Cookpad is a global go-to for recipes

Consuelo Rodriguez cooks at her home in Lodi, California, February 22, 2021. (Photos: NYTimes)
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.اضافة اعلان

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 would find in a Japanese home.

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 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, California, 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 Passi, 34, who runs a limousine company with her husband, Vikram. “I never see anything unique,” and although 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. 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.

“The question was how to make cooking fun, and not a chore,” said 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 1 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 workforce in greater numbers. Today, the company says, 80 percent to 90 percent of Japanese women in their 20s and 30s are Cookpad users.

In 2004, 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 US efforts — 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,” Sano said. “Less people cook.”

The nation ranked close to the bottom in a 2020 survey that Cookpad conducted with analytics company Gallup to gauge the average number of meals eaten at home, by country.

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, Sano said.

As a result, the company hasn’t invested much in its US 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 8 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 US audience, Sano said many of those users are immigrants — often from countries where Cookpad is popular.

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

Consuelo Rodriguez, 54, a house cleaner in Lodi, California, 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, Rodriguez said.

Cookpad has inspired her to want to publish a cookbook someday.

For Ken Lord, a data scientist in Centennial, Colorado, 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 Lord, 41. It doesn’t demand that food be impeccably presented or homogenized to have appeal.

“It sort of celebrates that difference.”

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