Thinking and Eating

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Mashing up psychology, culture, and food. Mark Lock (Yien Hao) is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School working on psychological research related to food and the digital marketplace.


Colorful Eye Candy (Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Repost)

My story on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution:

Turn off the lights and room-temperature Spaghetti Bolognese tastes awfully like little worms in tomato dirt.

When I was in elementary school, the parents at our school would turn one of the classrooms into a haunted house on Halloween (an American holiday celebrating all things macabre). Luscious “delicacies” for consumption would reside in a pitch black “tasting room”. Parents transformed the most innocent dishes to gruesome nightmares because they understood and exploited an important principle of eating: We not only eat with our mouths but also our motivations, emotions, culture, sight, and touch. When prohibited from using my eyesight in the haunted house, it became clear to me that vision as much as taste was critical to perceiving what we eat.

Naturally color, a visual cue, plays a central role in eating and can serve as a vehicle for instilling healthy eating in children. In the context of child nutrition and school lunch, there are two overlooked insights that can help the Food Revolution:

1) By creating meals around children’s color preferences on a plate, school lunch reformers, parents, and policymakers can increase children’s purchase, consumption and enjoyment of healthy food.

2) For children, color labels instead of calorie count labels can serve as more effective signals for food that is good for you.

Color in Food Presentation

While Jamie Oliver has often joked on TV about enhancing the viewer experience by providing “smell-a-vision”, viewers still derive considerable pleasure from watching rather than tasting wonderfully plated food. Our visual centers trigger our scent and taste brain regions even when we cannot smell good food. When a plate of food is presented to us, we already form judgments before the food reaches our mouths. As a consequence, making food attractive to children can significantly increase purchase, consumption and enjoyment of healthy school lunches.

Recently published research shows that preteen children prefer six different colors and seven elementson their plates while adults prefer three different colors and three elements (Zampollo et al., 2012). The difference is drastic and surprising, because everyone falls prey to the self-projection bias, a bias where people tend to think others are more similar to themselves than in actual reality. As adults, we might not understand children’s preferences and tend to plan school menus or family meals according to what adults think looks appetizing. However, adults and children visually perceive food differently!

Schools can increase the effectiveness of their nutritional initiatives with little to no additional cost. Just some smart planning is all that is needed. Meals can be organized so that the mix of foods at a lunch line exhibits a wide range of colors. Luckily, vegetables and fruits offer the most personality in the color department, so pushing tasty and nutritious food can be done effectively just by virtue of serving chopped fruit or veggie mixes. Colorful and easily mass-produced dishes like stews, soups, and curries with a variety of ingredients can prompt children to broaden their palates while piquing their curiosity about the ingredients. The toy and child wear industry have known the power of color for decades, so why not apply the same principles to create literally healthy “eye candy” that excites children before it even reaches their mouths?

Color as a Signal

The lunchroom is where children start to solidify healthy eating habits through consumption but also through informational education. As schools start to label cafeteria food with their nutritional value, a question of how to convey nutritional value to children comes to the fore. A 2012 study suggests that color-coded labels are highly effective in triggering healthy food purchasing behavior (Thorndike et al.) whereas past literature has found calorie count labels to be ineffective.

Color is a more primal call to healthy behavior than numbers are. For example, green, yellow, and red are strongly associated with go, get ready to stop, and stop respectively. Even at young ages, children understand the different emotions behind darker versus lighter colors. Labeling healthy foods with green labels, less healthy foods with yellow, and unhealthy foods with red easily allows kids to build cognitive categories of what is good for you and what is not.

Why is this approach particularly suited for kids? First of all, calorie labeling requires much more complex cognitive processes such as numeracy and knowledge of a healthy person’s average caloric intake. Young children do not possess the necessary skills to process calorie information but can easily process color signals. Color labels also create directional effects of either attracting children to healthy food using a “go” association or steering them away from unhealthy food using a “stop” association. Calorie labels do not have this directional effect.

Color is a powerful tool. It can scare a kid from eating Spaghetti Bolognese for a year. Or it can aid countless children’s development of lifelong healthy eating habits and preferences.

