I’ve never watched cooking shows with any degree of commitment, but I often use Food Network’s website for recipes; since contributions are almost entirely made by professional chefs with strong reputations, they are more likely to taste decent when a schmuck like me attempts to replicate them. Their large staff of celebrity chefs all have brands to maintain, and this is reflected in their distinct styles of cooking. After enough mining of the catalog on the site, I found myself eventually gravitating to one chef’s recipes over all the others: Alton Brown. His respect for freshness, quality and simplicity resonates with me.

 

It was no surprise, then, that his name came up in my research for this month’s Miso Green. In this article, I have been planning to talk about my love for products that serve multiple purposes (I even made my own  futon sofa after being unable to find one here), and compare it to my disdain for the myriad niche inventions that are cleverly marketed to convince people that a fairly simple task needs to be completed in an even simpler way. I feel like Japan is particularly bad about this. I can walk into a store and pick out dozens of plastic pieces of junk that do only one thing. In a 15 minute trip to Himeji’s small Tokyu Hands, these standouts caught my eye: The “thumb thing,” which you put on your thumb to hold your book open while reading; an electric eye relaxing mask; all manner of head massagers; a cheek exerciser that looks like an adult pacifier; a pair of special tongs for removing gas cassettes from portable stoves; microwave potato chip and naan makers; and various plastic contraptions for cute-ing up bentos. While they are all conceptually interesting, I can imagine that very few of them would be used daily by their purchasers. Besides these, Japan also makes a culture of ingenious yet useless inventions. They’re everywhere, and it’s maddening.

 

Alton Brown fights this same battle, and has coined a term for these one-job tools: the unitaskers. He constantly bashes appliances that were created for one reason, and contests that in almost every case, there is a multi-purpose tool that not just does the same job, but often does it better. He professes that the only unitasker he keeps in his home kitchen is the fire extinguisher.

 

I could bash unitaskers until the cows come home, but instead I’ll focus on multitaskers. They’re the real heroes of eliminating unnecessary waste, and deserve more attention.

 

pressurePressure Cooker
Anyone concerned about the world’s energy usage should immediately pick up a pressure cooker. They cook brown rice in a third of the time that a rice cooker does, cook unsoaked beans in half an hour or less, and much, much more. They can be a little terrifying at first, but once you get to know yours, they become an indispensable tool in the kitchen.

Use instead of: Rice cookers, slow cookers, saucepans (in most situations)

 

kotatsu-heated-tableKotatsu

They do more than warm your feet in the winter—they are also the prime environment for preparing fermented foods. Under a kotatsu you can make yogurt, proof bread and bloom koji for making miso and doburoku (homemade sake).

Use instead of: yogurt makers

 

frenchFrench press

If there is any kitchen appliance I hate, it’s the drip coffee machine. Nothing makes becoming a habitual coffee drinker less appealing than their smell. Somehow French presses are easier to keep clean, and their ingenious design eliminates the need for disposable filters. But you can use French presses for more than just coffee—tea is another obvious use, but you can also use them for infusing oils and liquors, frothing milk, making whipped cream, and straining foods.

Use instead of: milk steamer, pitcher, tea bags

 

DSCF0786Silicone baking cups

Normally, I discourage the use of silicone over metal, but in one particular case, I think that silicone serves a better purpose than the only plastic alternative—ice cube trays. Plastic ice trays are fragile and impractical, but silicone bakeware, which was made to handle heat, also stands up to cold and makes ice better than conventional ice trays.

Use instead of: ice trays

 

cowl hatCowl/hat combo

Despite growing up in a tropical environment, I always found an excuse to wear a scarf. I’ve loved them for years. But in this most recent winter, I’ve started to feel that they’re rather impractical. The warmest ones are often too bulky. Cowls are therefore an excellent alternative, and they are inconspicuous enough that you can wear them in the classroom. Some cowls even have drawstrings built into them, giving you the option of using them as a hat as well. This is perfect for me; since my winter coat has a neck warmer built into it, I don’t need a cowl while outdoors, so I can use it as a hat en route to work, and then pull it down for ventures into freezing classrooms. It’s a single accessory that I can use nearly all day.

Use instead of: beanies, scarves

 

DSCF0783Suribachi/surigoki

These comprise a Japanese mortar and pestle, but I find them far more effective than their Western counterparts. The suribachi’s ridged surface allows for more efficient grinding, and so it can replace many electronic devices with minimal effort added.

Use instead of: spice grinder, coffee grinder, garlic press

 

DSCF0785Tension rods

In our apartments there seems to be little need for telescoping shower rods, but in spaces so small, getting a few can add a lot of storage space. They have a high weight tolerance, so you can use them to hang a lot of heavy stuff, including clothing and pots and pans, some of which will add decorative flare to your living space. They’re also a great alternative for nails and hooks when you live in an apartment with restrictions about wall holes.

Use instead of: clothesline, hanging hooks, cabinets

 

These are just a few less-than-obvious examples of multitaskers, and there are myriad more. Of course, any unitasker is worth owning if you plan to use it enough, but if it’s only occasional or to be purchased as a novelty, perhaps it’s worth rethinking. The versatility of any item is a key factor in determining your need

for any other. So whenever you shop, think past the obvious. Think: how else can I use this?
Ulu Mills
miso.green.ht@gmail.com