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09.07.2018

The Jetsons (#Only90sKidsRemember) are home, or at least one implement from our Cartoon Network future is. For a couple of weeks, the business press has been abuzz with news of  Mechanical Chef, a robotic cook built in a Bangalore lab by three engineers in order to automate - yes, really - Indian food.

There’s just one problem: it needs electricity, and when I turn up to the office where Arpit Sharma, Cohan Sujay Carlos, and Avinash Bharadwaj’s cute new cook resides, there’s no power. The machine sits on a counter, a mixer-grinder-processor sort of object that somehow also manages to look like a character from Wall-E. On a whiteboard is a list of 30 dishes: capsicum fry, moong dal tadka, aloo methi, cabbage palya, onion gojju, and so on.

For now, they’re not looking at “shaped” items, such as chapatis, vadas, or pooris: the machine favours the stovetop-stew-mix-everything-together category of dish. Arpit nudges me to try the bisi bele bhath.

Growing up, this elaborate rice-lentils-vegetable concoction was reserved for Special Occasions Only. I text my family Whatsapp group, uniformly equal parts robotics enthusiasts and foodies, about my upcoming taste-test. “Sit through the whole thing, then ask why it doesn’t give you boondi,” a reply bleeps. Crunch.

Bhath Naturally

The next day, with the power back on, we quickly get to business. Avinash, who’s handling the demonstration, fiddles for a bit on the laptop. Then I hear water drip down into one of the pans of the implement; we have set sail. Little robotic arms clutching spatulas or measuring cups whir into action. On a nearby laptop, a command-line interface displays the ongoing process: checking for tamarind, rice, jaggery, and so on, interspersed with gobbledygook.

Whose recipes, we wonder, is this small robot using? Avinash tells me that the makers roped in a cook to demonstrate some kitchen classics to them. They recorded these demos, then broke down the processes into machine-friendly instructions. I sneak a peek at one of their recipe sheets for bhindi fry: it’s essentially a deeply micro-managed recipe, one in which all the cooking is objectively condensed into a Zen koan of action: “heat, drop, or stir.”

Button Idlis

Mechanisation isn’t unthinkably new to Indian food. Our microwaves have presets for idli and dal, and our rice cookers have been changing lives from our grandparents down. For all the emotion associated with the personal touch (every Indian mom joke ever: “I don’t measure ingredients, I go by feel”), though, there’s something utopian about minimising the stress of Indian cooking by putting some of its processes on autopilot.

That seems to be exactly what Mechanical Chef is aiming for. While the machines seem destined to change meal-times at darshinis and office canteens, Avinash says that its quantities are such that they’re actually focusing on small households. When the next version comes out in a couple of months, they’ll be scaling up its functionality rather than its capacity, adding different stirring motions and new recipes.

As we talk, the chef-bot is cooking rice, water and lentils. Tubes along the circumference act as the in-house spice rack; potatoes, separately chopped, go in. Only a few minutes in, I have become an automation purist and ask why the device can’t also handle chopping: after all, this is an especially boring chore for reluctant home cooks. “We got that feedback, actually,” Avinash tells me. “But some people also told us that when to add what, and when to reduce the heat - that sort of instinct is what they’d rather automate.” Plenty of other devices on the market attempt to “solve” chopping for us, after all.

The machine needs a bit of tweaking to drop in the spices. Then, suddenly, the room is filled with the fragrance of something real and complex and kitchen-like. It’s taken an hour and some glitches and re-organisations, but it’s bisi bele bhath. As primed, I prepare to make my big gotcha request. Voila! a bowl of boondi has already appeared on the table; they keep some handy in the kitchen. This is good human-robot praxis.

To my surprise, each spoonful is perfectly spiced, even perfectly salted. It needs a bit more water, and more human input may be needed to organise all the sides (like the customary lashings of ghee and raita). For now, this Python-speaking chef is enough of a Special Occasion.

Getting there: Sign up for a demo and updates about Mechanical Chef here.

Neha Margosa lives and works in Bangalore.

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