Shriya That’s my grandmother making a chapatti, a flatbread made out of wholewheat flour and water and is a staple in South Asian cuisines. It is served with one or more vegetable or meat dishes and sits at the heart of meals cooked in homes all around the world.
First, she mixes the dough, kneads it, flattens a small amount of it with her hand — makes that distinctive slapping sound and finally she cooks it on a flat skillet, also known as a tava. The word chapatti comes from the word “chapat” which means slap, or flatten, and describes the traditional way of slapping the dough between the wet palms. The whole process, from mixing ingredients to the moment when the chapatti puffs up and is ready to be eaten, can take up to one hour.
And that’s the Rotimatic, an automatic chapatti making machine. It measures the ingredients, mixes, kneads, flattens, cooks, puffs, and prints out a finished chapatti in about a minute. An incredible saving of time and effort.
Rotimatic has transformed the traditional, manual process of making a chapatti into a modern, automated one.
Chris I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot, the podcast about the power and meaning of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
In this episode, Shriya, a year 3 double major in Communications and New Media and Political Science introduces us to the Rotimatic, an appliance first sold in 2016 that wants to transform kitchens throughout South Asia and wherever the South Asian diaspora lives in the world. Along the way, it may transform families and homes, too.
Like many kitchen appliances designed to save time and effort — the microwave, the hand mixer, the dishwasher, and its closest cousin the breadmaker — the Rotimatic makes a labor-intensive task easier, saving people time they could use doing something else.
Let’s be honest here — when I say “people,” I mean women, since most kitchens around Asia, including Singapore, continue to be the space of women. Whether they are working moms, homemakers, or increasingly in Singapore, foreign domestic workers who cook for their bosses, women run kitchens. So the Rotimatic could save women countless hours that they could use to do something besides kneading dough and slapping chapattis with their hands.
But how will they spend their time? This week, Shriya introduces us to the Rotimatic and explores what is gained and lost when a labor-saving device enters the home.
Shriya The Rotimatic is the brainchild of Pranoti Nagarkar, together with her husband Rishi Israni. She moved from India to Singapore to complete a degree in Mechanical Engineering from NUS. And after she graduated, she was a working woman in Singapore, tired of making batches of fresh roti after a long day at work.
So in 2008, she conceived of a machine that would do this for her. Prior to Rotimatic, the only alternative to the hard work of making chapattis by hand was to purchase frozen, ready-made flatbreads that you defrosted and then heated on the stove. But these came with unwanted preservatives. And they did not have the same fresh taste and puffy texture. Pranoti and her husband wanted to design a healthier, less labor-intensive substitute that would produce a hot, puffed chapatti, with the touch of a few buttons.
The result was the Rotimatic, a single piece of hardware with advanced software that could measure out the perfect mixture of flour and water, add a few drops of oil, and fries a single chapatti at a time in a minute. This machine appears to be the perfect one-stop service for rolling out a freshly made flatbread for the modern families today.
Innovative technologies such as the Rotimatic eliminate some tiresome chores for homemakers and working moms like Pranoti. The time they save can be directed towards the pursuit of their own passions and hobbies. Or they could use that time to do more for their families, like helping their kids with homework.
Chris Earlier this year a group of my students visited one of these modern families. One member of the group, named Haritha, invited three of her classmates to her home so they could record the family’s Rotimatic and see how it impacted their life. They were even invited to stay for dinner, so they could try the fresh chapatti as they slid out of the machine.
The other students, including one on exchange from France and an ethnic Chinese Singaporean, marveled at the device and loved the food. In fact, it was the first time either of them had eaten Indian food at someone’s house. It might be noisy, but she loves her Rotimatic for the time and effort it saves her every day. Haritha says that since they bought the machine her mom has had more time to share with her, discussing their lives and making new connections.
Haritha So this is the Rotimatic. on the top, you can see the mini containers attached to the Rotimatic and this is where you top up your flour, oil and water which are basically the main ingredients to make the chapattis.
So actually you can choose the thickness levels from 1 to 5, and we usually prefer level 2 for the thickness which is just the right level for the chapattis. And the roast level is set to level 2 so that it’s not too crispy and is just the right amount of softness. And the oil level is also included, we prefer 2 drops of oil for each chapatti. You can also choose the number of chapattis by pressing the up and down button here.
Sarah So what happens next?
Haritha So as you can see at the side, the machine takes just the right amount of flour, oil and water to roll the dough for one chapatti at a time. Then the chapatti is pressed and cooked for roughly 30 seconds here and then the chapatti is pushed out of the machine like a printer.
Amelie That’s so ingenious. So how did your mom do it before then?
Haritha Before we bought the Rotimatic, my mum used to stand in the kitchen for almost 2-3 hours to make the chapattis because it takes a very long time to make it from scratch. And kneading the dough for around 15 chapattis for the whole family is very hard and tiring.
