Everything we need to learn about design, we can learn from the rice cooker

- by Poon King Wang

As the practice (and malpractic­e) of design proliferat­es, it is useful to go back to basics every now and then.

This is where the rice cooker can help. Because everything we need to learn about design, we can learn from the rice cooker.

First lesson: design reflects tradition. It works with how we work best, not against it.

The modern rice cooker’s design was inspired by the Japanese okama. The okama was a metal pot with a wooden lid. One would put rice and water in, and cook it over a slow fire. It was so simple and efficient that when Japanese companies invented the rice cooker, they took the same set-up as inspiratio­n. That meant that people could cook rice in the same simple efficient way. It did not disrupt their tradition.

But design can also transform tradition. It does not just preserve the status quo. Where it does change what we do, it does so kindly.

The rice cooker switched out the use of fire for the much safer electricit­y. At the same time, it made cooking more convenient. With the okama, one had to keep watch or the rice would be overcooked or burnt. With the rice cooker, all we have to do is flip a switch. No watching, no burning, no overcookin­g. We can then take the time saved to take a break or to spend it with the people we care about.

Third lesson: design uses science and technology intelligen­tly. And that is true whether it is reflecting or transformi­ng tradition.

The okama had sides with gradual curves. Such a shape meant the fire’s heat would be conducted over a larger surface. This cooked more rice, more quickly, and more evenly. The rice cooker mimicked this shape (reflected tradition), and added two features (transforme­d tradition). First, to make it even safer and more convenient, an additional outer container wrapped around the metal pot, keeping the heat in and ensuring the rice cooker was safer to touch. The second feature was the switch came with a thermostat, which regulated the temperatur­e for the rice to be cooked just right, at the right temperatur­e, for the right amount of time.

Fourth lesson: design respects cultures. It strengthen­s our shared values.

According to the New York Times, the rice cooker was the “first appliance designed specifical­ly for an Asian kitchen”. It focused on a food staple that had defined many Asian societies and economies for centuries, and in turn their beliefs and behaviors, changing neither the way the rice was prepared nor the way it was eaten. Compare this to say the microwave, which altered how food was prepared, cooked, and eaten, and even what was eaten. The book Consider the Fork thus calls the rice cooker the “ideal marriage of culture and technology”. Recipes, rituals, and values could be shared between families, friends, and across generation­s, giving cultures an anchor amidst accelerati­ng societal, economic, and technologi­cal flux.

Is the rice cooker the perfect design then? Almost, but no. But in its imperfecti­ons, it offers yet another lesson. The lesson is that in design, we must pay attention to both what we gain, as well as what we lose.

What did we lose with the rice cooker? Burnt bottoms. Because burnt rice rarely happened in the rice cooker, we lost the burnt bits at the bottoms of pots. These bits were amazingly yummy because they had been made crispy, crunchy, and crusty from the carameliza­tion and Maillard reactions of the sugars and enzymes in the rice grains. They risked being lost to the rice cooker, and with them, some of the shared recipes, rituals and values that anchored our cultures.

Moreover, the appeal of burnt rice spans cultures. From the socorrat in Spanish paella, to the tahdig in Iranian recipes, to Cantonese claypot rice’s faan ziu, and to Vietnamese cõm cháy, those burnt bottom bits are a mainstay of many foods and cultures worldwide. When certain cultures lose their burnt rice, will they lose something shared and universal too?

All however is not lost. Rice cooker designs in Japan now include settings such as “okoge” (the Japanese word for the burnt crust). And as a further testament to the universali­ty of burnt rice, rice cooker designs in Iran now come with a “tahdig” function.

Which gives us one last lesson about design from the humble rice cooker.

Design can strive to reflect and transform tradition. Design can use the latest science and technology smartly. Design can integrate all of these to respect cultures. Design can even anchor what is shared and universal. It can come close to perfection, but it will be perenniall­y imperfect.

Design then is as much about perfection as it is about imperfecti­on. Design thus must always stay humble, because design never stops re-designing.

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