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CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / Cooking website communication: Differing views of recipe success

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsThirty-four years ago, when I got married I received cookbooks from two friends. An American friend gave me the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and a Japanese friend presented me with a recipe book titled “Ofukuro no Aji” (The Taste of Mom’s Home Cooking). I used both of these cookbooks virtually every day, to the point where they almost fell apart. I was able to buy a new copy of Fannie Farmer, deliberately hunting down the same edition. I couldn’t track down another “Ofukuro no Aji” so I made copies of my best-loved recipes from it to preserve them before total destruction.

The recipes in both books were easy to follow, and mostly foolproof, which was certainly a major part of their attraction. But I also loved the worlds created by the cookbooks. I remember the delight I felt in reading this passage right at the beginning of Fannie Farmer: “Every meal should be a small celebration … Butter should be in a butter dish, with its own knife, milk in a pitcher, bottled sauces and condiments, unless the jar is particularly pretty, should be removed from their commercial containers and placed in small bowls with spoons.” I rarely followed this guidance, but it evoked for me just the sort of dining life I yearned for. In the main part of the book there were similar encouragements before each recipe, for example, “What could be nicer than warm muffins wrapped in a napkin on the morning breakfast table?” And indeed, I made muffins almost every weekend, wrapped in a red and white checked napkin.

“Ofukuro no Aji,” on the other hand, expressed a “we’re in this together” care for nutrition and ease of cooking. The words accompanying a recipe for making yellowtail teriyaki in a pan stated plainly, “This is for those who like simple cooking/You make it in a pan.” A box in the corner of the same page of the cookbook read: “Compared to meat, fish is not only low-calorie, but it also helps prevent lifestyle-related diseases so it’s something we want to eat every day … When eating at home, let’s include things we can’t get when eating out. By all means, 100 grams per day of potatoes is the amount we want to get.” The use of “for those who like simple cooking” (kantan-ha muki), “we want to …” (-tai desu), “let’s include” (iremasho), and “by all means” (zehi) made me, a 21-year-old American newlywed who had only been in Japan a little over a year, feel embraced in a wider, welcoming world of Japanese cooks.

When I went on sabbatical to Dublin in 2008, I had to leave behind my cookbooks, and for the first time I began to use cooking websites as a source for recipes. Like probably all new users of this kind of site, I was amazed by the wealth of comments made by users of the recipes, bringing a whole new level to my notion of a cooking community. And like my two well-loved cookbooks, there seemed to be some differences between the U.S. and Japanese websites that I depended on.

Applied linguist Susan Strauss and two colleagues examined 10 recipes from popular Japanese, Korean, and U.S. cooking websites (Cookpad.com, Kitchen.Naver.com, and Allrecipes.com) as well as five comments about each recipe. The researchers found several interesting cultural variances, related to the expectations and social norms of the users.

The recipes on the U.S. website Allrecipes were the most exact, with precise measurements provided as well as information about the cookware to be used. Those who wrote comments focused largely on whether the recipes worked, and on their own role as the “agent of success.” Eighty-eight percent had modified the recipe and 44 percent said they’d use the recipe again.

The Japanese Cookpad and Korean Kitchen, Naver recipe posters exhibited a greater degree of engagement with the users than those using the American Allrecipes. For example, one Japanese poster, in describing her own experience in coming up with the recipe, stated, “I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes!” The Korean posters sometimes directly addressed the users, using expressions like, “First shall we start by trimming the vegetables?”

Unlike the Allrecipes users, the Cookpad users placed more emphasis on the product, rather than themselves as the agents of success. Fifty-two percent used a word related to “delicious,” and many paired compliments on the taste with related praise, such as calling the recipe “delicious and heartwarming.” Forty percent commented that they’d make use of the recipe in the future as well.

Another dissimilarity with Allrecipes involved the general absence of recipe modification, which, when it did appear, was more indirect, such as stating “meat might also be good.” One user who was considering a modification posted her plans as a question to the original poster, asking her opinion. Strauss and her colleagues suggest that a recipe is viewed as a “personified version of the poster,”and accordingly users took care to protect the face of the poster.

Expressions of gratitude were copious on Cookpad, and posters also frequently responded to users’ comments with appreciation and emotion, with comments like, “I’m truly happy you like it!!!” In this way, while there was a community of users, there remained a one-on-one connection between the poster and a commenter, while users on Allrecipes were more likely to view the posted recipe as information let loose onto the site, independent of the initial poster.

The Korean Kitchen.Naver commenters resembled those on Cookpad — with one significant difference. Astonishingly, 78 percent stated that they had not tried the recipe. For them, Kitchen.Naver was a site of enjoyment through the imagination, and 40 percent mentioned the recipes seemed delicious. Many further described their personal reactions, such as “feeling the flavor’s aroma fully inside my mouth.” On Kitchen.Naver, too, there were abundant expressions of gratitude.

The French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously declared, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” Online cooking sites allow for an interesting spinoff to Brillat-Savarin’s premise in the 21st century, demonstrating that cultural differences in food discourse remain. What a tasty finding!

(The next installment will appear on Nov. 3)

■ Elwood is the Dean of the Center for International Education at Waseda University and a professor of English at its School of Commerce.Speech

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