Saturday, June 12, 2010

Attack of the robot rice makers! Fight!

It would seem that the ultra-hyper-extreme robot rice maker has become the ultimate status symbol throughout all of Asia. We're not just talking about Japan anymore. We're talking all of Asia. This is one subject my Chinese buddy from work and my Korean roommate from college can discuss endlessly with great enthusiasm. One is CS trained website developer from Shanghai. The other is Korean oral surgeon, trained at UCSF, who grew up in my hometown of Fresno. This one enthusiasm gave us all something to talk about recently.

Frankly, the escalation of the arms race in rice making can only be compared to one historical sequence of events I know of: The evolution of nuclear weapons. If you have ever seen the incredible documentary Trinity and Beyond, you know what I am talking about. We went from a tiny 15 kilo-ton bomb that blew up all of Hiroshima to a 5 megaton bomb which the Russians used to blow up their own Siberia... thus making the world safe for socialist liberation. We did all that in just a few decades.

I might compare this to the GPU wars between ATI and nVidia, but that progress is too slow. The competitors are much more lazy and much less ferocious. Also, there is no sense that national security and patriotic pride are at stake in the GPU wars.

Something very similar to the Arms Race is in progress in the rice maker world. Japan and Korea are locked in a mortal cold war. They are throwing progressively more and more resources into a super-technological battle. The faster it progresses the faster is progresses. The pace gets more and more frenetic each month. No stone is left unturned. No possible refinement is left out. No discovery is left un-applied. Price is no object. Logistics are everything. Win the war first. We'll figure out how to pay for it later.

This is a point of honor, you know. The Japanese absolutely cannot abide the notion that the Koreans might ever be regarded as the designers and manufacturers of the ultimate rice maker. For the Koreans, it is an absolutely intolerable state of affairs that the Japanese are commonly regarded by Chinese and the Burmese as the makers of the ultimate rice makers. Korea must win this battle.

To wit, a raging pitch battle has ensued. The contestants are indefatigable. This is the 20th round and they are still swinging for the fences. These cats make the 300 Spartans look like pussies.

Back in the 2002, I moved into a tiny apartment in Pacoima on a Friday. I would start work on the next Monday at a petrochemical plant just 1 mile down the road. This plant was riding extremely well through the tough 9/11 recession, and it looked like safe harbor, which it was. I didn't like the 'hood, but I liked the rent, and I wanted to be close to work; literally walking distance. It was only suppose to be for 6 months, but it wound up being 12 months.

I was unable to get the gas hooked up that weekend. The electricity was already flowing. I had spent a lot of money on the move, so I was in no mood to eat out every meal that weekend. The Fry's insert that weekend showed a nice little rice maker from Aroma for the paltry sum of just $9.95, no rebate required. The advertisement said it would make 3 cups of finished rice. I was very curious.

I had never seen an automatic rice maker before in my life. This device was clearly low-end, but the sales man (a Mexican fellow) said he had one and it worked great. He looked totally sincere as he said he loved it, and made all types of Mexican rice with it (there is more than one style).

That was enough for me. I slapped my $11.00 on the counter and took it home. I doubted it would work as I tried the most basic recipe I could abide: 2 cups rice, 4 cups water, 1 tablespoon of sea salt, and 1 teaspoon of tumeric. I flipped the mechanical lever down. I was shocked when just 20 minutes later I heard that same mechanical lever go "POP!" signifying that my rice was finished.

It was perfect. Not to wet. Not to dry. No burn at the bottom. It was perfect. Tasted great also. I was shocked. This little bastard did a great job. I had no idea how this might work. How could a crude little $10.00 device sense when the rice was finished?

I knew it had to have sharp limits. I decided to fuck it up. I would make a psuedo-paella next. I threw onion, garlic, chicken and sausage in there, knowing the little Aroma couldn't handle it.

Guess what? The outcome was excellent. The finished product was delicious. Once again I was shocked. How could this little fucker do so well? How does it know? How can it monitor? How does it decided? This is still a mystery.

That little rice maker worked overtime until it died 3 years later. It had a good life. It severed me well. I got more than my money's worth.

When the time came to get a new one, I was ready to spend some money. If some is good, more is better. If the little one worked great, the big one will be sensational. I bought a Panasonic next, which I absolutely hated. It didn't work well at all for me. Tech support insisted (in broken English) that I just needed to learn to use the settings correctly. No. I was using the settings correctly. Panasonic just sucked. Maybe they are okay now, but they sucked then. It cost me 10x the price of the little Aroma, but it failed completely to replace it.