Amelie How do you think the Rotimatic has changed your home?
Haritha So after buying the Rotimatic, I would say that life has truly changed for her and has become much easier for her in terms of making dinner cuz she only has to worry about making the sides for the chapatti instead of worrying about the whole process of making chapattis from scratch. And also the fact that I’m in university now and can only come home in the evenings after a whole day of lessons, dinner is the only time I can truly talk with my family members and talk about the events of the day and what is going on with my life.
And now that my mother doesn’t have to make the chapattis from scratch, she actually has more time on her hands and I can actually talk with her more when we are waiting for the machine to prepare the chapattis.
In addition to my mother having more conversation time with me, she also has more time for the rest of my family members too. My dad works a 9-5 job and my younger sister is in junior college now and both of them return home around evening time, therefore dinner time becomes crucial for us as a family to come and sit down together to catch up on each other’s lives. I would say that Rotimatic has really aided us to bond together as a family and even though it may just seem like another kitchenware, I think it has really changed the way we look at dinner now. And now that the whole family spends more time together, I am actually quite grateful for it.
Not only that, she’s also able to have some downtime for herself. Since she’s a housewife, she cooks all three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day and this definitely takes a physical toll on her. After the arrival of Rotimatic in our house, she only needs to do sort of half the work now as she only has to make the sides for the chapattis. And dinnertime is now her ‘rest time’ in terms of cooking and she can actually focus on her leisure activities such as watching TV or browsing the internet. Sewing and things like these.
Chris Labour-saving devices like kitchen appliances have long promised to save time and labor at home. But there’s no guarantee women will spend this extra time on themselves or on bonding with their families, like Haritha enjoys.
In fact, if we learned anything from the constant introduction of labor-saving devices into homes during the twentieth century, it was that each new pocket of time saved by one device wound up being filled by another household task.
Plus, as scholars like Sociologist Tony Chapman have pointed out, some new devices created new increased expectations of cleanliness. For example, the vacuum cleaner was supposed to free women from sweeping and mopping, hanging out rugs and beating the dust out of them. But with a vacuum, she was expected to clean the carpets and floors daily, instead of only when needed. The result was no savings of time at all.
Shriya Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell our listeners what you do?
Jayati Bhattacharyahi I am Jayati Bhattacharya, lecturer at South Asian Studies programme, in the National University of Singapore. I work on Indian business communities and also on Indian diaspora.
Shriya So what are your thoughts on the invention of the Rotimatic?
Jayati Bhattacharyahi Rotimatic created an interesting recondition in conveniences of everyday Indian life, particularly in the diaspora and working women, both at home, home I mean the Indian subcontinent, and abroad. Now to understand why I am pointing to these two particular categories of people, we need to understand the general and the overall social construct of Indian society, where cooking fresh food for consumption for the family is a daily affair. And most of the cooking and domestic chores are done by women, given the patriarchal structure of the society at large. Having said that I also want to make it clear that there are exceptions and the exceptions are increasing by number, that’s a positive fact. Though for working women balancing their work schedule between home and office, Rotimatic is a real boon, reducing their time and effort in making fresh rotis or flatbread for consumption in every family meal. For Indians who have travelled in different geographies, managing and balancing entire household work, raising children and also working outside, Rotimatic comes in very handy. Again, helping to reduce time and effort in cooking everyday.
Shriya Online reviews of the Rotimatic reveal how some women appreciate this new free time and how it has improved their relationships at home.
Manali, a food blogger:
Manali (Usy) Ever since I got the Rotimatic, my life in the kitchen has definitely changed for the better. I can relax and spend more time with my family when they are visiting me as they can make rotis themselves by pressing a button. Rotimatic is easy to use for all age groups and you don’t even need a user manual to use it.
Deepika Leela Dave, who lives in New York wrote:
Deepika (Kamakshi) A big thank to the invention for this era of women who really work hard to balance between their families and work life. This machine is a blessing and time saver for women and it has empowered me and my family to enhance my lifestyle. Yes, you don’t have to make rotis to express your love towards your family; your family needs more of your valuable time. Yes, you don’t have to make dough by your fingers to get exercise, you get it enough at the gym or at office. I love my roti-making robot which makes bajra and juvar roti, pizza and puri too!
Shriya The traditional art of making a chapatti requires mixing of the atta, water and cooking oil; kneading the dough, rolling the round dough into a flatbread and heating it up on the tava till it crackles and is crisp. Rotimatic does everything. You only need to add the ingredients into the machine. For these women and more, the Rotimatic is a game-changer.
A new Rotimatic costs around a thousand US dollars. It can consistently make rotis, but it will spoil eventually. No warranty can prevent the machine going bad. Plus, a Rotimatic is very noisy — it’s like a vacuum on the kitchen counter. It takes a lot of counter space and weighs around 20 kilograms. In terms of taste, those who eat rotis traditionally by hand may find the texture of a chapatti from Rotimatic too dense or doughy.
