The best housewares from around the world!
July 17, 2013 12:17 PM   Subscribe

What are the best household items or life accessories from around the world that most Americans probably aren't familiar with?

We've talked a lot previously about the best quality household goods. In the same spirit, I am interested in house wares and things of that nature from all over the world that your average American might not be familiar with.

These can be things that either do a better job than the standard American version, things that fill the same need but are very different (different kinds of beds, for instance), or items designed to do something that American households don't usually think of (some Swedish households have little shoe racks by the front door so you can take off your shoes!) I am also interested in household stuff that Americans would take for granted, but that have been elevated to objets d'art in other cultures.

Thus far my list includes:
Greek or Turkish-style coffee grinders/pots
Traditional Japanese futons
Chinese Yixing tea pots
Peshtemal towels

Oh well-traveled Mefites, can you help me think of some more?
posted by WidgetAlley to Home & Garden (52 answers total) 174 users marked this as a favorite
When I was in NZ, I was impressed that there were so many dual-flush toilets to save water. I've seen them in a very small number of public restrooms in the U.S., but not (thus far) in homes or hotels.
posted by scody at 12:22 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thai Triangle Pillows
posted by seemoreglass at 12:22 PM on July 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

Electric teapots are not common here. I loved them as a standard item in English hotel rooms.

(I have a dual flush toilet in my house in North Carolina.)
posted by something something at 12:24 PM on July 17, 2013 [9 favorites]

When I lived in Shanghai, I was very fond of the thermoses everyone had - they were bigger than the kind you usually see in the US and kept water hot for a very long time. Also, they were prettier than the ordinary US kind.
posted by Frowner at 12:25 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

The humble 'kaasschaaf' (cheese slicer). It was invented by a Norwegian, and can be found in every Dutch kitchen drawer.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:31 PM on July 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

bento boxes.
posted by Gungho at 12:31 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

All of the tea mugs owned by my Iranian ex-boyfriend's family had in-mug tea infusers and lids kind of like this, and they were aghast that I would be content drinking tea out of a freely-acquired bank of america promo mug.

I had a dual flush toilet in an apartment here in Chicago a few years back. It had some French-sounding brand name and absolutely sucked at flushing anything more than one single square of toilet paper, so we drew pics of it with berets and moustaches and made honh honh honh laughs every time it got clogged (which was usually at least once a week). That was the worst toilet.
posted by phunniemee at 12:43 PM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Moroccan tagines.

I have a raclette grill and it's just about my favorite thing in the entire world. Actually, it's second to my pasta roller, which is something else that I haven't seen in many other US homes.
posted by punchtothehead at 12:48 PM on July 17, 2013

In India there were these mesh food covers that you could put food under (specifically fresh fruits and vegetables) so that flies couldn't get at them (used in the kitchen, not in picnics). I don't think I've ever seen one in the US.

Also worth mentioning are tiffin carriers (aka dabbas), which are a great way to bring hot food to work or wherever.
posted by seemoreglass at 12:49 PM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Dolma pan

Double-stacked tea pot (and the tulip tea glasses)

Hamam scrubbing mitt


Moka stovetop pot for espresso
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:50 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dish draining cabinets.
posted by kimdog at 12:54 PM on July 17, 2013 [28 favorites]

posted by trip and a half at 12:56 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mom got me this type of Italian rolling pin. Supposedly it's for pasta rolling, but it is without doubt the best rolling pin I've ever used, for any purpose. It is perfectly weighted, and the action (without any ball-bearing, mechanical-fetish nonsense) is extremely effective.
posted by Miko at 1:02 PM on July 17, 2013

Clearly you need to be looking into Japanese toilet tech.
posted by brookeb at 1:06 PM on July 17, 2013

Sugar shakers (single-serving dispensers) like this one sold at IKEA are much more common in Europe than in the US, though they're catching on.
posted by aimedwander at 1:07 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Indian Tiffin (lunch) box.

The talking and washing Toto 'Washlet'.

Soba Pillow.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:17 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

The hot water dispenser is a common small appliance in Japan (and probably in other places).

