something, but then my mom would say to come and help. So cooking was actually not my favorite thing — because it was a chore. There was no proper training or something like that. It was more like I just picked up from watching her.”

But when Nami turned 20 and was preparing to head to California alone to pursue her studies, those nights spent dreading cooking alongside her mother became her reprieve. Five thousand miles apart, her mother’s presence lingered in the air as Nami cooked the simple meals of her childhood. She’d make Japanese-style pasta and reminisce about her mother’s korroke — crispy croquettes breaded in panko and filled with soft potato mash and tender beef. No grocery store or restaurant could quite replicate her mother’s handiwork, so she stopped seeking that nostalgic taste outside.

A handwritten ingredient list for "Taiwan mezesoba."
Even as the author of the internet's authoritative English-language Japanese cookbook, Nami still relies on handwritten ingredient lists. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Upon arriving in the States, Nami studied environmental studies with a focus on geography and geology at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. She ate dorm food with gusto and spent free time exploring the American culture she had previously only experienced through film 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 began dating and married shortly after.

In 2011, both had left their mapping jobs and Shen was working for an online marketing company while Nami cared for their two children at home. She began to think about how she would compile her recipes in one place for her kids to use when they were old enough. It was also at this time that Shen’s friends had been asking her for simple Japanese meals to cook.

“So I was helping them by emailing. And that became too much work. So I was sharing on Facebook, and Facebook started to have kind of different UI,” says Nami. “And then somebody suggested, ‘Oh, you should start a food blog.’ And I never had a blog before. But I think that's how we started.”

When Nami published her 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’s so much to learn … but my 2011 resolution will be to continue adding new recipes to my collection and update my website.”

A woman carefully pours a separated egg yolk into a bowl.
Nami scoops an egg yolk onto a dish while her husband, Shen, looks on. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During this time, the food blogging landscape was dominated by elaborate remixes of American mainstays like Caesar salad and roast chicken as well as the desire to infuse bacon into everything. Trends faded as quickly as they arrived, and the same could be said about the most popular sites of the time. The magazine Saveur handed out awards to a number of blogs that have since become dormant or completely defunct.

So, when Nami was starting out, there was practically no one to model herself after. In the early 2010s, most blogs related to Japanese cuisine were review- and travel-centered: DIY Blogspot or WordPress pages with diary-like entries and photos of everyday life sprinkled with ruminations on ramen and sushi the writers had tried abroad. There was a site that documented Japanese hospital food, another that doted on school lunches of natto and miso soup — and yet very few that provided actual recipes for Japanese home cooking.

From the beginning, Shen pushed for a savvier approach. Because of his experience with SEM and SEO, he was particular about keywords, the site name and the headers being used. He was wary of the typical “diary” style of blogging common during the time. Still, this inception period was certainly not the Just One Cookbook readers are familiar with today. Scrappy and born from a spark of earnest excitement, those early posts featured grainy photos that were taken in dim lighting at dinner. But after the first year, the blog gained traction and the couple began investing into better gear. Since Shen was still working full time, the two had to cram their photo shoots to weekends, when they’d often work until 2 in the morning.

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

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

A woman uses her cellphone to take a photo of a picture of a bowl of noodles that's projected onto a large flat-screen monitor.
Part of what sets Just One Cookbook apart is how thorough the recipes are, with one or two photos that accompany each and every step of the cooking process. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

An Online Cook at Work 

At the end of the day, Just One Cookbook’s popularity can be attributed almost entirely to the quality of the recipes themselves. Each one is crafted with a level of detail and care that sets it apart from the crowd of food blogs hustling to appease an evasive algorithm, increase output and play to trends. It isn’t one of those minimalistic recipe pages with little more than a polished image of the final dish and perhaps a few brief personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout. Few bloggers go through the painstaking effort that Nami does to document each step of the process of making a dish.

