I’m not saying that nothing will ever change in the way the world cooks. Refrigerators, which over the past 100 years have taken over from stoves as the single focal point around which kitchens are designed, look set to become ever more avant-garde. We’ve already seen smart fridges, with touch screens offering weather reports and Twitter feeds as you get yourself a glass of ice water. Now researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom are working on the concept of a self-cleaning refrigerator that would scan the shelves and move products that needed to be eaten to the front.
Arguably, however, the two most important kitchen devices of the future will be rather more basic and familiar: the microwave and the rice cooker. The reason for both is China. The most significant creation of the postwar “made in Japan” electronics boom was not the Walkman or the video recorder but the electric rice cooker, which changed life in millions of households in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. Previously, the whole evening had been tied up by the need to produce steamed sticky white rice, which needed careful washing, soaking, and cooking in an earthenware pot. Now, the same rice could be produced with the flick of a switch. Rice cooker sales continue to gallop apace in mainland China, where in remote peasant kitchens, a rice cooker, once acquired, may be the only stove. If the rice cooker industry could find a way to go mass-market in India as well as China, then it truly would be the dominant kitchen gadget of the future, but thus far rice cookers have not been so effective for cooking the fluffy long-grain rice of India and Pakistan.
Another technology that China has embraced is the microwave, which can seem like a dated ’80s relic in the West. In addition to making most of the world’s microwave ovens, China now buys them, too, in ever greater numbers. In the early 1990s, Galanz, a leading manufacturer, was selling just a few hundred thousand units a year in China. By 2000, they were selling 7 million, and production continues to grow, helped by special models aimed at the Chinese market designed to function more like traditional steamers.
The microwave turns out to be a surprisingly good fit with Chinese cuisine, used for steaming fish or bean curd as well as reheating family meals. And yet, for all of its inroads, the microwave cannot displace the more fundamental tools of Chinese cooking. The bedrock of every Chinese meal remains the tou, the cleaver-like knife that has been in continuous use since the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 B.C.), and which looks set to stay at the heart of Chinese cooking in the future, too.
My prediction? In the future, if there is a future, we will slice ingredients with knives, cook them in pots over heat, stir them with spoons … and eat them with our mouths.
Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; the United States and Europe switch perspectives on GMOs; celebrating the inevitable decline of the cookbook; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.