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(CNN) — Smoke began to drift out of a box as the winner of Japan's "dish of the year" was revealed.
But it wasn't a beautifully plated mackerel or an immaculate dessert that took top honors. Instead, the hosts unveiled a variety of frozen meats and pizzas -- still in their air-tight bags.
Every year, the Gurunavi Research Institute, which runs a popular website that allows users to search for the top restaurants across Japan, crowns a "dish of the year."
The prize is intended to highlight evolving food trends in Japan.
Previous winners included "plant-based foods" and "Chinese cooking." But this year's winner highlights how much the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted Japanese people and their eating habits.
The institute says the pandemic has led more restaurants to freeze their dishes, mainly for takeout. Flash-freezing methods have allowed chefs to maintain the integrity of the dish, with some even giving frozen sushi a go.
The average amount of money spent on frozen foods per family went up 20% from 2019 to 2021, according to data from Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Aeon, one of the country's largest grocery store chains, opened a specialized food shop called @Frozen in August. It sells over 1,500 frozen food options in a 420 square meter space in Chiba prefecture.
Lawson, a large convenience store chain, expanded frozen food sections in 5,000 of their retail stores. Desserts and even sashimi are among the frozen items up for sale, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
Two Gurunavi Research Institute employees unveil the "dish of the year" at a press event in Tokyo.
Gurunavi Research Institute
Traditionally, Japanese families would commonly buy fresh vegetables among other ingredients from the grocery store daily. Mothers and wives would make bento boxes for their husbands and children in the morning.
But the pandemic and changing gender roles have transformed this way of life.
"Lately, more and more Japanese woman are working outside the home," says Yoshiko Miura, a consumer consultant for the Japan Frozen Food Association.
"They also tend to prepare food for their family... [but] their time is very limited," Miura said in an interview with NHK. "Also, Japan's population is aging, and a great number of people live alone. Assembling ingredients and preparing and cooking them takes time and effort. Frozen food helps address that problem."