Imagine you’re exploring the wilderness amid medieval castles, when you come across a fellow adventurer named Lynn. It’s almost as if she knew you’d be famished by the time you reached her, because she has a fire, a pot of boiling water, and ingredients for chicken-mushroom skewers ready to go. The only catch is that you must cook. And if you don’t know how, she even has a recipe for you. Might as well pick up a new skill right? A few chops here and a few stirs there later, you emerge — covered in flour dust, even though the recipe doesn’t call for it — with chicken-mushroom skewers, enough to feed everyone.
While this setting exists only in the world of Genshin Impact, an anime-style open-world role playing game, one thing can be brought to life: the food. In fact, any dish from Genshin Impact and anime films and TV shows such as Spirited Away, Food Wars!, and Kiki’s Delivery Service can — and have been, thanks to Nadine Estero. Since 2021, the Vancouver-based content creator has brought anime-inspired dishes to life in TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube videos with more than 100 million views across all platforms.
Whether it’s feeding Calcifer (the resident fire demon from Howl’s Moving Castle) leftover eggshells, or creating a striped ramen bowl just like Ponyo’s from its eponymous film, Estero’s content is perfect for someone looking to watch live action remakes of their favorite anime food scenes. Not only does she emulate the anime as closely as possible, such as yelling at ham in delight like Ponyo, she also includes detailed recipes in her captions.
Estero’s love for anime began when she was a child after she discovered Dragon Ball. Looking back, she realised she gravitated toward watching anime shows versus going to her piano recitals. “I had piano lessons one day and I cried to my mom. I told her that I didn't want to go because it was the same time as Dragon Ball was airing,” she tells Refinery29.
Estero’s love of anime led to a love for Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs), such as the Chrono series, Final Fantasy, and Tales of Symphonia. Unlike other games that use items such as first aid kits to heal the player, the JRPGs Estero played used food to heal.
This distinction between Western and Eastern video games provides a major clue as to why anime places emphasis on food: Asian cultures prioritise holistic healing and a balanced diet. Another reason food also takes a central role in anime is because sitting and eating with loved ones is a huge part of Asian culture, no matter the country. It’s the medium to family bonding, and eating alone isn’t ideal.
“Most of my childhood memories that I can vividly remember are the experiences that are tied [to] food: like the cheesecake my mom has made for me every birthday, my favorite barbecue my dad makes as soon as summer approaches, and the Nutella soufflé that my brother made me taste test for a week because he was trying to perfect it when he first started cooking,” says Estero.
The great thing about anime is that it appeals both to those who want the relatability of daily life and for those who want more action and energy. Feel-good films like those of Studio Ghibli reveal supernatural worlds while offering moments of reality through food. When Chihiro, the main character of Spirited Away, is overwhelmed with navigating a spirit world ruled by a ruthless sorceress, she finds comfort in the onigiri (traditional Japanese rice balls) that Haku, a shape-shifting dragon and her only friend in the spirit world, brings her.
What makes Ghibli films further stand out is that their food takes centre stage before the film is even produced. This is because all the dishes in the movies are those that Hayao Miyazaki himself has actually made, according to producer Toshio Suzuki.
On the other hand, there is a show like Food Wars!, which revolves around an elite culinary school where students must create exemplary dishes in order to become the next generation of chefs. The characters demonstrate such culinary prowess that it’s hard not to want to recreate the food and join the competition.
Details, seen in the making of a soufflé omelette, like the sprinkling of salt and pepper, or eggshells flying in the air, underline the little things that make food tasty, which Estero highlights well in her Food Wars! recreation. To boot, her final dish is a perfect replica of the anime — bouncy omelette and all.
While cooking has become a huge part of the Twitch meta, at the time, Estero was one of the only people streaming something else on the platform, which is primarily for livestreaming gameplay. Initially confused viewers grew into committed supporters when Estero started an “around the world” series, where she would spin the wheel and make a dish from that country. “My cooking stream stood out because I let my viewers add ingredients to my food (for better or for worse!) which made it more fun and interactive,” she says.
Having streamed fulltime for a few years, Estero had an epiphany while playing Genshin Impact in 2020. She came across a familiar dish, chicken-mushroom skewers, in the game and exclaimed, “Oh my god, I know what this is in real life.” Immediately the gears started turning in her head, and she was brimming with ideas on how she could make various anime dishes from the game like sugar-frosted slime (it looks better than it sounds!) and “Dizziness-Be-Gone no Jutsu Version 2.0”, a rice dish in the shape of adorable magic-wielding animals in Japanese folklore.
Sugar-frosted slime is an item in Genshin Impact obtained upon completing a quest. While it isn’t an actual dish that can be cooked in game, it’s widely loved by players, including Estero. It may look effortless, but the garnish takes a bit of work. Estero used her mother’s teachings by working with fondant to create the flower and leaf. Adding striations to keep it realistic, she then used edible dust and gold to add depth to the flower and leaf.
Estero’s background in food art lends itself well to anime-inspired food content. She’s worked on intricate details like accurately cutting and placing design elements, as seen in her character bento box recreation, which requires tweezers, small blades, toothpicks and other tools.
Like most forms of content, creating anime-inspired food isn’t as simple as it looks. For someone new to this niche of content creation, Estero mentions that cooking itself can be difficult. “Let’s say you have to make ramen [but] do you even know how to make ramen?” she says. These are skills that can be learned and require some creativity in order to get the dish right, she explains.
A lot of research also occurs behind the scenes, especially in recipe development. According to Estero, sourcing ingredients can sometimes be difficult because either it isn’t sold nearby or the ingredient doesn’t even exist. In these cases, Estero uses context clues such as setting, timeline and country from the anime itself to figure out which alternative ingredient she could use. She mentions having to do this a lot when recreating dishes from Genshin Impact since it’s set in a medieval era and the country is ambiguous, but leans towards China.
She also remembers doing background research when recreating takoyaki, the fried octopus balls from the manga series InuYasha. One clue that helped was noticing that the characters eating the dish wore Japanese kimonos. Upon further research, she found that this was a dish that Japanese people still eat to this day, helping her create a genuine adaptation of takoyaki.
Estero soon decided to experiment with bringing her content to other platforms like YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, and TikTok. She quickly gained traction on Reddit by posting GIFs of her content on niche subreddits, and eventually, a publisher approached her to write her first cookbook, The Anime Chef, which was published in 2022. Today, she’s working on her second cookbook, set to be published in September 2024.
In the future, Estero sees herself possibly running an anime food cafe. She sees a gap in the food space where people have the desire to fully immerse themselves in the anime world and eat its food but don’t want to or like to cook.
When you think about it, the appeal of anime-inspired food makes sense. It’s not just about bringing the dish to life, but also about recreating the comfort and the love that emanates from the soul of the scene. A universal love of food and its surrounding emotions of sitting and eating with loved ones is why anime food does so well with old and new viewers alike.