About the author: Mark (Yien Hao) Lock is a researcher at Harvard Business School investigating effects of marketing interventions on healthy eating. His blog Thinking and Eating touches upon the intersection between psychology, marketing, and all aspects of food from consumer behavior to nutrition.


Thorndike, A. N., Sonnenberg, L., Riis, J., Barraclough, S., & Levy, D. E. (2012). A 2-Phase Labeling and Choice Architecture Intervention to Improve Healthy Food and Beverage Choices. American Journal of Public Health, 102(3), 527-533. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300391

Zampollo, F., Kniffin, K. M., Wansink, B., & Shimizu, M. (2012). Food plating preferences of children: the importance of presentation on desire for diversity. Acta Paediatrica, 101(1), 61-66. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2011.02409.x

Taiwanese Flavors: Science or Emotion (Part 3)

This is the last part of the “stories” series. Of course, we are not over the topic of emotion and tradition. We will be talking about why we form these emotional connections from psychological and biological perspectives later.

Chinese Bolognese? Fried Sauce Noodles? Exploding Sauce Noodles (Zha Jiang Mian 炸醬麵): After not seeing my sister for half a year, I could not wait to pick her up from the Boston airport and serve her these homey noodles for dinner. Such a simple dish has so much meaning to me. The history of this dish, my personal memories and the ethnic connotations of the dish intertwine to create a space that places my family within the greater Taiwanese community and within Chinese history.

Before delving into the stories, what is in the “exploding” sauce? Dried tofu which is actually not dried but has had a lot of water pressed out of it, so it has a dense, chewy texture. Minced pork, every Chinese’s favorite type of meat, provides the fattiness. Sweet flour sauce (Tian Mian Jiang 甜麵醬), a thick black syrupy sauce commonly used in its uncooked form as a dressing for Peking Duck. It is made out of flour, salt and sugar. The more you cook it, the sweeter it becomes. Soy Bean Paste (豆瓣醬), an extremely salty, umami paste made from fermented soybeans. Unlike Miso, which is a paste made from both rice and soy, this Chinese version of Miso is more aggressive and does not offer much sweetness. Before all these ingredients are stir fried together, the sauce starts off with a sofrito of minced garlic and onions just like any bolognese sauce (If you’re thinking what I am thinking, you’re probably right: Once again, Marco Polo stole a few ideas here and there).

Outsiders and Insiders

Many cultures have ways of creating invisible lines between the outsiders and the insiders, the foreigners and the natives. Food is one way in which it happens, creating that line which still marks my parents as foreigners in Taiwan but my sister and I as fully-integrated individuals. Ethnic dishes have their quirky traditions that are only known to insiders. For example, Spaniards never eat Paella in the evening. Likewise, Zha Jiang Mian is a pretentious work of art that asks for strict adherence to its cultural oddities.

1) At the very end, the sauce is NEVER stir fried with the noodles. It is ladled on top of a bowl of piping hot high-gluten noodles that have a super chewy texture. Dressing the noodles any other way is sacrilegious.

2) You must pronounce the name of this dish correctly to be eligible to eat it. Knowing proper Mandarin does not help. The first character 炸 zha is always pronounced with the 4th tone … unless you’re eating this dish. Then the character is pronounced with the 2nd tone. My Malaysian Chinese parents continue to bastardize the pronunciation of zha jiang mian and forever they remain foreigners in Taiwan.


When my father was on his long business trips, my mom in Taiwan would not know where to take us for food if she did not cook.  She was not the type to be adventurous, especially with two unruly children in a foreign land. My sister and I were so excited when one day we took a ten minute walk to a little dumpling store called 周胖子or Mr. Fatty Chou.  Today, Taipei is littered with Mr. Fatty Chou stores. Their dumplings are fatty, as promised, bursting at the seams with juicy pork filling.  Dumpling stores have a vibe similar to your local taqueria or deli: approachable, friendly and inexpensive.

My mother did not know what to order. Water-boiled dumplings 水餃 do not exist in Malaysia or in Southern Chinese Cantonese cooking. Wheat based food was anathema to my mother’s tropical diet which was full of rice and strong spices. She ordered what the next table had. Little did she know a little less than two decades later, I was doing the same thing but at an American deli in Princeton.

