A set of miniature meal with rice, tofu and vegetables by Vietnamese chef Lê Thanh Hiệu. Photo courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu
By Thanh Hà
Lê Thanh Hiệu would be just a regular IT worker in Japan were it not for finding fame cooking beautiful set meals that are barely the size of a human thumb.
The 31-year-old and his micro kitchen have become visitors on different television channels in both Japan and Việt Nam. Meanwhile, his YouTube channel Miniature Hieu’s Kitchen has 224,000 subscribers, as well as more than 600,000 on TikTok.
Hiệu was born in Quảng Ngãi Province but arrived in Japan in 2010 to study chemistry. After graduating, he worked in a confectionery company before becoming an IT engineer in Kanagawa Prefecture.
He has introduced his audience to Japanese food such as Oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl), Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and Takoyaki (octopus balls,) or Vietnamese specialities such as bánh chưng (glutinous rice cake) and phở (rice noodle soup).
He has cooked more than one hundred dishes, which are about the size of a fingertip and require great labour and attention to detail.
"I fell in love with miniature food after watching a video of a Japanese woman. Her dishes were really special, cute and inspired me. With my cooking experience, I thought I could do it and I wanted to try to test my skills," Hiệu told Việt Nam News.
"It is never easy when you begin doing something new. It was really hard for me to buy tiny kitchenware and ingredients."
Chef Lê Thanh Hiệu has cooked more than 120 tiny dishes in two years. Photo courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu
The kitchenware he needed is not found at supermarkets but at specialized stores. Sometimes, he has to produce items that he could not find himself.
Meanwhile, he hunted down many special ingredients from food providers for French cuisine and tried to grow several mini plants at home to serve his demands.
"I spent nearly two years to complete my kitchen space, and a lot of money buying a recording device, cookware and spices because the smaller they are, the more expensive they are," he said.
Hiệu made the first dish of bánh chưng in December 2019, when the Tết (Lunar New Year) Festival was approaching and he wanted to introduce Việt Nam's traditional dish to Japanese people.
After that, he made bánh cuốn (steamed rolled crepes), bitter melon soup and bún bò Huế (Huế-style beef and vermicelli soup).
Hiệu not only cooks savoury dishes but also bakes many kinds of cakes as well as making different drinks and desserts.
Lê Thanh Hiệu grows mini bitter melon to serve his cooking shows. Photo courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu
"It is really different cooking normal dishes compared to tiny ones. With such small cookware, tools, utensils and appliances, cooking is hard. Just a second of carelessness, and you will drop or break something and they are easy to disappear to nowhere," he said.
"Time and fire for cooking are also big issues. After a long time in this field, you get experience and know-how to adjust well. Last but not least is measuring ingredients, especially in baking. You have scales for baking normal size things, for tiny cake baking you can only measure with your eyes."
According to Hiệu, no matter what food you cook, the important thing is technique. Cooks should research dishes before cooking so that they will produce the best food. Bún bò Huế without shrimp paste would be something else entirely, while fish to make sashimi must be deboned and carefully cleaned.
Mini dishes of spaghetti by chef Lê Thanh Hiệu. Photo courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu
"Before cooking a new or a difficult dish, I read a lot to know clearly its typical features. Sometimes I have to cook one dish several times to find the best version,” said Hiệu, who spends up to four hours cooking and recording one or two times per week.
"To date, I have cooked more than 120 dishes, ranging from Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese, to Thai and Korean. The most difficult was Takoyaki because the balls were very tiny, around 5mm each. The cooking method was extremely hard to ensure of its flavour and taste."
His tiny eye-catching and delicious dishes have brought him a huge number of fans who wait to see his dishes every week, and hope to see him in person.
Lê Thanh Hiệu and his micro kitchen in Japan. Photo courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu
Hiệu has been invited to talk about his kitchen and dishes on all of Japan's largest TV stations such as Asahi, NHK, TBS and Fuji, as well as VTV in Việt Nam.
"What he has done is incredible. It is great that he can do what he likes and it is much more wonderful because he maintains cooking activities regularly. If I have a chance I would like to see him cooking directly," said Kamiya Yoshie, a culinary expert who owns the Facebook page Gohan Daisuki (I Love Rice).
Meanwhile, cook Okazaki Takumi of Hà Nội's Okachan Shokudo Restaurant wants to work in the same kitchen with Hiệu, and both plan to take part in a cooking contest.
"Most of my fans are Japanese because I am living there and my videos have Japanese subtitles. In this country, people love and collect miniature things. There are some people who also cook tiny food like me, and then I think it is the reason why my channel is welcome," Hiệu said.
"Being a guest of many local televisions is my honour. I think it is a good chance to introduce Vietnamese people, culture and cuisine to audiences in Japan and then in the world. I hope that my passion will be a small push and bring positive energy to people.
Lê Thanh Hiệu introduces Vietnamese phở bò (noodle soup with beef) on his channels. Photo courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu
"In Việt Nam, miniature food is still something new. It is a challenge but also a field with much potential." VNS
Japanese oyakodon (rice with chicken and egg toppings).
A real choux and its mini version.
A pair of basket-shaped cakes with fresh fruit.
A fresh drink.
Lê Thanh Hiệu serve meals to his regular 'visitors' at the Miniature Hieu’s Kitchen. Photos courtesy of Lê Thanh Hiệu