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Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008
Dining on the Web
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Every day at around 4 p.m., as the air cools down, the sky takes on a purple hue and schoolchildren make their way home, hordes of people across Japan — predominantly female, predominantly in their 30s — start furiously typing on their PCs. They all have one burning question on their minds: "What should I cook for dinner?"
As food prices have soared recently, the need to eat at home has become more of a reality for many people, and the chances are that many of them are searching for recipes on cooking Web sites, which are full of quick-and-easy recipes and colorful photos, most often contributed by ordinary users.
Cookpad.com, a Japanese-language Web site with more than 430,000 user-contributed recipes, has gained prominence in recent years for the sheer number of recipes it puts just a few quick clicks away. Now, 10 years since its launch, Cookpad has 4.55 million unique users and attracts 278 million page views per month. As of press time, it was the 79th most popular site in Japan and the 998th across the entire Web, according to Alexa, a company that tracks Web traffic.
On Cookpad, users type in an ingredient to access an exhaustively long list of recipes. If you enter "kabocha" (pumpkin), for example, a long list of recipes — ranging from pumpkin muffins to pumpkin salads and traditional nimono (simmered pumpkin) — comes up. Registered users can also post comments on their experience of cooking — or experimenting with — the listed recipes.
Akimitsu Sano, the 35-year-old founder and CEO of Cookpad Inc., says he started the business because he wanted to "turn cooking into a joy."
"It's not that people today don't want to cook," says Sano, who sports a cleanly shaven head and broad grin. "They don't know how to, because they have not had such knowledge passed down from older generations."
But Cookpad's business savvy goes beyond just providing cooking tips to people; the company has hooked up with other firms to create marketing ideas for them. When the company worked with Panasonic recently to promote the latter's little-known electronic pressure cooker, Cookpad asked a group of users to come up with recipes using the cooker and uploaded them to the site. Three months after the recipes became available, with no other media campaign to increase the product's exposure, the cooker's sales grew 1,400 percent, Sano says.
Some sites provide Japanese cooking recipes in English. Bob and Angie ( www.bob-an.com ) offers 20 basic Japanese menus developed by a cooking school affiliated with the natural-gas supplier Osaka Gas Co. Also, the ever-expanding Nintendo DS lineup includes Cooking Guide, a program that offers more than 200 recipes from around the world.
In the United States, Allrecipes.com, a cooking-related social-networking site, provides 62,000 recipes uploaded by users. The site has also seen a surge in traffic recently, helped by a growing consumer demand for money-saving tips. Esmee Williams, Allrecipes.com's vice president of marketing, told the Los Angeles Times in May that interest in ground beef and pasta had increased from January to March by 107 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
The trend is "exactly the same" in Japan, says Cookpad spokeswoman Yukiyo Sakurai, pointing to a surge in the number of searches for words such as setsuyaku (pinching pennies), bento (lunch box) and HB (short for "home bakery," a bread-making machine) over the past year.
Such sites are not reserved for home PC users only. As the Internet becomes ubiquitous, recipes will soon become available even in your neighborhood supermarket, Sano predicts.
"Shopping at supermarkets is not a joy," Sano says. "All we hear at supermarkets is, 'Yasui-yo! Yasui-yo! (It's cheap!).' " Sano envisions his company tying up with supermarkets so there will be a PC-connected monitor for every vegetable, fish or meat, so shoppers can tap the screen and find recipes on the spot.
Which could make more people get hooked on what is already a national obsession.
"The bottom line is, Japanese people love eating," Sano says. "That's a cultural asset we can be proud of."