上個世紀的八十年代，很多移民的行李裏頭都有一具電飯煲。對他們來說，電視、音響、冰箱、洗衣機和錄影機 通通不是問題，但是電飯煲，美國、澳洲和加拿大會有這種東西嗎？他們實在不敢肯定。儘管親友老早就勸過他們不必擔心，就算老外的主食不是米飯，你也還是能 在彼邦的市場上找到電飯煲的。千里迢迢帶去一個可能要換壓的電器，這是何苦呢？
由此可見，我們中國人真是一個吃飯的民族。工作可以在海外，求學可以在異鄉，語言風俗也都能入鄉隨俗漸漸洋化，惟獨腸胃，雖有萬里之隔，依舊緊緊地 系在自己的文化裏頭，不舍不棄。而且我們還充分意識到自己那米食的文化特點。雖然這個世界已經充分地全球化了，尤其電器，幾乎沒有甚麼文化差異，巴西人看 的電視機和一個越南家庭裏的電視機不可能有任何顯著的分別。不過那一代的香港移民卻很清楚電飯煲是不同的，它是一種特殊的電器，附著在一種特殊的飲食文化 裏面，東亞有的，北美不一定有。
香港大學日本研究學系的Yoshiko Nakano最近出版了一本研究電飯煲的專著《Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers》，它讓我發現電飯煲固然是一種具有地域文化色彩的電器，而且它還會隨著地區的分別再產生出不同的細微差異。
原來日本的電飯煲就和香港的不一樣，例如蓋子上有玻璃的那種飯煲是樂聲牌專門為香港設計的產品。因為電飯煲大王蒙民偉告訴日本的工程師，香港人喜歡 在飯上蒸雞蒸臘腸，必須讓他們知道米飯是不是煮到了可以加雞加臘味的地步，所以蓋子上一定要有透明的玻璃。在日本人的眼中，這個做法是不可思議的，因為他 們習慣了在米飯煮熟之前絕不開蓋，沒想到香港人竟然會在蒸飯的過程中再添材料。
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.