As I was roaming the halls of the Food and Hotels Asia exhibition in search of technology used in food preparation, I stumbled upon what is probably the most life-changing (for me at least) cooker: The AutoWok, an automatic fried rice cooking machine.
The AutoWok, made by Japanese firm Itoh Kouki Corporation (IKC), aims to churn out vast quantities of delicious perfectly fried rice to be sold in convenience stores or used in restaurants. As the name suggests, the machine features an authentic iron Chinese-style wok, but seated on top of a rotating motor to keep the wok spinning.
A custom stir fryer mixes up to 1kg of rice as it cooks, and keeps the rice continuously moving. The turning mechanism is gentle enough to prevent the rice grain from breaking and the starch leaking out, a process, I'm told, that can lead to "sticky rice," a big no-no.
And impressively enough, there's no gas flame, something considered essential to get that mysterious "wok hei" flavor that gives fried rice the extra punch it needs. Here's the secret: The cooker uses induction to heat the wok up to 300 degrees Celsius (572 degrees Fahrenheit), which caramelizes the rice as well as inducing a Maillard reaction to slightly brown the rice. Since the stir fryer keeps whipping up the rice to prevent it from burning on the wok, you get evenly cooked fried rice steeped with that wok hei flavor.
So if it only cooks great fried rice, what's the point, you ask? Well, the story goes back 20 years, when the current boss of the 7-11 group in Japan, which owns the chain of convenience stores, wanted to sell instant prepacked food and found the fried rice being supplied to be terrible. He then told his current suppliers to make it work or he would take his business somewhere else.
After having its engineers study a Chinese chef at work, IKC came up with the AutoWok, and the rest, as they say, is history. The CEO was so impressed he required that vendors who wanted to sell fried rice at its stores use IKC's machines, and I'm told that it's also used in other countries in Southeast Asia as well.
With a price tag of $10,000 (£7150 and AU$13,000), the AutoWok isn't meant for home use (which is a shame).
Does this signal the end of the Chinese chef? Perhaps not, as the AutoWok is only engineered to cook certain types of food, you'll still need a master chef to whip up the wide varieties of dishes that are far beyond the capabilities of this device.