Mixing ingredients is an essential part of cooking. It's also one of the things that make kitchen-work hard. A growing number of companies are looking at ways to automate food preparation.
The manager at a ramen noodle shop near Tokyo recently added a new dish -- fried rice. Sounds like a pretty ordinary menu item. But the difference is that this dish has not been cooked by a chef.
The kitchen is equipped with a stir-fry machine. There are two key components: a spiral rod to toss the ingredients, and a spinning wok. It rotates to ensure everything is heated evenly. That leaves the chef free to focus on cooking noodles. The fried rice is ready to serve in just 90 seconds.
Shuzo Tagawa, of restaurant operator JS Food System says, "We can expand the menu without having to hire more staff."
Automated mixing is making inroads to sushi. There's a delicate art to making the rice the fish sits on.
Mixing sushi rice with vinegar is usually performed by hand. The sushi chef blends the two with a large wooden spoon, lifting the rice from the bottom to avoid squashing the grains.
A machine has been developed to do the work of a veteran. A pair of pronged shafts sits at the bottom of the container. As the shafts rotate the prongs churn. They flip the rice from the bottom, in the same gentle action as a chef. The maker of the machine is targeting sushi restaurant chains.
"I think we can help stores pull in more customers by raising the quality of rice and making sushi delicious," says Masaaki Shimada of Fujiseiki.
We also visited a college cafeteria to see a specialized food dispenser that was installed in May. It keeps soup and other pre-prepared food warm. At the push of a button, it serves up a precise portion with a uniform number of ingredients. It works for even chunky soups.
It's the mixing function that makes this machine special. When a diner presses the button, the machine starts mixing. It then serves up the exact amount. Each one is the same volume and consistency.
We check this by pouring two dishes. Both bowls have four chunks of beef. The other vegetables also show up in almost equal amounts.
The key components inside the machine are the stirring blades. The lower set lifts the heavier ingredients, while the upper one pushes down ingredients that float.
The wings spin as the button is pushed. Just before serving, they spin again in reverse. This ensures that ingredients are blended evenly throughout the soup, regardless of their weight.
Naoyuki Ikuta who heads Techno System, the company behind the machine, says he has plans to expand distribution to the US and Europe.
Less work -- and a tasty outcome. Automated food machines are ready to serve.