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

Take, for example, her post on shio ramen. Aside from a very brief introduction, it’s all business. There’s a section that distinguishes this ramen style’s salt-based broth from other types and a detailed breakdown of the dish’s five most important components. Keeping in mind her varied audience, some of whom do not have ready access to Japanese ingredients, Nami offers alternatives, substitutions and resources early on. She includes a clear ingredient list, with time frames for each step of the cooking process. And she offers practical tips that strip away any sense of intimidation or mystique — “simmer the stock, do not boil.”

In another recipe, for baked chicken katsu, Nami walks readers through kannon-biraki, a traditional Japanese cutting technique used to achieve a tender and evenly cooked cutlet. She describes in great detail the proper way to score a chicken breast: “Stop before you cut all the way through the edge; then, open it like a book.”

At the bottom of each recipe page, a printable instruction manual includes one or two photos for each and every step of the process — even seemingly basic ones, like exactly how thinly she slices the ginger and what a stock should look like at various stages of simmering.

Because of this attention to detail, Just One Cookbook’s recipes are both exhaustive and flexible, comprehensive and moldable. Nami offers historical and cultural context for dishes that are simpler to make than they look — or that her extensive instructions at least make doable. Her writing voice is warm and approachable but not overly sentimental the way blog posts can often be. The focus remains on the food and its history rather than her own.

Even in her self-described favorite recipe, for Japanese croquettes, she doesn’t allow herself to indulge in much sentimentality. She simply remarks that this is the one meal she must have when visiting her parents. “It is the most delicious and comforting reminder of home,” she writes, before immediately diving into a list of key ingredients.

A husband and wife discuss the dish they are photographing while standing on either side of the kitchen island.
Nami's husband Shen Chen (left) quit his job in 2018 to help her with the blog full-time. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The hectic pace of the blog’s early years finally began to ease up when Shen quit his marketing day job in 2018 to work on Just One Cookbook full time. Nowadays, Nami tests recipes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while juggling meetings and calls with Shen. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they shoot photos and videos together from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., when it’s time to pick up their kids.

In the kitchen, the two work in perfect synchronicity. With her lips slightly pursed, Nami’s bubbly, nervous energy dissipates at the cutting board, where her ingredients are laid out. As she prepares a variety of toppings for mazemen, a mixed noodle dish, she pauses in between each step so that Shen can take photos. The room is silent except for a few words mumbled between the two.

Click, chop. “Move your hand.” Click and repeat. 

When the cooking is completed, the two arrange the noodles in front of a large window near the dining table and discuss what items would look good in the background. “Tea!” Nami says, running to a cabinet. “Tea, tea, tea!” she repeats, each word crescendoing as she nears her favorite part of the cooking process.

After all, if you ask Nami what she loves most about preparing a meal, it’s not the testing, the prepping or the stewing. “I actually prefer eating,” Nami laughs. “If somebody can cook, I’d rather do the dishwashing.” In that way, she’s not so different from many of her followers. She, too, is hesitant to call herself a chef.

A woman sits down to eat a bowl of sauceless, egg yolk-topped ramen arranged on a table next to the window.
Getting ready to photograph — and then, finally, eat — the completed bowl of mazemen, a type of sauceless ramen. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After the photos are squared away, we sit over bowls of noodles mixed with pork, green onion, pasteurized egg yolks and doubanjiang. Nami apologizes that the dish has gone cold, but upon first bite, it’s rich and hearty — the ground pork is savory and soft while the green onions add a fresh and crisp contrast. Tipping the bowl, I use my chopsticks to shovel every last morsel into my mouth: a move saved for an especially delicious home-cooked meal. It’s been ages since I’ve eaten cooking that wasn’t my own.

With a full belly, I offer to help with dishes and Nami vehemently refuses, waving her hand back and forth in a way that feels familiar and comforting. Just as she had greeted me at the start, she waves goodbye with a wide smile and shakes my hands.

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“I think my goal is to help other people cook Japanese food. So it doesn't matter to me if I'm the center of attention. It doesn't have to be me,” she says. “My website is doing well, helping others. I'm good.”