If you had to name the kitchen tool you can’t live without, what would it be? This is the question we asked of journalists, bloggers, and food-savvy friends around the world. Woks and rice cookers topped the list for many in Asia, and as Paris-based pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz pointed out, a digital scale is essential in much of Europe for recipes that measure ingredients by weight. A few items that follow will be familiar, yet we also discovered appliances and gadgets that are uncommon—if not unheard of—in American kitchens. Check out these tools that exemplify local cuisines and lifestyles in intriguing ways.
Australia: Barbecue Tools
“No Australian household is complete without a full set of barbecue tools, including tongs, fork, scraper, and brush,” a Sydney-born friend says. Grilling is a time-honored cooking method throughout the country, and barbecued items hold a prominent spot on home and restaurant menus. The restaurant Manta in Sydney, for example, offers grilled king prawns, beef, octopus, and whole fish, while Rockpool adds grilled vegetables, figs, quail, whiting fillets, lamb, and lettuce to the mix.
China: Hot-Water Dispenser
Along with a rice cooker, wok, and steamer baskets, a hot-water dispenser, such as the kind made by Zojirushi, topped the list of essentials for our China-based sources. “On-demand hot tea and other warm beverages are important,” explains Susannah Chen, who lives in Shanghai. “Few homes in central and southern China have true central heating, and they’re typically poorly insulated to boot. Warm drinks and lots of layers are useful here!”
Cuba: Cafetera Espresso Pot
Ellen Silverman, who has traveled to Cuba three times over the past 15 months for her photographic project Spare Beauty: The Cuban Kitchen, says that cafeteras (aluminum espresso pots) for making coffee were ubiquitous in the kitchens she photographed. “In every kitchen you see at least one if not more cafeteras, which are used to make a cafecito, the sugary sweet coffee that Cubans favor.” A pressure cooker is the other “workhorse of the Cuban kitchen,” always visible on top of the stove cooking a pot of rice.
England: Vegetable Peeler, Potato Masher, and Roasting Tin
This is the Holy Trinity of tools for preparing the classic English Sunday dinner of roast meat and vegetables, according to a number of our sources across the pond. A good peeler is essential to make short work of the “neeps and tatties and other root veg beloved by Brits,” says one friend. Another adds that the masher is a must “given the country’s obsession with the king of tubers —shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, fish pie, anything you can eat under a layer of mashed potato.”
“You can play with the same vegetable endlessly by experimenting with different ways to cut it, and a mandoline slicer lets you cut vegetables into perfectly regular slices of varying thickness, thanks to the adjustable blade,” says Paris-based food writer Clotilde Dusoulier, author of the blog Chocolate & Zucchini, who is currently working on a new cookbook “devoted to the love story between French cuisine and vegetables,” as she puts it. “It saves the cook a lot of time, and it is the key to creating the kind of paper-thin slices that look so delicate on top of a tartine or salad.” Béatrice Peltre, a Boston-based cookbook author and blogger at La Tartine Gourmande, who was born and raised in northeastern France, is also a fan of the mandoline. “It’s a simple utensil that my mother bought for me at the foire d’expositions [fair] in Metz because I simply loved hers, which she had bought many years before and uses all the time to this day.”
Germany: High-Quality Knives
While the do-it-all Thermomix food processor might be the trendy gadget in Germany, Weimar-based food photographer and stylist Meeta K. Wolff, author of the blog What’s for Lunch, Honey?, favors another German-engineered device for slicing and chopping: “I think the most important thing in my kitchen would be my set of Zwilling knives,” she says. “They never go out of fashion, and without proper, sharp knives one is only half a cook.” No surprise, considering that two favorite knife brands among professional chefs—J.A. Henckels, which makes Zwilling knives, and Wüsthof—come from Germany.
India: Pressure Cooker
A pressure cooker is a staple in Indian kitchens for the speedy cooking of lentils and other legumes, according to Amy Yee, a journalist in New Delhi. “Dal is a staple here and a pressure cooker cooks them much faster than just boiling,” explains Yee. “India is quite conscious about fuel, whether gas for cooking or wood fires.”
Italy: Pasta Pot
A pasta pot with a built-in strainer and an extra-large straining spoon “to collect things like ravioli from hot water” are the must-haves for Rome-based Charity Curley Mathews, who writes the blog Foodlets.com. A stovetop espresso maker, such as the kind manufactured by Bialetti, also received a number of shout-outs from friends in Italy.