I inquired at several Asian cooking forums who might make the best rice maker? The answer was almost unanimous: Zojirushi. When I saw the price tag, I was pissed. My Zojirushi cost about $350 at the time. Correspondents insisted that this was the grand ultimate rice maker of the universe. I bit down hard and bought it in early 2006.

That Zojirushi does one hell of a good job. It did successfully replace my Aroma. It does everything that the Aroma did... maybe a little bit better. I can make enough rice for an army. It sings nice little tunes to indicate transitions from one stage to another. Through the past four years of basic satisfaction, I have often wondered if my Zojirushi was really worth 35x the cost of the Aroma.

I frequently set this troubling thought aside.

About a year or two ago, a Korean company named Cuckoo came to my attention. Cuckoo is a Korean manufacturer. As a point of pride, the Koreans point to Cuckoo as the maker of the ultimate rice maker now. According to rumor, no wedding among South Koreans is complete unless the bride's family gives the new couple a solid Cuckoo rice maker. In North Korean, elites somehow get a-hold of these imperialist tidbits and give them to their daughters at their weddings.

If you don't have a good rice maker, you are low-class scum. The better your rice maker, the better your kitchen, and the better you are. If you have a great rice maker, you're a solid family unit. If you don't, your fucked up. You are what you eat. This is now the ultimate class-status symbol, and this theory is spreading throughout all of Asia.

This fever combines Asian passion for high-tech with thousands of years of tradition in rice making and eating. It also helps very busy people to continue eating perfect rice without so much time an effort into the process. They love it... more than baseball and Starcraft put together.

I studied the Cuckoo in some detail. It seems that the key difference was pressure cooking. My Zojirushi is not a true pressure cooker. There are new models that are. Mine predates these newer and more advanced models. Cuckoo introduced pressure cooking to rice making. Cuckoo insisted that through the judicious application of pressure cooking (meaning less than 30 psi) rice making could be greatly improved.

I bought the sales pitch. I went to Super H-Mart in Diamond Bar, a classy Korean enclave her in Los Angeles, and I purchased one of the top-end Cuckoos. The Korean sales woman was absolutely delighted when she heard me say "I've been persuaded that this is the state-of-the-art". No haggling, no quibbling. I knew I was going to buy it. I knew what the device did and could do. She knew I had studded the Cuckoo before deciding to buy. I told her several things about it.

She was borderline estatic when she found out I already owned a Zojirushi and was now going to buy a Cuckoo. Mark one down for national pride there. The white guys are learning about Cuckoo. I saw a few smiles on a few Korean faces as I carried my prize out door. The people seemed delighted to see a round-eye buying a Cuckoo.

Well folks, the Cuckoo works good. It makes beans better than anything I have ever tried. My Zojirushi can't make beans... but... in terms of basic rice making, I would be hard pressed to say that it is better than my Zojirushi... or my old Aroma.

You gotta be fucking kidding? Nope. All of them make really delicious rice. I can't honestly tell you that the Cuckoo's rice destroys the Aroma. I can't tell you that the Zojirushi destroys the Aroma. They sure are neater though. Ultra-wiz-bang technology. You know advanced technological wizards invented these devices.

Three events brought the ceremonial-nature of this rice-maker combat into clear focus. First, there have been several escalations since my last purchase. My Zojirushi is now very outdated and outmoded technology. Zojirushi has adopted pressure cooking, and they have even more expensive models now. Second, Cuckoo has been eclipsed by an even higher-end Korean manufacturer named LiHom. LiHom busted the $400 barrier. People are buying it also.

Finally, I finally made that fully-authentic Paella I have been mentioning. I did it with plain gas burner and $17.00 high-carbon steel Paella direct from Valencia. Dude... it wildly exceeded my wildest expectations. That Paella was officially the most delicious rice dish I have ever eaten in my life. I think it is the most delicious thing I have ever made in my life. I am talking about a flavor explosion.

To be fair, I should try to cook these ingredients in the Cuckoo and the Zojirushi before pronouncing the death sentence. However, those deep in the art and the science of the Paella know it will never work. The combination of frying and wide-open boiling is the key to the Paella. This cannot be equaled or replicated by closed-lid pressure cooking process. The results may well be very tasty, but the dish will not explode in your mouth like the real Paella.

I have to give you my clear conclusions: This rice maker war is a status symbol battle, more like car ownership than food prep. You can get equal or better results with a $15.00 Aroma, or a $17 Paella pan.

But I also like status symbols....