The knife dilemma: Do we really need all those kitchen gadgets?
Earlier this summer, a digital interaction between a dissatisfied customer who had purchased a kitchen knife and one of the manufacturer's customer service representatives went viral (we really need to replace that term, by the way).
The blade of a knife purchased for over 700 yuan (US$103.87) broke off completely from its handle when the customer used it to smash garlic cloves for cooking.
The customer contacted the company, Zhang Xiao Quan, via their online customer service hotline, and received the simple response that "smashing garlic is not recommended" with their knives. The frustrated consumer then posted a screenshot of that response online, where befuddled and perturbed netizens across the country expressed their misgivings about the incident.
Much of the sentiment boiled down to a simple point – people in China have been using kitchen knives to smash garlic cloves for generations. In years past, people often used much less expensive knives to do so with no issues, so why should a pricey, name-brand knife split in half when performing such a simple, common task?
The company's general manager gave an interview on camera in an effort to explain the situation and quell dissatisfaction with the brand, but he ended up pouring fuel on the fire. He informed consumers that, in general, Chinese habitually use their kitchen knives incorrectly when cutting meat and vegetables, and they should learn from Michelin-starred chefs who cut the "proper" way in order to use high-caliber knives like theirs.
This, predictably, did not go over well. In my view, netizens and social media commentators around the world sometimes go overboard expressing outrage and indignation, especially over petty issues. However, to be fair, the manager's comments do seem a bit absurd.
As it turns out, this particular knife model has higher carbon content in its alloy than most, making it harder, thinner and sharper, and also making it less prone to dulling over time. Its drawback, though, is when used horizontally in a slapping or patting motion, the knife becomes susceptible to breaking from shear force across the face of the blade, so it shouldn't be used in this manner.
It likely would have behooved the company's manager to explain that point rather than admonish the kitchen skills of the entirety of China! Let's just call it a serious public relations gaffe.
The episode led me to think about the methods I use to crush garlic cloves. I don't use a knife. I have a garlic-mincing tool specific to the task. In my kitchen, though, this gadget is a bit of an outlier. I don't have a cupboard full of widgets and gadgets designed for different specific jobs in the kitchen. Other than the garlic crusher, I have a rounded-blade pizza cutter, and that's about it.
This is generally the case for most home kitchens in China. The basic necessary tools are used for a variety of tasks without the need for things like apple-corers, potato-mashers and garlic-mincers.
When thinking back to the kitchen in my childhood home, though, we had all of those and more. Orange juicers, steak hammers and salad spinners occupied drawers and cupboards, only seeing the light of day a couple times a month.
While these devices certainly have their uses, how necessary they are is an open question. Are they really worth the money they cost and the space they occupy? The answer, of course, is different for every household, depending on differing budgets, culinary habits and penchants for consumerism.
Is a whisk necessary? Perhaps in years past I'd have answered yes, but now I'm fully aware that a chopstick or two can mix eggs or batter (or do myriad other tasks as well) if used deftly. But it's true that a cheese grater, on the other hand, performs its job perfectly and is tough to replace with a regular knife.
The kitchen gadget debate also reminds me of a content creator who recently gained popularity online called "Uncle Roger," a character played by a UK-based Malaysian comedian. In his videos, he pokes fun at TV celebrity chefs who bungle Asian-style cooking by misusing ingredients and incorporating all sorts of unnecessary gizmos.
In his first video to go... viral (ugh)... online, he looks on in horror as a chef on the BBC Food channel washes and drains cooked rice through a pasta colander, something unheard of in this part of the world. He laments how the rice is ruined (and puts his leg down from his chair), which viewers found hilarious.
A recent TikTok video also surfaced where a man shakes his head in disbelief watching demonstrations of a tool specifically designed to grab pickles out of pickle jars purchased for US$25.89 and a bagel slicer with a price tag of US$39.95.
I can't help but share his incredulity. Common knives, forks, chopsticks, or in the case of the pickle-picker-upper, a washed hand could easily do the job.
It must be said, though, that most of these specific tools do their designated jobs more precisely. They do exist for a reason, after all – at least in theory. It's up to consumers to decide whether they prefer a small quiver of trusty, multi-purpose tools or a huge arsenal of contraptions for each individual task.
Personally, I'm more of a minimalist. I find that a few knives, some chopsticks and just a few other basic tools can adequately perform most culinary tasks. Chopsticks, especially, are wonderful in their utility despite their simplicity.
Physicist Hugh Everett theorized in the 1950s that there may exist an infinite number of parallel universes over which all things that could possibly exist, do. But I still have a hard time imagining that there's a universe in which I'd pay US$7 for a "cookie dipper."