So is Rotimatic really worth the investment?
Shriya And have you ever considered buying a Rotimatic then?
Jayati Bhattacharyahi Not really, there is so much of discussion going on, even in our friend’s circle, … I haven’t actually given it a very serious thought about buying a Rotimatic.
Shriya But if you were constantly eating chapattis at home every day, do you think its a worthwhile investment to purchase Rotimatic?
Jayati Bhattacharyahi I would believe it could be. If I look at the reviews, it also says that it wastes a lot of dough because a lot of it is spread around and a lot of dough is also lost out in the process because you are not making it by hand so not entirely everything goes into the machine…apart from that it’s also the functioning of the machine, so if I am completely dependent on Rotimatic and come back home absolutely tired, my dough is also ready but the machine doesn’t work…in that kind of a case, I am not very sure I would give very raving reviews about Rotimatic right? I haven’t actually given it a very serious thought because I am an occasional chapatti eater.
Shriya Let me add one final twist to the making of chapattis. As we’ve discussed earlier on this podcast, many Singaporean families have hired foreign domestic workers to manage their homes, clean their homes and cook their meals. They stay in Singapore to reduce the double burden of Singaporean working women. In Indian families, these women from places like the Philippines and Indonesia learn how to cook chapatti from their female bosses. Even in families that can afford to purchase a Rotimatic, they want it to be made by hand. This makes an interesting sharing of cultural practices and foodways, despite the modern conveniences available in today’s homes.
For Haritha and her mom, the Rotimatic has led to a closer relationship. But traditional methods in the kitchen also have the potential to build relationships. It may be a laborious process to make a chapatti, but many Indian women still make this dish by hand every day. When the older women of the house teach younger girls and boys how to roll a chapatti, a homemade culinary tradition is passed down from one generation to another.
Chris So Shriya, when did your parents move to Singapore?
Shriya Right after they got married.
Chris When was that?
Shriya When my mother was only 23?
Chris Did she have any trouble getting used to life and food in Singapore?
Shriya Yeah, she didn’t really adapt to the hawker food here. It didn’t really appeal to her.
Chris Like what?
Shriya Like the food that they find in the Indian stalls here. Like the chicken murtabak, mee goreng and roti prata, they were completely unfamiliar to her when she first came.
Chris What, they don’t have those kinds of food where she’s from?
Shriya Yeah, like the food was very different from her home-made northern Indian cuisine that she grew up loving, so she spent most of her early years in Singapore cooking at home.
Chris That’s why she cooked at home.
Shriya Yeah so she learned how to make chapatti by hand daily and more than a decade later, she was able to teach me.
Chris Did she learn from her mother?
Shriya I don’t know the answer to that (Laughter).
Chris You don’t know the answer to that? You don’t know how your mom learned chapatti? (Laughter)
Shriya It’s not on the script!
Chris It’s not on the script.
Shriya But yeah she earned it from… (Laughter)
Chris Alright. We are gonna keep that just as it is. It’s awesome. It’s really good. (Laughter) Ok, so now you can do with this…
Shriya My grandmother is now visiting from India for a year. She understands that I can make a chapatti and stands in the corner of our kitchen checking on my skill. Soon she walks over and stands next to me, to see how I roll my chapatti. Now getting slightly nervous, I add some flour to my roll of dough lying on the round, wooden pastry board. Once there is enough flour, I use my rolling pin to even out the dough across the board. The result is an unevenly-shaped roti, like the map of some imaginary country. Its edges are shooting all over the place. I look at my grandmother sheepishly as I lay my imperfect chapatti on the tava to cook. She smiles and takes over to make the last few chapattis. I look on as she presses the wet dough between her palms nimbly and neatly rolls out a perfect circle.
Now that I think about it, maybe this was my grandmother testing to see if my mother had properly taught me the art of making a chapatti, after living so far from home for so long.
These are the rare moments I share with the older women of my house. I’m usually busy with school and my internship, so I have to treasure these whenever they happen. Making the chapatti by hand is an essential skill passed from my grandmother to my mother, and from mother to daughter. The long hours spent in the kitchen cooking chapattis are filled with me talking about my day and learning about my mum’s day, sharing our worries and helping each other out. These hours are valuable in maintaining a strong mother-daughter bond in my family.
Chris This episode was written and produced by Shriya Sharma. Our sound engineers were Johann Tan and David Chew. Special thanks to Dr. Jayati and to the student group that first got me thinking about the Rotimatic, other labor-saving devices, and their impacts on the home. Thanks to Haritha, Sarah, Amelie and Ruth.
To find out more about the Home on the Dot project, please visit our blog, where we also have transcripts of all our episodes, videos of the Rotimatic, profiles of all our student collaborators like Shriya, and links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot.
And as always, thank you for listening.