Alexander the Great forbade his soldiers to chew mint leaves because it aroused them sexually (and, he believed, weakened their performance on the battlefield.) “Sploshers” and “sitophiles” are terms for people who are intensely stimulated when covered in wet, messy food substances. There is an Instagram account dedicated to “dicklattes,” the art of drawing penises in foamed milk. (It boasts over 55,000 followers.) Everyone who posts shots of an oozing hamburger in their Snapchat feed, or photos of Nigella Lawson wrapping her tongue around a steaming forkful of spaghetti on Facebook has at least a mild fetish for food porn—the sublimation of sex into culinary obsession.
Now, from Japan, the world capital of fetishes—where even door knobs have a devoted following—comes Tiny Food.
Yes, tiny is big again. We’ve always loved tiny umbrellas in our rum swizzles. Shrunken heads were a fascination in the 1950s, and of course today we’ve elected a short-fingered vulgarian to the highest office in the land. And now, emerging from the dark recesses of Snapchat and YouTube, comes food cooked with Lilliputian utensils, pots, pans, and ovens, in miniature and fully operational kitchens with portioned ingredients that would barely register on an apothecary’s scale. The huge numbers of miniature food–cooking demonstrations on YouTube account for over 3% of the total views in the food category. Tiny food may be bigger than any food fetish that has ever come before.
Originating in Japan a few years ago, this culinary discipline epitomizes the Japanese obsession with kawaii culture, or the “cult of cuteness” that extends from Hello Kitty lunch boxes to ero-kawaii Japanese schoolgirls in uniform.
Most tiny food videos are shot against a backdrop of dollhouse furniture and accessories—little tables, cupboards, and tiny wood-stained floorboards. A thimble-sized meat grinder churns out ground beef from a sliver of filet, for instance. Because the portions are so small, the mini stove heated by tealight takes no more than a few seconds to cook the burgers on each side.
The juxtaposition of big hands and small food confounds on first watching, but size matters in this world. The hands dominate and control the scene, each gesture has movement and meaning: Are they male or female? Do they represent a deep psychological desire for control in a world gone mad? Or do they harbor darker sexual motives?
The original Japanese videos that began the trend are silent but for the ambient sounds of preparing the tiny meals. Sometimes breathing is detectable.
Tomo Tanaka is one well-known “miniature artist.” Besides cooking tiny food, Tanaka creates the cookware and glasses. He also makes samurai swords, a miniature bow with arrows, attracting hobbyists who are consumed by interests like manga, video games, and anime.
The videos have become a big business online. There are tiny food kitchen sets for sale ($149), miniature knives ($79) and more. There’s even a Japanese Miniature Food Association. After completing the curriculum, a certificate in cooking miniature food is awarded.
Inspired by the success of the 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. Now in its second season, the series is shot in mini studios all over the world, from Argentina to London. But the Tastemade videos lack the austere intensity of the Japanese originals. The American videos have replaced the early silence, broken only by chopping and breathing, by adding a whimsical musical soundtrack.
Think what this trend might mean for the next permutation in the history of human food fetishes. Could we, in fact, begin producing our food fetishes in tinier and tinier forms?
“One miniature dicklatte, please!”