The broth sizzles in a tiny pot hung over a flame on a miniature irori, or “hearth.” A knife the size of a pinkie finger nudges minuscule cubes of tofu from a palm-size cutting board. Flakes of seaweed tumble off a spoon pinched between a thumb and finger. A couple of minutes later, a tiny ladle dishes the finished miso soup into bowls no bigger than a thumbnail.
YouTube is replete with Japanese tiny-food videos. Their creators shrink recipes to Lilliputian dimensions: pancakes the size of nickels, burgers compact enough to flip with chopsticks. The meals may be extremely diminutive, but they’re edible. Most of the ingredients are hulking compared with the finished products, but whenever possible, the chefs choose smaller stand-ins: Pearl onions or shallots sub for their bigger counterparts, and quail eggs replace chicken eggs.
Some of the YouTube channels devoted to tiny food post only periodically, while others roll out new installments a few times a week. Miniature Space, to take one example, has more than 1 million subscribers; its most popular video—a strawberry shortcake made from a single berry—has been viewed more than 8.5 million times. The videos are addictive; there’s something at once mesmerizing and weirdly funny about a gigantic hand trying to chisel a tiny sliver of meat, or smooth whisker-thin coats of icing on a multitiered “cake” cut from a single slice of bread.
Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who studies Japanese culture and cuisine, says that tiny food embodies the Japanese obsession with kawaii, or “cuteness.” Dishes are typically presented against a backdrop of dollhouse furniture and accessories—little chairs, plates, floor lamps, and potted plants. White detects an affectionate gibe in some of this, a playful “teasing by miniaturizing, and making exceptional the ordinary.”
Although the recipes are fairly straightforward—more home cooking than haute cuisine—the videos reveal a fussiness about details. To White, the exacting attention required to, say, move one grain of rice at a time echoes the culture of otaku—young, predominantly male hobbyists who are consumed by interests like manga, video games, and anime.
Inspired by the success of Japanese tiny-food videos, the California-based company Tastemade has produced a web series called Tiny Kitchen, with more than 50 episodes and millions of views across Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube. Tastemade’s videos display the same fastidiousness as the Japanese originals. “I feel sort of like a surgeon,” says Hannah Aufmuth, the food stylist whose hands are in the Tiny Kitchen videos, jokingly referring to her miniature spatula as her “scalpel.”
The tiny-food trend grafts onto a Japanese enthusiasm for zany cooking shows—the popular Cooking With Dog, for instance, is hosted by an anonymous Japanese woman whose poodle flounces around her countertop. White says that compared with such shows, tiny-food videos can be a bit more nostalgic. After all, the traditional hearth some of the videos painstakingly re-create is fast disappearing from the country. The irori in the miso-soup video, for example, recalls old-fashioned farmhouses—from which most young people are a few generations removed.
“It would be like a Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving dinner for an American,” White says. But a lot, lot smaller.