Japan: Rice-Bread Maker
The Gopan bread maker transforms whole uncooked rice grains (plus water and other ingredients) into loaves of bread. It sounds like magic, and it has produced magical sales for its maker, Sanyo Electric, too: The company introduced the machine in November 2010 and had to suspend orders for it less than a month later to allow production to catch up with demand, The Wall Street Journal reported. Our source, an American who has lived in Japan for 19 years, says that one of the selling points of the Gopan machine is that the bread it turns out is fluffy yet chewy. “Japanese are reluctant to sacrifice taste for energy efficiency or convenience, so new products have to make things taste good,” she adds. “That’s probably why it took so long to create the Gopan machine.”
Kenya: Wooden Spoon
“In any rural African kitchen, the must-have item is a wooden spoon,” says Kenyan William Carr-Hartley of Safariland, Inc.. “It is used to make almost every dish—cornmeal, stews, soups, bean pastes, and more—and when you break it or lose it, you just go into the forest and carve a new one!”
Korea: Kimchi Refrigerator
We heard about plenty of necessities for the Korean kitchen, including a hot-and-cold- water dispenser, rice cooker, kitchen shears (often used in place of a knife), and dolsots (black stoneware pots used for stews, soups, and bibimbap). But the latest hot—or cool—thing is the kimchi refrigerator. This specialty appliance—which supplements a regular fridge—has separate climate-controlled sections designed for optimal fermentation and storage of the country’s signature pickled vegetables. Marketers also promote the device for keeping kimchi’s powerful aroma separate from other foods. The refrigerators are meant to mimic the time-honored method of burying a kimchi-filled crock in the ground and leaving it to ferment, according to an article in The Korea Times, which reported that more than 14 million of these high-tech kimchi keepers were sold in 2010.
Malaysia: Mortar And Pestle
A mortar and pestle for making curry pastes, salads, and much more topped the list for Malaysia-based food and travel writer Robyn Eckhardt. “I live in Penang, a former spice route trading port that’s home to centuries of kitchen traditions,” says Eckhardt, who writes the blog EatingAsia. “Home cooks here may have modern, state-of-the-art kitchens, but every single one still uses a traditional kitchen essential: the batu lesung, or granite mortar and pestle. It’s for pounding the rempah [spice pastes] that are so integral to the local cuisines. I have a food processor and a high-powered blender, but I use my batu lesung all the time—yes, to pound curry pastes and som tam [green papaya salad], but also to pound chiles and tomatoes for salsa, crack Sarawak peppercorns to coat a steak, and smash open cardamom pods so I can pull out the seeds and add them to my drip coffee.”
This time-honored porridge-maker’s stick is “excellent for stirring oatmeal, soups, or coffee in a French press, and for bringing dough together, among other things,” according to a friend in Scotland. There’s even an annual event named for this tool: the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship, held every fall in the Scottish Highlands.
Turkey: Yogurt-Making Machine
“There is a growing trend toward making mass-produced products at home [instead of buying them],” says Istanbul-based writer, photographer, and food stylist Cenk Sönmezsoy, author of the food and travel blog Cafe Fernando and now at work on his first cookbook. “Yogurt is a very important part of the Turkish cooking culture, so yogurt makers are quite popular nowadays.”
Uganda: Potato Masher
A potato masher is a key kitchen tool in Uganda and other East African countries, according to Jennie Taylor, who works for One Acre Fund, a nonprofit organization that aims to fight hunger by helping local farmers. The tool isn’t used for mashed spuds, though: “East Africans, particularly those in Uganda and Western Kenya, eat a lot of matoke,” a type of green banana that’s soaked, steamed, mashed, and then served with a sauce made with vegetables, ground nuts, and sometimes meat. “I make a spicy matoke that includes tomatoes, onions, garlic, green peppers, long green chiles, and pili pili [a type of chile], and add ground beef when I’m not cooking for a vegetarian crowd,” she says, adding that the masher is a time-saver that makes the bananas extra smooth.
Megan O. Steintrager is a food writer and editor whose work has appeared in Gourmet Live, Epicurious, Food Network magazine, the Huffington Post’s Kitchen Daily, iVillage, Self, and Brides, among other online and print publications. Her latest piece for Gourmet Live was an interview with Mark Stevenson, the author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.