Society’s obsession for miniature things goes way back. It has long become entrenched in our culture, whether that’s through dollhouses and toys for children; in art with dioramas and minuscule masterpieces; in pop culture with The Borrowers navigating the perils of the human-sized world; and more recently in the film Downsized (2018), which sees Matt Damon shrinks himself down for an easier life. The big one though? Tiny food.
Search for “miniature” or “tiny food” on YouTube and over six million results will pop up of elaborate dishes and desserts being prepared in palm-sized kitchens with thimble-sized pots and pans. It’s impressive (and delicious), but where did the trend come from?
Japan, of course, Land of the Rising Sun and the capital of cuteness. The country’s love of mini food can be traced back to when restaurants in Japan set about creating food replicas to imitate their dishes to entice passers-by, which started roughly in the 1930s. These food models were and still are expertly crafted by artisans, and it’s thought to be a business now worth an estimated $90m.
While these models started out as regular-sized replicas, it wasn’t long until smaller versions began to crop up. However, it’s the culture of “kawaii”, essentially Japanese for cute, that has really embraced and popularised this miniaturising of food, taking to it like a fluffy little duck to water.
“The process of scaling down means we both appreciate the form of the object and feel a sense of accomplishment”
There are two types of miniature food: inedible and edible. Inedible food miniatures are often made from plastic, glue, card, modelling paste and other domestic items. Numerous crafting YouTube channels have embraced the world of mini modelling, and see regulars share tutorials of how to make these thumb-sized replicas. Most popular is making mini replicas of big brand foods like Oreos, Haribo, Pringles and even a Big Mac meal. These food brands have become (whether we like it or not) a cornerstone of Western visual culture, and seeing them in miniature form feels oddly rewarding.
The psychology of why we love small things is, ironically, huge. According to Simon Garfield, who wrote In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate The World (2018), at its simplest “the miniature shows us how to see, learn and appreciate with less”. By rendering something in miniature we understand it better. The process of scaling down means we both appreciate the form of the object and feel a sense of accomplishment. Yes, it might only be a mini tube of Pringles but it took time and some ingenuity to make, and that gives not only the maker satisfaction but also, seemingly, the viewer.
Garfield echoes this: “Artists, sculptors, set designers and poets all work in miniature because it encourages greater scrutiny and deeper participation.” Perhaps this is why these mini crafting videos soon evolved into mini cooking videos. Cooking adds another, perhaps more involved, element to the art of miniatures. Cooking is thought to bring us joy and it’s often a shared, universal experience, so it’s no surprise that cooking in miniature, with that added cute factor, has been a global hit. While it is undeniably a niche interest, single videos of mini cooking tutorials can command viewing figures in the millions, which suggests it’s not just “miniacs” (collectors and fans of miniature things) tuning in.
Again, YouTube is the hub of the edible miniature food trend and Miniature Space was one of the first channels to showcase miniature cooking. It’s first post in December 2014 was an 83-second video of a stove-top coffee being made, but the stove is about the size of a teacup, and it’s being powered by a tealight.
“The result is an oddly satisfying mix of room static with the scrape of a teeny spoon on a fairy-sized casserole pot”
Miniature Space now has 3.25m subscribers and the channel has paved the way for hundreds of similar channels that have built up their own audience of food miniacs. The names alone of these channels are as cute as can be, such as Mini Bun Cafe, which specialises in miniature tiered celebration cakes, Miniature Dream Cooking, which has a penchant for cooking diverse cuisines like samosas, spring rolls and churros, Walking with Giants, run by Jay Baron who also handcrafts about 80 per cent of the kitchen ware he uses, and Tiny Kitchen, a channel run by US food platform Tastemade.
What makes these videos interesting is the aesthetic fashioned and adopted by many of these channels. The stylistic choices of any cooking video are fairly limited, but just as Buzzfeed’s Tasty videos have popularised cooking time-lapses shot from a bird’s eye view, mini cooking videos are typically played at normal speed, without narration, and sometimes even music-less. They’re not tutorials in the traditional sense as no-one is telling you what to do; you’re free to watch at leisure. And the result is an oddly satisfying mix of room static with the delicate chopping of chocolate with a hand-crafted knife or the scrape of a teeny spoon on a fairy-sized casserole pot.
This reliance on cooking sounds and the slow pacing borrows slightly from the aesthetics of ASMR videos, where soft, soothing sounds mixed with a relaxing environment are put together to elicit a tingling autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). In fact there’s a whole subgenre of miniature food videos where ASMR is tacked on the end of video titles and the sounds of chopping, frying and scraping are slightly amplified for an optimal sensory experience.
Miniature cooking videos have created a new kind of soundscape, and visually they reinforce this idea that we humans can find the cute in anything. “The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar… that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof,” Natalie Angier wrote for The New York Times in 2006. While she was referring to our tendency to deem any baby animal cute regardless of the viciousness or “ugliness” of the adult counterpart, it seems we can do this just as easily with inanimate objects.
“Miniature cooking videos have created a new kind of soundscape, and visually they reinforce this idea that we humans can find the cute in anything”
The kitchens and utensils used by these mini cooks mimic popular or aspirational styles of cookware in the regular world, and the delicate way they need to be held draw out this sense of fragility and preciousness—classic “cute cues”. The foodstuffs themselves are often the Instagram-friendly dishes that litter our feeds such as sushi, burgers, pancakes and cakes being some of the most popular mini food makes, which adds to the amusement of it all.
Away from YouTube, and into the mainstream, while supermarkets might not be making mini food videos, they have undoubtedly tried to step up their “cutification” of food. The mini donuts and mini quiches are still there (thankfully), but now we’re treated to gastronomic delights like our favourite chocolates being shrunk down and renamed things like Dinky Deckers (formally Double Deckers), or McVities’ entire range of Nibbles, essentially a bag of biscuits crushed up into balls and covered in chocolate. They’re fun, if a little questionable when it comes to their marketing spin.
The real joy in these online mini cooking worlds is that they’re often direct copies of the real thing, rather than a smaller, rejigged version––and that familiarity is comforting. What elevates them even more is that they also portray a world that’s not like ours. We don’t always have the time or skills to cook, and not all of us have a nice kitchen or can afford the fancy Le Creuset-like pots and pans we see in miniature form, and, perhaps most obviously, we’re not giants.
These elements take the videos far enough away from reality for them to become ten-minute portals to an almost fantasy world. And it is why, yes, we will watch another video of someone chopping one square of chocolate for that cake. Ultimately, they provide the perfect form of escape.