With No Frills or Celebrities, Cookpad Is a Global Go-To for Recipes – The New York Times

With No Frills or Celebrities, Cookpad Is a Global Go-To for Recipes

Born in Japan and a hit around the world, the recipe-sharing site has been less successful in America. Yet it has a small, fervent following among immigrants.

Credit…Gabriela Hasbun for The New York Times

There are unspoken expectations the digital realm tends to place on recipes: They should photograph beautifully. They should have the mass appeal to go viral. And they should be written by a charismatic cook with a huge Instagram following and an adorable dog.

Cookpad, a recipe-sharing website and app, flouts all that. Its recipes prioritize practicality, and are mostly created by amateur home cooks. The photos are unpolished. The layout is simple.

Yet Cookpad has been a global success — from Japan, where it was founded nearly a quarter-century ago, to India, Algeria and Spain. It is one of the largest cooking platforms in the world, reporting around 100 million visitors each month, from 76 countries. (By comparison, Allrecipes, another popular recipe platform, says it has 125 million average monthly visitors to its site from more than 200 countries.)

Where Cookpad hasn’t caught on big is the United States, where it was introduced in 2013. This isn’t surprising. Against the backdrop of an American food media that is predominantly white, aspirational and celebrity-driven, Cookpad treats cooking as utility instead of entertainment, and champions home cooks over influencers. Rather than trying to please everybody, the recipes are diverse and often hyper-regional.

Still, for those same reasons, Cookpad has built a small but devoted audience here among those who feel overlooked by other American cooking websites — most notably, immigrants and their families.

“I haven’t really gone to other websites because I am so satisfied with Cookpad,” said Mitsuko Atkinson, a stay-at-home mother in Lucas, Texas, who visits the site mainly for its variety of Japanese recipes. She wants her three young children to become familiar with the flavors she grew up eating in the suburbs of Tokyo; Cookpad recipes, she said, are the kind you’d find in a Japanese home.

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Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Ms. Atkinson, 45, likes the site’s simple design and the step-by-step photos that accompany most recipes. That many of the images are shot on phones makes the food feel accessible. While cookbooks typically provide only one take on a recipe, Cookpad offers scores of options. And Ms. Atkinson loves reading other users’ commentary on recipes — what Cookpad calls tsukurepo. She recently followed one suggestion to turn up the spice in an eggplant and pork miso rice bowl.

Vishali Passi, who lives in Castro Valley, Calif., and grew up in Punjab, India, learned about Cookpad from a Facebook advertisement two years ago, and immediately fell for its trove of regional Indian dishes, like dal muthiya and khandvi. She soon started posting her own recipes.

“If you see Instagram posts and the YouTube channels, they make the common dishes,” like the popular TikTok tortilla wrap, said Ms. Passi, 34, who runs a limousine company with her husband, Vikram. “I never see anything unique,” and though the food looks lovely, the recipes don’t always work.

On Cookpad, contributors are usually just cooking for themselves, rather than trying to accrue enormous followings or accommodate other people’s preferences. Ms. Passi has even made some virtual friendships on Cookpad, mostly with others in the Indian diaspora.

Cookpad was born in 1997, in the thick of the dot-com boom. Its founder, Aki Sano, who had just completed his degree in neural computing at Keio University in Tokyo while selling produce for local farmers on the side, foresaw that the web was the next frontier for documenting and sharing recipes.

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Credit…Alexander Turner for The New York Times
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Credit…Alexander Turner for The New York Times

“The question was how to make cooking fun, and not a chore,” said Mr. Sano, who is now 47. He wanted the platform to be as interactive as possible: Users could upload their recipes; search for others’ by ingredient, cuisine or dish; and provide feedback. Recipes were vetted to ensure the steps made sense, and didn’t include offensive content or spam. Within five years, Cookpad had amassed a million users.

Rimpei Iwata, Cookpad’s president and chief executive, attributes its early success to Japanese women. In that country’s highly gendered society, many women still carry the burden of preparing meals, even as they join the work force in greater numbers. Today, the company says, 80 to 90 percent of Japanese women in their 20s and 30s are Cookpad users.

In 2004, Mr. Sano introduced a premium service for 270 yen (then about $2.50) a month that experimented with allowing users to sort recipes by popularity, hide advertisements and bookmark dishes. Seven years later, the company went public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. It is now valued at 33 billion yen (about $315 million), and says its sites draw around 800 million page views each month. In Japan, the company is testing an online grocery shopping service called CookpadMart and a video platform, CookpadTV.

In 2013, Cookpad began developing sites for and building large audiences in other parts of Asia, as well as Africa, South America and Europe, eventually establishing a global headquarters in Bristol, England. But its efforts in the United States — a mix of translating Japanese recipes into English, and trying to grow a user base organically — have been less successful.

“America is a really hard region when it comes to cooking,” Mr. Sano said. “Less people cook.” The nation ranked close to the bottom in a 2020 survey Cookpad conducted with the analytics company Gallup to gauge the average number of meals eaten at home, by country.

