Korean artist Jihyun Ryou, a graduate of the Dutch Design Academy Eindhoven, translates traditional knowledge on food storage into contemporary design. She found the inspiration for her wall-mounted storage units while listening to the advice of her grandmother, a former apple grower, and other elderly. Her mission: storing food outside the refrigerator.
On her blog, "Shaping traditional oral knowledge", Jihyun Ryou explains the motivations underlying her work, which actually go beyond food storage:
"This project is about traditional oral knowledge which has been accumulated from experience and transmitted by mouth to mouth. Particularly focusing on the food preservation, it looks at a feasible way of bringing that knowledge into everyday life. Through the research into the current situation of food preservation, I’ve learned that we hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology, the refrigerator. We don’t observe the food any more and we don’t understand how to treat it. Therefore my design looks at re-introducing and re-evaluating traditional oral knowledge of food, which is closer to nature. Furthermore, it aims to bring back the connection between different levels of living beings, we as human beings and food ingredients as other living beings. Through the objects of everyday life, design can introduce traditional oral knowledge into people’s lives through their experience of using it. Objects make invisible knowledge evident."
Talking about fruits and vegetables as living beings sounds rather woolly, but it is actually true. Vegetables and fruits continue to live even after they are picked. They keep breathing, taking oxygen from the air and giving off carbon dioxide, water vapour and heat. By regulating temperature and humidity, it is possible to slow down this respiration, resulting in a longer storage time.
Storing food outside the refrigerator
While many fruits and vegetables benefit from the low storage temperature in a refrigerator (around 40 degrees F or 4.5 degrees C), this is not true for all of them. So-called fruit vegetables such as peppers, courgettes, aubergines and tomatoes require higher temperatures and decay more rapidly in the refrigerator. They need high relative humidity, though. The shelf pictured above gives these vegetables a suitable space. Through the ritual of watering them everyday, they will stay fresh. The water not only raises humidity but also cools the produce, assuring a temperature that is higher than that in the refrigerator but lower than that in the room.
The same principle is applied to the fruit bowl shown above, in which a perforated dish sits over a bowl of water. The concept is inspired by the old farmer's wisdom to preserve fruits fresh before selling.
Keeping vegetables in slightly damp sand has been a storage method for many centuries. While low temperatures are favourable for vegetables like carrots, high humidity is equally important. Keeping them in wet sand can be a good compromise. In the design above, this concept is improved by burying the vegetables upright, mimicking their growth conditions - and making them last longer, says Jihyun Ryou. Just don't forget to water them from time to time.
Rice absorbs humidity
Other foods, like spices, garlic, onions and sweet potatoes, require low humidity but higher temperatures, which also makes them unstuibale for storage in a refrigerator. Because it absorbs moisture easily, rice can be of great help here. In the design above, the cork lid of each spice container contains a small space holding rice, which helps to keep the spices dry without forming into lumps.
Some fruits and vegetables (notably apples but also tomatoes, avocados, bananas, muskmelons, pears, plums, and peaches) emit ethylene gas. This has the effect of speeding up the ripening process of fruits and vegetables kept together with them, which is why it is wise to store ethylene producing fruits and vegetables separately. However, when combined with potatoes, Jihyun Ryou says, they have a positive effect, because the ethylene gas prevents the potatoes from sprouting. The design pictured above consists of a wooden box that keeps potatoes in the dark (a more common way to keep them from sprouting), while the holes on top allow them to benefit from the ethylene gas emitted by the apples.
The same design could also be used to accelerate the ripening of tomatoes, a process that is used - on a much larger scale - by food distributors.
Does it work?
The more food you can keep out of the fridge, the smaller it needs to be and the less energy it will consume. The designs described above show a refreshing way to do that, although it should be remembered that these are artworks, not consumer products. Using similar methods when storing food in a basement or a specially designed root cellar - the traditional way - will give better results (more on that in a forthcoming article). Furthermore, some of the storage strategies followed by Ryou are not generally accepted. Most of the sources that I have consulted (books, not grandmothers) say that ethylene gas will promote the sprouting of potatoes, not prevent it.
Anyway, her work will certainly encourage others to search for alternative storage solutions based on traditional knowledge - and that's what it is all about. Experience and experimentation will tell what works and what not.
More at Jihyun Ryou's blog: "Shaping traditional oral knowledge" and in this video. She also offers a beautiful booklet. An overview of temperature and humidity requirements for most vegetables and fruits can be found here (.pdf).
Thanks for the tip, mom!