Also rice cookers.
posted by snorkmaiden at 1:22 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I lived in Brazil, ceilings tended to be high (maybe 12 feet?) in the utility/laundry room, and it was common to suspend drying racks from the ceiling on a pulley. The rack could be lowered down to load it up with wet clothing, then raised up to the ceiling, where it would hang to dry up and out of the way.
posted by ambrosia at 1:30 PM on July 17, 2013 [10 favorites]

Clay pots for cooking! It's a bit like a Dutch oven in that you can use it on the stovetop and then move it to the oven, but you soak the clay pot in water before you use it so it slowly releases steam as it cooks.

I make a delicious vegan ca kho to with fried tofu and homemade nuoc mau, subbing soy sauce or kecap manis for fish sauce. Absolutely wonderful, and very easy.
posted by divined by radio at 1:37 PM on July 17, 2013

Once I experienced waffle-weave towels in Italy, I never went back to terry cloth.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:52 PM on July 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

Not an actual houseware, but every single time I go to the grocery store, I realize one of the things I miss the most about living in the UK. Simple but brilliant. Half loaves of bread.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:58 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was going to suggest pestemals, and then noticed them at the end of your list! I adore mine, have even been known to sleep in them. Wiki for those not familiar. You can get gorgeous handwoven ones these days on Etsy.

What about the folding clothes-drying rack ubiquitous in Europe: Google Images results with many different kinds? You can get these in the US, but we have more of a tradition of clothesline-type hanging drying. My wooden one is from a hardware store. I find these way more convenient than hanging things to dry.

Speaking of laundry: I had a washer-dryer in a vacation apartment in Paris once. I don't mean the stacked separate washer and dryer, I mean one front-loading laundry appliance that both washes and, afterwards, dries your clothes. It wasn't easy to use by any means (how is it that my college French classes never included the terms for "spin cycle" or "fluff dry"?), and after an hour and a half dry cycle, things were still damp. (I took them out and put them on the folding clothes-drying rack mentioned above.) But the concept just seemed so no-brain to me. Why take up space with two appliances when one can do the job?
posted by gillyflower at 2:01 PM on July 17, 2013

I know they exist in the States, but Germans are really fond of their soft- and hard-boiled eggs and so egg cups and egg spoons are very popular there.

Split mattresses and bed coverings are also pretty much standard and, I think, awesome. A "queen" sized (or whatever equivalent is there, I forget) is made of two single-sized mattresses butted together, and each side of the bed gets its own comforter (one large sheet for the whole bed, though). We ended up getting a split foam mattress here in the States and it is great if you want to sleep next to your partner but also hate that they toss and turn so damned much.

Hand-held sprayers in the bath are also much more common there than here.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2013

Ulu knife (which is American but not in nearly enough kitchens).

Why take up space with two appliances when one can do the job?
Because the household with such a device has to wait through an entire wash and dry cycle to do a second load rather than being able to dry a load while concurrently washing the second.

posted by jamaro at 2:33 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Dish draining cabinets.

This times a million. A friend's apartment in Rome had one, and I'm still scheming for a way to get one in my apartment.

Indian textiles. Affordable, beautiful, unique, utilitarian. I still have dupattas (somewhere in the territory between a scarf and a sarong/pareo type thing) I bought in India five years ago for like $1 that I still use all the time for everything.

I'm also a sucker for Indian-style bathrooms, but I'm probably the only one, so I won't go into detail on that. I could at least go for a hand-held sprayer next to the toilet instead of toilet paper.

My grandparents lived in Cameroon for ten years, and when they moved back they brought all kinds of strange little low stools with them. Useful for all kinds of things: sitting of course, but also as makeshift coffee tables with a tray on top, balancing your drink or a snack on if you're sitting on the floor watching TV, elegantly displaying stacks of books, plant stand, or any kind of "oh no I need a surface for a minute" type of need.
posted by Sara C. at 2:48 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

My in-laws brought a scrapper back from Argentina. It's basically a bottle cap on a stick. But it is the best thing EVER to use to get the stringy goo out when carving jack-o-lanterns! Not sure what this was used for in Argentina though!