That day was one of the happiest days of my life, because the three of us shared umami filled dumplings and a big, hearty bowl of zha jiang mian with its soothing but foreign northern Chinese flavors: sweet and never tangy, salty and never spicy, thick and never light.

It didn’t matter that we were the only foreigners in the room, my mom was so proud of herself for taking her babies out that all her happiness spilled into the whole meal. Baby steps.

I have never had zha jiang mian from my mother’s kitchen in my life, but to me, zha jiang mian is homecooking. Sometimes, a food tradition adopts you. It shapes the memories you have with your family, regardless of where that food is prepared.

I always prefer my zha jiang noodles with contrasting strips of fresh cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts. My sister prefers minimalist flavor profiles, meat sauce and noodles, just like how she can stand John Mayer’s simple stylings while I chase down the next jazz piano virtuoso.

When my sister and I sat down for bowls of Zha Jiang Mian in my Cambridge apartment after her flight, I started to laugh. I remembered how I used to make chewing motions with my hands to remind my baby sister to move her jaws so she would not forget to chew her zha jiang mian.

Mixing Cultures: Science or Emotion (Part 2)

Continuing on from my previous post about stories and emotions behind the food we eat, here are some more stories from dishes cooked during the holidays. They represent the mixed cultural background that shaped my childhood.

Malaysian style Pad Thai/ Pad See Ew (Char Kway Teow): Most people are familiar with the Thai dish Pad Thai or its close counterpart that uses dark soy sauce, Pad See Ew. This is similar and a signature Malaysian dish that combines Thai, Malay, Indian, Dutch and Chinese cuisines. You have the dark soy sauce, lard (which I did not use), and wok cooking influence from the Chinese. The chili sauce from the South Indians. The ketchup from the Dutch. The wide rice noodles from the Thai (which are dry and what I used) and Cantonese (which are fresh and hard to find in even non-Cantonese Chinese areas like Taiwan). The proteins are Muslim-influenced since seafood and chicken breast are the safest bets for keeping a dish Halal.

My family moved to Taiwan when I was 5 years old, but every year we would head back to Malaysia for Chinese New Year. When the plane landed it would be the family’s mission to seek out Char Kway Teow first thing. It is one of the dishes my mom misses the most from Malaysia. Understandably so given the fattiness from the oil, sweetness of ketchup, saltiness of the dark soy, fragrance of the chinese chives, and the chewy rice noodles.

To me, Char Kway Teow represents the flavor profile of Malaysia. I can smell it a mile away. It brings me back to 90 degree weather, dirty coffee shops that show no separation between al fresco and indoor dining, sundry shops that block out the afternoon sun using their oversized bamboo shades, crazy shopping centers, and the messiest, busiest Chinese restaurants I have ever been in my life.

Smoked Salmon Fried Rice: So many culinary discoveries come from mistakes. There are so many things wrong with this dish that it is probably the best mix-up story in the world of cooking. Regardless, smoked salmon fried rice is comfort food from my childhood and is probably for anyone who grew up in Taiwan. If it’s strange to you, it probably is: my parents do not understand it either having grown up in Malaysia where salmon was not available let alone smoked salmon.

Smoked salmon fried rice combines Western (or an Asian conception of Western food), Japanese, and Chinese influences, which aptly sums up my experience in Taiwan. One day, researchers are going to document the history of this dish and this blog post will be in it. I was there from the beginning.

As Taiwan was in the process of modernizing right when I arrived at 5, many foreign influences came streaming in. Japanese food has always been part of Taiwanese culture but at that time, Japanese-influenced Western food (Yoshoku) started to become popular. We got spaghetti with ketchup napoletano (naporitan), angel hair with mentaiko (the roe of pollock which is absolutely salty and delicious), and of course, omurice (ketchup rice wrapped in an omellete skin). Around 1998 (I was 10) I first ate at Cafe Onion, the trending  Taiwanese-adapted Yoshoku restaurant of the time. They served this smoked salmon fried rice. The saltiness of the cooked smoked salmon offered little bites of flavor along with the umami of the eggs and wok-charred mixed veggies.

Smoked salmon is not native to Japanese cuisine (fresh sashimi salmon is the norm) but is from the Scandinavian tradition. Smoked salmon is also not native to Chinese cuisine. Salmon is seen as a Japanese fish and does not tend to do well when steamed, the preferred method for Chinese fish preparation.

