Tiny tots, pots & doll houses: Decoding the soaring popularity of miniature utensils for kids

Around 30 years ago, an old man used to sit on MG Road in what was still Bangalore (the road was then still called South Parade). He sold kitchen sets carved from soft soapstone, which allowed details like perfect little indentations in the idli pan. It was old-fashioned even then — my grandmother remembered having a similar set when she was small — and soon after I bought a set, the man disappeared.

The tiny kitchen was curiously compelling. People’s fingers were drawn, almost without thinking, to the cool stone pots, mashing the tiny cylindrical grinding stone against its rectangular base or fitting the two stone wheels of the hand mill ready to grind tiny grains. Over time I found other sets, like an even more detailed one in clay, including ladles and a winnowing fan for cleaning rice, and modern versions in cheap metal and plastic that were more aspirational, with a pressure cooker, electric mixer-grinder and gas cylinder and stove.

This divergence runs through the history of toy kitchens. Writing on the history of dollhouses in The Atlantic magazine, Nicole Cooley notes that the European tradition involved distinct strands: elaborate houses meant to showcase the up-to-date styles of their aristocratic owners and another of simple, functional “Nuremberg kitchens”, named after the German town known for its toy industry. “Used as teaching tools for girls, Nuremberg kitchens allowed mothers to show daughters how to set up and control a house,” Cooley says.

An Indian version of this was found in the bhatukali sets of Maharashtra. As chronicled by collector Vilas Karandikar, these could become elaborate sets of even 200 items made from brass or copper. These have found mentions in old texts as a form of play-as-learning.

Bhatukali has found a new lease of life thanks to people like Smita Hajare. When her father’s company that was making traditional metal utensils saw declining demand, she pushed it to make miniature versions of the same utensils. Demand has soared since then. “NRIs just love our sets. They are really fonder of traditional things than we are in India,” says Hajare.

Remaking the utensils in miniature wasn’t easy, especially since Hajare wanted some functionality. “You can really use our grinder to make chutney,” she says. Every year, she does events where kids learn how to use the sets, and she is happy to see that these days boys are often as interested as girls. The reason to use the sets may have changed from teaching practical kitchen tasks to memorialising how it was once done. But this in itself is important, she says: “At least they will know that this was how it used to be done.”

Jasleen Marwah also created a toy kitchen to memorialise a tradition, but had to make it herself out of clay. Marwah specialises in Kashmiri food, but is also interested in ceramics. This led her to think of making a ceramic version of the traditional wazwaan kitchen of Kashmir that is becoming harder to find. This fits into a tradition where miniature houses become ways of remembering and educating about past ways of life.

The more modern strand of toy kitchens is represented by larger play kitchens, some scaled up to the size of small children, that became popular in the US. These included devices that actually cooked, most famously the Easy-Bake oven, which used a heat lamp to bake cake premixes that were bought along with the oven. Later versions even included an actual heating element that was deemed safe enough for kids to use.

In Ann Hood’s memoir, Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love and Food, she recalls how she would make the cakes with her father: “Into the miniature cupcake tins and cake pans we poured mixes that only required adding water. I would peer into the oven as the light bulb inside it glowed.” The results were awful, she admits: “Powdery and chemical-tasting, everything either too dry or too moist. But every Wednesday night for three years, my father and I baked.”

The appeal of these gadget focussed kitchen sets may, in fact, have helped subvert gendered notions of play. The food writer Michael Twitty recalled in an essay how happily enthralled he was by his play kitchen from the ages of 3-8: “Its fake ranges were where I enacted the kitchen rituals I’d witnessed. I played at making greens, frying chicken, and stirring morning pots of grits.”

In 2012, 13-year-old McKenna Pope started a petition for Hasbro, the makers of Easy-Bake ovens, to make the toys in sober colours, as well as the usual bright ones, to make it easier for boys to play with them. The petition rapidly got 40,000 signatures, and support from celebrity chefs and, perhaps coincidentally, Hasbro announced it was coming out with ovens in black and silver. Pope went on to give a TED talk on the need for gender-neutral toys (though it is also questionable why colours need be gender coded at all).

Miniature cooking has grown greatly in recent years because it is ideal for Instagram and YouTube. In Simon Garfield’s book In Miniature, which details an elaborate world of small-scale modelling, he notes how “a video of a person making a miniature egg burger with carrots and broccoli in Japan has been watched 16.6 million times.” Is part of the appeal, he wonders, that the focus is firmly on the food, and not the antics of the chef?

But we also seem inherently drawn to the small scale, as Shilpa Mathi discovered when she started making tiny clay versions of food for fun, but quickly found there was a business in it. The dosa and vada-pav models were most popular, she says. Whether for education, remembering or just eye-appeal, toy kitchens and tiny dishes are a reminder that food is always fascinating, on any scale.

With Love, From Your Kids: 7 Thoughtful Gifts To Make Mom Smile On Mother’s Day

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A Gift From The Heart

It’s not everyday that you get to pamper the one person who is often the one fulfilling all your wishes. And while you don’t need a reason to remind your mother how much you love her, a day dedicated to these super humans gives you the chance to make it special for her.

So ahead of Mother’s Day, we’ve rounded-up a gifting guide for every kind of mom, and in every budget.

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