Japanese Bath scrubbing towels, come in various hardness levels from baby soft to manly skin removers.
posted by vespabelle at 3:06 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Korean spoon and stainless steel chopsticks. Best utensils ever.
posted by scruss at 3:08 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

European curtain rails work very nicely - the ones I've found in the US are pathetic by comparison.
posted by anadem at 3:16 PM on July 17, 2013

I don't often see electrical outlets in the U.S. with an on/off switch on them, though it's pretty common in apartments especially to have a switch by the door that controls some random outlet for plugging your main lighting into.

A masala dabba for spices because I find little bottles tedious and even without cooking Indian food, there are common spice/powder combos that are nice to have together.
posted by zizania at 3:56 PM on July 17, 2013

I would really like for bidets to be more common here in the states.

That would be nice.

eponysterical. sort of.
posted by bilabial at 4:17 PM on July 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Beat me to it, bilabial. Not having bidets makes us uncivilized.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:26 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, my apartment in Brazil lacked a washing machine (utility sink + aforementioned hanging racks for drying) much less a dishwasher or even a hot water heater (crappy electric showerhead, ugh) but it did indeed have a bidet.

catch that bit about no hot water heater? Yeah, that would have been nice.
posted by ambrosia at 4:31 PM on July 17, 2013

French households may have sac a baguettes to bring home the bread.

Oddly bidets are becoming rare in both the UK and France. French houses tend not to have tons of space and interior designers seem to prefer to divide bathrooms so as to put the toilet alone in one room and everything else in another - the idea is to turn 1 bathroom into 1.5

Shutters and blinds are very common in France and, for this reason, exterior windows open inwards rather than outwards. This makes cleaning the panes easier and gives the option of having the shutters closed and the windows open.
posted by rongorongo at 4:47 PM on July 17, 2013

Why take up space with two appliances when one can do the job?

Also, because a dryer's drum needs to be about twice the size of the washer's capacity in order to dry the same load of clothes.

They do make the two in ones here, though, we had one and the dryer did NOT impress me; the whole thing broke pretty early on and I was glad to be shed of it. They're popular on RV's and tourbuses.
posted by lemniskate at 6:03 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The washer/dryer combos take 5 hours for every tiny load of clothes.

70's/80's contemporary British novels always mentioned hot cupboards for towels.
posted by brujita at 6:08 PM on July 17, 2013

I used to be very pro single-unit washer dryer combos. But the ones I and my friends have had in the US are atrocious; it wasn't as bad with the ones I've used in Europe or the UK. I was so glad to finally be rid of mine -- when it started burning my clothes, I had the excuse to get rid of something I'd spent so much money on and only lasted a few years. The customer service is also appalling here. But if you have a small household and can handle the time limitations of the units, and you get one that doesn't break down all the time or jump across the floor if it has a big load...well, they might fit your criteria.
posted by emcat8 at 8:10 PM on July 17, 2013

I saw lots of these in Israel, yet they are so rare in the US: remote controlled air conditioning units. So awesome!
posted by oceanjesse at 9:46 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sweat-free drinking glasses. Particularly of import to those of us living in hot and humid climates where a normal glass can produce enough sweat to overrun even the sturdiest of coasters. Of course, ironically, I can only find them in markets in the US.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:21 PM on July 17, 2013

BTW, remote controlled, small AC units are the norm in most of the non-western world. Central HVAC remains, I would wager, a minority that only the most developed take for granted.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:24 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Japanese pestle and mortar (suribachi) - it's ribbed on the inside so it's more efficient at grinding things down.

Wok spatula - so you can actually get under and turn stuff you're cooking.

Lemon press - at least here in the UK, these are not that common. So much easier than using "grindy" type citrus presses.

Tea press - great for normal tea, but even better for making fresh mint tea.

Silicone prep bowls in different cup sizes - incredibly useful.

Hassleback potato slicer - if you've not had Hassleback potatoes you're missing out.

Rice cookers - as mentioned above. Legendary.

Angled knife rack - holds tons of knives and they are all easy to get to.

Fleximat-type chopping boards.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:24 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Italian apartments (or at least the north) have these rolling steel shutters that go down over the outside of the window casements. In Bologna, they're all painted red (by custom).