Mr. Sano attributed this to Americans’ affinity for frozen meals and takeout, along with watching food television, which he said can become a substitute for actual cooking. Cookpad succeeds in countries where cooking is more of a necessity than a diversion, Mr. Sano said.

As a result, the company hasn’t invested much in its American site. The user interface is even simpler than its Japanese counterpart, with no premium subscription and a very basic search tool. In Japan, looking up a recipe on Google would likely call up several pages of hits from Cookpad, but the site barely comes up in recipe searches in the United States.

When the pandemic shutdowns began, Cookpad, like most online cooking platforms, experienced tremendous growth; the number of recipes in its database doubled in 2020, to eight million. But Americans are still only a small percentage of users. (The company would not provide a figure.)

The United States “is a big country,” said Serkan Toto, a mobile and game industry analyst in Tokyo, with six time zones, “more than one language and a lot of cultural differences.” It would take millions of dollars’ worth of marketing, he said, to make a meaningful impact.

Yet it’s precisely this diversity that has won Cookpad a loyal following in America. Although the company does not have demographic data on its U.S. audience, Mr. Sano said many of those users are immigrants — often from countries where Cookpad is popular.

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Credit…Gabriela Hasbun for The New York Times

For them, Cookpad can be a lifeline. Areej Ismail, a Lebanese-American stay-at-home mother who lives in the Pittsburgh area, uses the Arabic-language version to find and publish recipes from her home village, Baissour. She can’t find those dishes — like hreeseh, a dish of wheat berries and lamb cooked for several hours — by doing a Google search. “I only find them on Cookpad,” she said.

“I don’t write down recipes anymore on paper,” added Ms. Ismail, 33. “I think that Cookpad is enough.”

Consuelo Rodriguez, 54, a house cleaner in Lodi, Calif., who is studying for her high school equivalency diploma, said Cookpad “is like my home,” a place where she can share her family recipes from Jalisco, Mexico — her father’s barbacoa, her mother’s gorditas rellenas. She has posted more than 300 recipes on Cookpad, and loves to read the positive comments she receives.

“It is a marvelous feeling,” like therapy, Ms. Rodriguez said. Cookpad has inspired her to want to publish a cookbook someday.

For Sonoko Sakai, 65, a Los Angeles cooking teacher and author born in Queens, N.Y., and raised in Japan, Cookpad isn’t necessarily a replacement for her cookbooks and family recipes. It’s a way to stay tethered to Japan by keeping up-to-date on which foods are popular there (at the moment, she said, instant dashi and homemade bread).

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Credit…Molly DeCoudreaux for The New York Times

Namiko Chen of San Francisco feels similarly, especially since she has her own blog for Japanese recipes, called Just One Cookbook. She still finds occasional inspiration on Cookpad: While she was developing a recipe for a Japanese-style pasta with miso and butter, a Cookpad recipe persuaded her to add canned tuna.

Ms. Chen, 44, has tried recommending the Japanese version of Cookpad to her American users, but they often have trouble translating the Japanese, locating ingredients and converting measurements from metric. They find the sheer amount of information and recipes overwhelming. And the American version “is not very inspired,” she added. “It is random pictures and recipes,” with no organization. “I don’t even know where to start.”

“The feedback I get is, everyone gives up,” Ms. Chen said with a chuckle.

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Credit…Molly DeCoudreaux for The New York Times

But not quite everyone. After stumbling across Cookpad on Apple’s App Store, Lina Worthey, a professional chef in Norwalk, Conn., has come to rely on it for finding and testing dishes for her clients that are more practical than trendy, and from cuisines she’s not that familiar with.

Cookpad “makes me feel better that I am making it the right way,” said Ms. Worthey, 32, “instead of the watered-down version.”

Ivan Orkin, the chef and owner of Ivan Ramen, in New York, learned about Cookpad from his wife, Mari Sawamura, when they lived in Tokyo in the early 2000s. Mr. Orkin, who speaks Japanese and has devoted his career to studying that nation’s cuisine, has used the Japanese-language Cookpad for research, or to recreate his wife’s favorite dishes, like potato fritters called korokke, or ozoni, a mochi soup eaten for the new year.

Using Cookpad reminds him how much professionals like him can learn from home cooks. “It will say, ‘Put all the ingredients in a Ziploc bag and mush the bag like this and lay the bag flat and wait 15 minutes and then dump it in a pan,’” Mr. Orkin, 57, said. “As a guy who gets paid to make food, I am like, ‘Oh come on, this is so stupid.’ And then it works.”

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Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

His “Gaijin Cookbook” has a recipe for nasu natto — eggplant with fermented soybeans and cilantro. He got the idea from Cookpad.

For Ken Lord, a data scientist in Centennial, Colo., the charm of Cookpad is not just the recipes, but how supportive users are. “You will see a recipe that is not great, and people offering constructive advice,” he said.

Cookpad also “seems to encourage everybody to retain their own original culture,” said Mr. Lord, 41. It doesn’t demand that food be impeccably presented or homogenized to have appeal.

“It sort of celebrates that difference.”