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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Rotimatic: this robot makes rotis for you

We try out the Rotimatic, a newly available flatbread maker that uses AI to give an age-old ritual a very modern makeover

Rotimatic rotis Zimplistic
Rotimatic rotis Zimplistic

When I mentioned to my husband that we’d be testing out a Rotimatic, his mouth almost started watering at the prospect. With that one expression, he triggered in me a married lifetime’s worth of wifely guilt, as though I’d misled him on our wedding day with the promise of daily hot rotis.

The roti is a staple in many subcontinental households, much like bread or rice in other countries. Traditionally made from wholemeal flour, the dough is usually freshly kneaded each day, before each roti is rolled by hand and cooked on a hot plate called a tawa. The ideal roti is thin, soft and perfectly round, and puffs up on cooking. The process of cooking a family batch of 20 to 30 rotis can take up to an hour.

With a full-time job, two children and plenty of extended family responsibilities, making rotis has fallen by the wayside for me. There’s the prep to make the dough. There’s the heat and effort to roll and cook. And then there is the nightmarish cleaning up afterwards. My husband understands. And as he doesn’t make them either, we’ve tried out a succession of different roti methodologies: purchasing home-cooked ones, and freezing or frying up store-bought ones. We’ve also tested out countless supermarket-bought flatbread variations from around the world.

Nonetheless, the idea of a woman making fresh rotis for her family each day is deeply ingrained in southeast Asian culture, and the guilt of not making them is hard to shake. It’s perceived as a symbol of a mother’s love for her family – but also a form of torture as she slaves behind a hot stove while her family polishes off a hearty meal in the next room.

But here we are in the 21st century. The fridge, microwave and washing machine have all freed women from the drudgery, boredom and aching arms of housework. So what about that final barrier for desi women: the roti?

Enter the Rotimatic, which uses artificial intelligence to create perfectly soft flatbreads and retails at US$999 (Dh3,670), plus tax and shipping. Compare this to the standard electric roti-maker, which will set you back about $50 to flatten and cook one roti at a time while you operate it.

A publicist tells me that the Rotimatic is “the world’s first fully automated, IoT-enabled, futureproof, and one-of-a-kind kitchen robot to take away the hassle of making flatbreads every day. It’s an innovation that comes after decades, and is the only gadget that is AI- and IoT-enabled, which is the first step towards the future of the kitchen.”

This makes me feel slightly terrified, and my technophile husband very excited. By the time I’ve worked out that all you need to do is put flour, water and oil in the top, he’s unpacked the enormous box, placed the small beast – it’s 20 kilograms and stands 33 centimetres high – onto the kitchen counter and installed the Wi-Fi app on his phone.

Desi men have been joking about whether the advent of the Rotimatic will mean that they no longer need wives. This may be in bad taste, but in reality, if this new technology really does free women from the kitchen and get them a seat at the table, then it is a great step forward. I’m slightly emotional as we press the play button and essentially start printing out hot rotis – I may be moving into a guilt-free future. Plus, I love rotis.

The machine takes about six minutes to warm up. It then measures out the flour, oil and water from the plastic containers at the top, and the ingredients descend into a miniature mixer where the dough is combined, one roti at a time. There is something reassuring and wholesome about knowing exactly what’s going into your food, even if it is automated. The ball of dough is then kicked out into the oven area, where it is flattened and cooked from below by a hot plate and heated from above.

About 60 to 90 seconds later, a small circle of floury goodness pops out from a small letterbox. It is tinglingly hot and soft. Rather than the single layer of the traditional roti, it has two layers. But it tastes remarkably roti-like, something we weren’t really expecting.

Rotimatic puris Zimplistic
Rotimatic puris Zimplistic

Our 7-year-old thinks the Rotimatic is a form of entertainment and stares at it for 10 full minutes. Every day after school-pick up, her eyes shine: “Can we do Rotimatic today?” I can’t work out if I’m happy at her embrace of traditional and healthy food, or wracked with guilt at having failed her all these years. But I have to be careful to usher her away from it, as every so often it ejects a worrying puff of hot steam.

There are some functional issues that need ironing out. It’s noisy. Grab-yourself-a-pair-of-ear-defenders kind of noisy. The containers tell me they are empty when they are not. The app doesn’t alert me when I’m away from the machine that there’s a problem. The pile of rotis collects in a dedicated tray so, like all rotis, the ones at the bottom get cold and a little bit crispy. And when there are too many, they slide off the tray onto the floor. Occasionally the dough gets stuck inside and we need an intervention.

Most significantly, the settings are for flour brands that have been pre-tested, many of which are hard to source where we are. But I’m assured that the technology built into the machine will adjust the preparation process and by the sixth attempt our rotis will be perfect again. This is where the AI kicks in. The machine learns about new ingredients and adjusts proportions, as well as mixing and cooking times, accordingly. What surprises me most is how easy the cleaning up is. There are a few parts you can pop into the dishwasher, and then some little brushes to sweep out any flour residue.

I check the internet to see what other people are doing with their gadgets and discover the Rotimatic has inspired devotion, with Facebook groups, YouTube videos and even a health guru posting hacks on how to avoid the machine’s idiosyncrasies. Some American aficionados have even used the machine to stock up on life-or-death rotis before hurricanes hit their territories and cut off electricity.

You can also use your gadget to make masala rotis, pizza bases and puris. And apparently there are more options on the way, and the software can be upgraded remotely via Wi-Fi.

A week on, it’s become part of our daily landscape and we invite the family over for their opinion. The mother-in-law announces “I’m impressed”, while my mum says: “It’s better than I expected. In fact, I think it’s quite good.”

The Rotimatic has been available in the United States, Singapore, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada since 2016, and recently arrived in the UAE through the brand’s website, Rotimatic.com. Surprisingly, it is not yet available in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, original homes of the roti (the company concedes this is because of the high price point). Admittedly, its eye-popping cost is perhaps the biggest barrier for most households. While I’m enjoying flying the flag for an AI-enabled future and women’s liberation, and while now that we’ve got the gadget we are busy using it, I wonder how many rotis I need to make to justify its cost. I also wonder if the Rotimatic is a legitimate option when taking out a bank loan. I worry, too, that it’s a big purchase for a gadget with just a one-year warranty.

The price point also worries me because, while my own roti-liberation has been completed, it does feel like the women who need it most might not be able to get their hands on one. I wonder if the company is missing a trick by not targeting a whole new generation of men who are increasingly flexing their feminist muscles. Men love tech and men love rotis. What could be better than buying themselves a Rotimatic and telling their wives that they are now in charge of this time-honoured tradition?

Somehow magically, that’s what’s happened in our home. With the arrival of the Rotimatic, our household has transformed into a more gender-balanced feminist-desi idyll. As I put the kids to bed in the evening, my husband whispers romantically: “Rotis for dinner?”

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