In the nineteen eighties, many Chinese migrants had a rice-cooker in their luggage. TVs, stereos, refrigerators, washing machines and VCRs were not a problem for them, but a rice cooker – would they have that in America, Australia or Canada? They weren’t really sure. Although relatives and friends had all told them they didn’t need to worry, even if foreigners don’t eat rice as a staple food, you can still find rice cookers on the markets. And if you bring one all the way, you may need to change the voltage for it to work, right?
But they still didn’t care, they still stubbornly carried a rice-cooker with them on the plane, they wouldn’t pack it with the rest of their possessions on ships, because they were too worried that they may not be able to eat rice on their first evening in a foreign country.
We can see from that that we, Chinese people, are really a rice-eating nation. We can work overseas, we can study in a foreign land, for language and culture, we can do as the romans do, and gradually westernize, but our stomachs, although thousands of miles away, still tie us to our culture from the inside, and will never let it go. Furthermore, we are very aware of our own rice-culture and its specificity. The world has been fully globalised, especially electrical appliances, and there’s almost no cultural difference between them: between the TV that a Brazilian watches and the TV that a Vietnamese family watches, there is no significant difference. But for that generation of Hong Kong migrants, the rice cooker was clearly different. It was a particular electrical appliance, attached to a particular food culture, the East Asian one, which may not be replicated in America.
So I often think that one of the greatest contributions of Japan to East Asia was the invention of the rice cooker. It is a humble, ordinary object, but its influence was deeper and wider than that of the walkman. We don’t have to listen to music anytime, anywhere, but we can’t go without eating.
What I mean, of course, is not that the Japanese have saved our rice-eating culture in the midst of the modern (or western) wave. I believe that even without the rice cooker, we would all still be cooking and eating rice, but that scene is hard to imagine. People who have used a claypot for cooking all know how difficult it is to bake rice in a fire cooker.Without a rice-cooker, people in Hong-Kong, with the fast-paced life they live, may eat rice less, and eat out more.
Yoshiko Nakano, from the Japanese Department at Hong Kong University, recently published a series of monographs on rice cookers called: “Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers”. It made me discover that, of course, the rice cooker is an appliance influenced by culture and geography but also that various places in the region have produced various versions of it.
Original rice cookers in Japan and Hong Kong are not the same. For instance, rice cookers with a glass lid are designed by panasonic specifically for Hong Kong. That is because the ricecooker king Wong Man Wai told Japanese engineers that Hong-Kongers like to steam chicken or sausage with their rice, so they must be able to know whether the rice has reached the point where you can add chicken or preserved meat, and so the lid must be transparent glass. A Japanese person would never think about this, because their habit is to never open the lid untill the rice is cooked, and they would never think that Hong-Kongers would add another ingredient while the rice is steaming.
More than that, Cantonese people like to eat congee, which is a daily staple food for them, so Panasonic also needed to adapt to the traditions of Hong Kong people, and specifically develop a rice-cooker where you could cook congee. As for the difference between Japanese rice and Thai rice, which gives people the most headaches, Hong-Kong people who eat Thai rice need a specific rice-cooker, and engineers must be careful to adjust the fire and temperature, so that it can successfully cook the relatively drier rice 絲苗.
If even a simple rice-cooker has caused a technological revolution, then it is not really that simple: it has changed traditions, but also adapted to traditions, it has unified the world, but cannot ignore the diversity of the world. For us today, cooking is a trivial, common thing, but was this simplicity not surprisingly hard-won? It looks like, in this world, the things that seem very ordinary are, in fact, not all that simple.