You use a loop of strapping that comes through the wall to roll them up and down. They completely darken a room, provide some sound insulation too, and have less light leakage than any other kind of shutter, curtain or shade I've ever encountered. I want them desperately at home, as I'm very light-sensitive in sleep. But I assume they'd be prohibitive to get, install and maintain stateside. I mean, European light fixtures are bad enough when you need parts and they're light and little.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:00 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

They look like this inside.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:08 AM on July 19, 2013

Pan-"European" / Not the US stuff includes:
Washing Machines that will wash your undergarments in BOILING water. Said washing machines also do not have any words on them and only have cryptic symbols that no one has been able to figure out what they mean except the 2 or 3 that the owner uses. "This one turns my clothes into a Dreamcast!"

Air drying rack for wet clothes (as mentioned above)

Having a bathtub with no shower curtain yet having a shower-head wand that just lays there. Having a drain in the middle of the room to squeegee the water into.

Small, individual, hot-water heaters instead of a giant American sized one.

"Shelf" toilets. And having the toliet in a different room than the shower.

Bidets as a common fixture in the bathroom.

Ductless Heat Pumps (Though they are becoming more common in the US)

Mexican Stuff:
Comal - a cast iron flat piece to heat up tortillas on.

Mortar and Pestle

Tortilla holders

Tortilla Press

Lime Press

A single gigantic, oversized pot used to make Tamales

Spanish Stuff:
Paella pan

Jamonera: A holder for a huge leg of jamón serrano along with the a specialized knife jamonero
posted by wcfields at 6:10 PM on July 19, 2013

In the Andes, you have the aguayo, or awayu. It's a shawl. It's a baby sling. It can carry crops from the field. You can use it to carry stuff home from the market. Or to the market. You can use it as a ground cloth. You can use it to carry sheep. They're gorgeous, they cost about $3 and they last for years and years. I don't know that they really fit with the modern Euroamerican lifestyle, but damn, that's a Useful Thing. I've still got a few around and I use them to haul laundry up and down the stairs because it's easier and you're less likely to knock into things or scrape your knuckles on a door like with a laundry hamper.
posted by drlith at 7:39 PM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Freud tea ball. I encountered this in India and it was the best way to be served chai possible. Hella expensive though.
posted by jeremias at 8:47 PM on July 19, 2013

Viennese coffee spoons. They're smaller and have a thinner stem than a standard spoon, making it easier to get a coffee-appropriate portion of sugar out of a bowl, and easier to stir your coffee without splashing.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 1:40 PM on July 20, 2013

Stuff from Japan:

Shoe cabinets by your door are called getabako, and everyone has either them or at least some king of shelf. The entryway is a lowered area called the genkan.

Tatami are usually translated as mats, but they're really more like replaceable flooring - they're inflexible and very thick - and room sizes are still measured in increments of them (though the size differs depending on the region of Japan). Woven mats you actually just put on top of the floor are called goza and are mainly for summer use. Though they're basically a cheap thing to lounge around on, there are high-end fashion ones and even some that look like oriental rugs.

In the past few years sleeping mats with fans in them have come on the market.

I don't know if this is specifically Japanese, but there are nice ladle stands that are little bowls with a lip to catch the spoon part of the ladle and hold it upright.

Combination toaster oven/microwave units are very common.

Even tiny balconies usually have a place to hang a laundry stick, which is just an extensible pole of a certain thickness you can put hangers on to dry clothes. Better than a clotheline because it's unaffected by wind and can support a great deal of weight.

Kotatsu are heated tables with blankets that are great in the winter, particularly without central heating.
posted by 23 at 5:38 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

My favorite from Spain, the brasero, a space heater that goes under the table and is used with a long floor-length tablecloth that you put on your lap like a blanket. Originally, they weren't electric but pans of hot coals under the table.

With book and a cup of something hot, it is amazing in the winter.
posted by maca at 9:27 AM on July 22, 2013

Response by poster: Oh wow, these are all amazing! I wish I could mark every single one as best answer. Thank you for helping me consider the best of the best for my new apartment!
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:06 AM on July 22, 2013

Bamboo towels. They are so soft and stay soft forever. Also they tend to smell way less moldy than regular cotton ones in my opinion.
posted by KyleH at 11:08 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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