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Old-Fashioned Chinese Pressure Cooker Making Pop Rice post image

Old-Fashioned Chinese Pressure Cooker Making Pop Rice

An old man makes pop rice with an old-fashioned pressure cooker. Tools and devices such as this are fast becoming forgotten relics in a China racing for the future.

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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.

Old-fashioned Chinese pressure cooker

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.

Old Chinese man making pop rice with an old-fashioned pressure cooker

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.

Chinese pop rice bars

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.

This is the sack that the pressurized food explodes into

Bowl of pop rice

Pop rice

Chinese rice crispy treat


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Filed under: China, Craftsmanship, Disappearing Traditions, Tools

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

9 comments… add one

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  • André Vieira November 30, 2012, 6:55 pm

    Fortunately we have cameras to document those machines and traditional apparels. Soon they will disappear.

    P.S – That chinese rice crispy treat seems delicious!

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    • Wade Shepard November 30, 2012, 9:24 pm

      It’s true. And while we race to put up the tallest buildings in human history, explore space, and make fully functioning electronic devices the size of a mosquito we’ll forget how to make simple hand made tools like this pressure cooker. I once asked an architect in Hungary why they don’t make the great stone buildings like they use to anymore, and he looked at me and bluntly said, “We don’t know how.” But I guess we can always go back to the drawing board if need be. Thanks for reading.

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  • Jack December 1, 2012, 12:26 am

    I really lament the passing of the tools meant to last. I think it’s our downfall as a society. Instead of respecting craftsmanship and building things that last, we have turned into a destructive society intent on destroying instead of creating. I know I’m odd man out on this…..

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    • Wade Shepard December 1, 2012, 10:11 pm

      I’m will you here, Jack. We’ve become accustom to things breaking down and being unfixable. I’m sure many deep down like this because it gives them a reason to go shopping again 🙂 But what is interesting is that in the early days of household appliances, they were built with the same “made to last” ideology that many of the tools and machines they replaced were. My parents bought and old refrigerator before I was born and we used it all through the time when I was growing up. They then gave it to my sister not because it didn’t work anymore but because it was too ugly to keep in the house they redesigned. My sister used it and then gave it away to someone else for similar reasons. I would not doubt if that refrigerator is still being used somewhere.

      It’s just interesting that things are now made to break. What’s more interesting is that this isn’t just alright, but seems to be what people want. I mean, if you never had to replace the things you buy what would you go shopping for? 🙂

      It’s not just the machines and old ways of building but the approach and time that people put into using/ making/ doing them that’s just about lost. People just don’t seem to want to make the long term investments anymore — whether it’s for a refrigerator or learning a deep trade or art.

      The old man in this article sits in the street and turns these cranks for twenty minutes just to make one batch of pressurized food that he makes 10 RMB for. Who under the age of fifty is going to do that? Man, we just toss the stuff in an electric pressure cooker and go do something else 🙂 Our time investment values have shifted. I would like to say that I’m the type of person who would be willing to invest the time and effort needed to perfecting and carrying out an “involved” sort of old-time trade, but I’m not sure about it: I have a thousand other things to be doing.

      Then again, I often feel like a digital hand craftsman, endlessly spinning a pressure cooker with one hand and a fan with the other 🙂

      What I find startling is that complete craftsmanship is being lost. One of the things that I like about China is that there are still old-fashioned machine shops around where craftsmen still make tools. They are becoming incredibly rare though. As a world we’re becoming dependent on complex and long line forms of manufacturing. We’re losing the ability and knowledge of how to make things for ourselves without the need for large scale industrial methods. This is an interesting global shift.

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      • Bob L December 2, 2012, 9:35 pm

        This comment is great. i am with you.

        As for the fridge, there was a fridge in my dad’s basement when we sold the house a few years ago that had been running since it was bought in 1948. Of the many fridges that I have measured, including dorm fridges, this one used less energy per day than any of them. Still had the Office of Price Administration (OPA) sticker on it, Government controlled at $158.50.

        An interesting exchange I had today, with a friend (J) that does ALL his own work. Cars, bikes, has a big sawmill, planer, solar panels, micro hydro turbine, the works. As I was helping J with some minor construction, we were talking about his father in law who passed away earlier this year (my GF’s father as well). J mentioned how his dad-in law would step over a nail gun to get to his hammer. How he would NEVER use a nail gun. J said it as if that was a bad thing. His take was how much more work you could do with a nail gun (or whatever). I looked at it as, hey, you have X amount of time to do work, if you like swinging a hammer for X hours, there is nothing wrong with getting a bit less work done. ….and most experienced carpenters can put almost as many nails in as a man with a nail gun, with fewer mistakes. Whatever way you look at it, spending extra time to do a job in the way you think is better is a good thing. Fixing something when it breaks rather than throw it away, is a good thing. Making something yourself is always good. Sometimes there is a balance that has to be made between getting something that lasts a long time, or something that is easy to repair.

        There are still plenty of craftsmen in the US. The problem, as I see it, if you want to call it a problem, is that most of these people are doing this craftsmanship are doing it as a hobby. There are fewer and fewer people doing it as their job that I see. They are still out there, just not as many of them.

      • Wade Shepard December 4, 2012, 10:28 am

        That’s a good point: converting craftsmanship into a business is very difficult now. Most of us are no longer willing or able to pay a fair price for the amount of time it takes to create many handmade products. I thought about getting into leather work a while back, but then calculated time vs. potential earnings and there would be no way I could do it seriously. As a hobby, yes, but devoting my “work hours” to it, probably not.

  • Andy K. December 1, 2012, 1:14 am

    When I lived in China in ’92 there was a guy who would make puffed rice and corn like this. He added sugar to the rice or corn while it was cooking and we would get it as breakfast cereal. (Something I think he thought was quite odd.) When we get back to the US I tried the puffed rice at the stores and found it sad and stale compared to rice fresh from the cannon.

    Our observation of China was there were a lot of ‘cottage industries’ on the street, without the cottage. There was guy a few blocks over casting wash pans from aluminum collected on the street using the dirt (probably amended) to act as casting sand.

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    • Wade Shepard December 1, 2012, 9:50 pm

      Right on, the sweetened, fresh popped rice is delicious. Making it into cereal? What an excellent thing to do! Will definitely copy this move. Thanks.

      Yes, the cottage industries are still all over and are still incredibly interesting. Where most other countries have people selling things in the street China has people running entire businesses, workshops, repair shops, and food producing initiatives like the guy in this article. It’s truly amazing how people just set up these completely mobile operations on street corners and on the side of the street.

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  • Dave November 6, 2013, 12:00 am

    I just back from Taiwan, they still sell the popped rice on the streets. You can still buy the machines on mainland china.

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