An old man sat over a strange looking contraption over a fire that that looked like a tea kettle attached to a metal spit. When I looked closer I realized that the device was an old-fashioned pressure cooker.
There were three parts to the pressure cooking apparatus: a kettle, a stove, and a hand pumped fan. The kettle appeared to have been made from cast iron. At one end there was a pressure gauge, at the other a latch that could be firmly sealed. The end that had the pressure gauge also had a metal wheel that could be used to spin the cooker when it was placed on its metal stand over the stove. The stove itself was little more than a metal bucket that had a ledge to place coal upon and a hole at the bottom through which a sheet metal pipe connected it to a fan. The fan was built inside of a metal box, and it had a crack that extended out from it which could be rotated to pump air through the pipe and into the stove. This was how the flame was fed and regulated.
This device was ingeniously built: it was simple, practical, and made to last. It appeared to have been fabricated by hand in some rustic machine shop a very long time ago.
The old man sets up this rig in the streets and people bring him foods that they want pressure cooked. Beans, rice, and pop corn can all be cooked in this apparatus for 10 RMB a batch.
When I first arrived, the old man had just finished cooking up an order of what looked to be oversize kidney beans. The man who’d placed the order offered me a taste. They were crispy, salty, and oily — a combination in China that equates to delicious.
There was a crowd around the old man as he worked. Some of the people were waiting to have their food cooked, while others were just hanging out. The old man soon took another order and refilled his pressure cooker with rice. For around fifteen or twenty minutes he spun the cooker around and around over the stove with one hand while simultaneously cranking the fan with the other. He kept the flame at an even height as he cooked the rice within. Sometimes he stopped spinning the kettle to take a reading on the pressure gauge. Eventually, the order was finished, and he gave a call out for everyone to stand back.
The old man then removed the cooker from its rack and placed it on the ground with its business end facing into a sack. He then stomped down on the handle which opened the cooker’s latch and it exploded. White steam shot out in a cloud that engulfed the old man as the rice shout out as though blasted from a canon. The sack consumed the blast, and the crowd returned to look at the rice which was now completely popped.
The operator of the pressure cooker then set about cooking up a sugary mix in a wok over his still flaming stove and, after the syrup had melted, added in the popped rice. He stirred the mixture and then carried it over to a board that was set up on the back of a motorcycle cart. He then dumped the goopy popped rice mix onto the board as his wife flattened and smoothed it out. She then cut it up into squares, and it then became clear what was being made: rice crispy treats.
China is now know for it’s cheaply made appliances and shoddy tools, but this was clearly not always the case. Relics like this old-fashioned, cast iron pressure cooker is evidence of another time when metal and iron tools made to last for ages were the rule of production. Perhaps unfortunately, we now live in a time when you usually only see old men having use for such things.