The YouTube recommendation algorithm is the devil’s handmaiden, but occasionally Satan comes through. A few days ago, the algorithm introduced me to the channel Imamu Room, a Japanese woman’s weekly chronicle of making bentos for her husband in their small kitchen in Canada. In an episode with about two million views, Imamu (she does not use her last name) cooks her way through a week of Spam onigiri, imitation crab omelet, corn rice with a fried mackerel, crispy corn croquettes, and chicken nanban, all of it plated in a handsome wooden bento box, with vegetables stuffed into crevices, with maybe a single umeboshi as an extra decoration.
Two of the episodes (bento week #5 and #7) have over two million views; the rest are in the hundreds of thousands, but I can see no discernible difference between them — they are all a delight. The camera sits low on the counter, capturing Imamu’s small cutting board prep space and electric stovetop where she does nearly all of the cooking, except for her rice. The low angle creates a feeling of casual intimacy, like you and Imamu hang out together every early morning (she gets up at 5:45 a.m.) to make the day’s bento, chopping cabbage and cleaning squid and rolling up yet another tamagoyaki. She narrates the video with warm, self-effacing subtitles. The spam onigiri bento gets made, she says, because she slept in too late; the subtitles comment on whether she can cram another piece of fried tofu into the bento box; and her videos often open with a greeting like, “Hi, it’s Imamu : ) A new week has started. Let’s survive the week~”.
This is not high production value YouTube, or YouTube driven by spectacle or personality. Imamu never shows her face (something not uncommon in Asian Youtube cooking shows), and while making a bento with multiple components every day is ambitious, her work is not unrealistically or aspirationally intricate, unlike so much of what goes viral on Youtube (I adore these lunchbox cakes, but I will never make them!). She says the food she cooks is everyday food in Japan — miso eggplant stir fries and fried-up sausages and so very many eggs. The result is soothing documentation of process, the real heartbeat of home cooking. The recipes are a bit vague, but her comprehensive documentation offers a deeper instruction: Watching these videos gives me a sense not just of how to make individual dishes, but how bento come together, and what techniques and flavor combinations are commonly used.
In a Q&A episode, Imamu says she used to not cook at all, only beginning six years ago while learning a great deal from YouTube. She says she started her channel for people like her, who are learning to cook and seeking to improve. Both she and her husband are hairdressers; their young daughter occasionally wanders into the frame, blurry and shouting something cheerful in Japanese. (His work schedule is Tuesday through Saturday, so she makes bentos on those days; she is currently working part time.)
In U.S. popular culture, bentos are largely associated with viral images of rice balls in the shape of anime characters and adorable animals, which are made for children. Imamu’s channel offers a much more approachable and realistic vision of how everyday bento-making for a small family actually works, and in a year when so many of us are cooking daily at home, some new ideas, too. Her family especially loves fried food — shrimp, pork cutlets, croquettes. I rarely fry at home, and now I’m inspired to break out some panko. And buy a tamagoyaki pan. It’s honestly inspiring.