In the 2002 romcom Bend It Like Beckham, Mrs. Barma admonishes her daughter, Jess: "What family would want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day, but can't make round chapatis?" South Asian popular culture is replete with such hijinks — of women and their mastery, or lack thereof, of making chapatis, the whole-wheat griddle breads that are ubiquitous in cuisines of the Subcontinent.
Also referred to as rotis or phulkas, chapatis are traditionally made in small batches and served as people are eating. This means women are often in the kitchen kneading, rolling, and cooking while their families and friends are in the dining room eating.
Enter: the Rotimatic.
What Is the Rotimatic?
Part bread-maker, part 3D printer, the Rotimatic is the invention of Singapore-based Pranoti Nagarkar, a mechanical engineer and product designer who found it incredibly tedious to make fresh chapatis daily after a long day at work.
"Roti-making is an art," Nagarkar explains. "It takes a while to master the process if you've never made rotis before." And making 10 rotis a day? "That was just drudgery," she says.
She wanted to find a solution to her predicament, but one that was healthy. "In pursuing convenience, we have actually given up health. We have outsourced all our eating habits to supermarkets," she says. With the Rotimatic, "We're saying you don't have to give up your convenience and you don't have to compromise on your health."
How Does the Rotimatic Work?
So, how does it work? Much like a bread machine, the Rotimatic takes whole-wheat flour, vegetable oil, and water — placed in Tupperware-like, dishwasher-safe containers — and turns these common ingredients into chapatis. Using more than 15 sensors to remove variables like the brand of flour and the humidity in the air, the machine creates a perfect roti-sized ball of dough, which is then pressed into a 1.5-millimeter disc. The dough slips between two heating elements, where it is rapidly heated until it puffs up — and out comes your roti, piping hot and perfectly uniform!
The final product is doughier and thicker than I prefer — even on the lowest "thickness" setting — but each chapati that The Rotimatic ejects is exactly the same, unlike the chapatis that are made in home kitchens around the world.
The Rotimatic: A Success Story
So far, it looks like a success story for Nagarkar and her Rotimatic. Zimplistic, the company behind the smart device, is the darling of the Singapore start-up scene. An early prototype won the 2009 Start-Up@Singapore, which, says Nagarkar, "provided much-needed credibility with investors." Soon after, her husband, Rishi Israni, a software engineer, used his programming expertise to turn the mechanical roti-maker into a smart device (and also became Zimplistic's cofounder). Then, in 2013, a video of Nagarkar and Israni's prototype went viral.
By its 2014 project launch, the company had already sold over $5 million in pre-orders, and had to close them within a week. As of 2015, after securing $11.5 million in Series B funding, the company had a $72 million waiting list.
Most recently, in his National Day Rally speech (equivalent to our State of the Union address) in August, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lauded the husband-and-wife team. "With their resourcefulness and optimism, they give our society the confidence that 'anything is possible'," he said. "Put in flour, oil, and water; press a button; and out comes fresh hot chapati and roti, one per minute. If you have made chapati, you know what hard work it is."
But Is the Rotimatic Worth It?
Still, with a retail price of $999, the Rotimatic isn't for everyone. At Zimplistic's Singapore headquarters, I ask Nagarkar how she plans to convince potential consumers to plunk down nearly $1,000 for a machine that only does one thing. I mention my informal poll of my South Asian American friends on Facebook, most of whom buy chapatis, whether processed and packaged or made fresh by newer immigrants in the community looking for a bit of extra cash.
"First of all, it's not an appliance," Nagarkar emphasizes. "An appliance is a dumb machine. This is a smart device; it's a connected device. It has intelligence built in and is learning as it goes along."
She also reminds me that most packaged chapatis have a lot of chemicals and additives and that one still has to warm them up once they get home. "Plus, with The Rotimatic, you can make roti whenever you want to and they are going to be hot."
Here, Israni interjects with the following figure: Each chapati made by The Rotimatic costs the user less than $0.05, and the robot will pay for itself over the course of its life. Furthermore, future iterations of The Rotimatic may offer the ability to roll and press out "dough balls" for puris, deep-fried puffed flatbread — although home cooks will still have to fry them.
Then there's the matter of time. Nagarkar takes special pride in sharing her ground-breaking invention with the women of her family, especially those who had no choice but to make flatbreads the old-fashioned way.
"We have nearly 200,000 people on our wait list, and many from them are from India," she says. "Younger folks love the idea of it because they say they neither have the expertise or the patience to make rotis daily. Older folks, and those in my family, say, 'We wish this were there in my time!' No one has time to stand in front of a hot flame to make rotis every day."
And, importantly, even if they do have time, women won't need to be in the kitchen making roti; they can be out eating with everyone.
How to Buy a Rotimatic
Ready to buy a Rotimatic? You'll have to wait your turn. The smart device is currently sold out until the end of 2016, but the site does offers a wait list for interested customers.
And, at least for now, the Rotimatic is only available via Rotimatic.com. Zimplistic has no plans to introduce the roti-making robot into retail channels, so U.S. customers shouldn't expect to see it in their favorite upmarket kitchenware shop soon.