Here’s probably what happened in the kitchen of Cafe Onion: 

Chef 1: Let’s put a fried rice dish with a twist on our menu so our more “Chinese” customers will be happy. Salmon is big in Japan. I think it would be nice to have a salmon fried rice. Could you get me some salmon from the market and we’ll try the recipe out.

Chef 2: I’m back from the market. The salmon from Japan is so expensive. I found this new western thing called smoked salmon and it’s less expensive. It’s also western which fits in with our restaurant brand image.

Chef 1: What is this? I probably shouldn’t taste it until I cook it.

The last comment aptly captures the ignorance of a chef from a Chinese cooking tradition and how it probably sparked the creation of this dish.

What’s wrong with this dish?

1) Scandinavians would cringe at the thought of smoked salmon being cooked through under high heat as required for any fried rice dish.

2) Japanese would cringe at the thought of smoking salmon in the first place. Fish should be fresh!

The Taiwanese invented a bastard of a dish that stemmed from misguided perceptions of the Japanese’s misguided perceptions of Western food. After two levels of cultural misunderstandings, I bring you one of my childhood favorites:

A fried rice flavored lightly with soy, scallions, mixed vegetables, smoked salmon pieces mixed and heated through at the end with a touch of sesame oil.

The Holidays: Science or Emotion (Part 1)

Welcome back readers (and to myself). The holiday season and the few weeks in January after them have been a whirlwind!

The holidays are when we really feel the emotional value and cultural traditions ingrained in eating and preparing these meals with family. This emotional connection is what we crave to create with our communal sharing of food and is also what we find most interesting when we hear others talk about their food traditions– much more so than how to create the perfect souffle.

Food can be very scientific. There are thousands of blogs out there with recipes that measure flour to the last gram and seasonings to the last teaspoon. This blog is not one of those; I’ll leave those up to the experts. In Top Chef, food is an objective standard based on a report card list of what is right or wrong – “not enough acid”, “did not render the fat long enough”, “halibut needed 2 more minutes on the pan”. Science has its place in the creation of food and drives great progress in terms of the types of well prepared cuisines and ingredients we can have today.

Food is also social and emotional. And this not only applies to food. In branding, we know that the brands and their associated products offer some sort of functionality but we also know that brands are also largely emotional. The merging of excellent functionality and an emotional connection that resonates with the consumer is apparent in every successful brand.

My favorite bakery in Boston is Flour Bakery. Not only does the bakery have the best sandwiches in town, it was the bakery I visited on the last day I was in Boston looking for an apartment in preparation for my move. The wide communal tables and cozy, rounded interior decor prompted me to stay an hour for a meal that probably would have taken me ten minutes. As I was finishing my sandwich, I recognized a familiar face from Princeton, same class but never met when we were in school. I made a new friend that day. When I moved to Boston permanently, I decided to visit the bakery again. A five year old girl shared her rice krispie treat with me and her parents were embarrassed at how talkative she was. Who  knew that a few pieces of baked rice could create a whole morning of laughter.

In honor of the holidays now that they seem like a distant memory, below are photos of meals I shared with my family and the stories behind them:

Cantonese Seafood Tofu Pot. My family is Cantonese. This Seafood Tofu Pot is a decadent dish you would order at a nice Cantonese restaurant and my parents would have never dreamed of having something like this as children. They have really come a long way from their humble beginnings.

Taiwanese 3 Cups Chicken-– one cup of sesame oil, one cup of soy sauce, one cup of rice wine. I decided to cook this dish and juxtapose  it alongside the Cantonese Seafood Tofu Pot on Christmas Eve. It was only fitting because this was one of the dishes that my parents and I were introduced to when we moved from Malaysia to Taiwan (where we call home now). It seemed utterly strange to them you would bring basil (a non-Cantonese ingredient), soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine together. It is now a family favorite. This was our “Welcome to Taiwan”.

Our Christmas Eve Dinner. My mom is a great cook and I watched her growing up. When my sister and I went to college, she threw out her pots and pans.

“I’m retired!” she said.

She puts on that scrunched up ‘bullshit’ face and laughs when celebrity chefs on TV say “cooking is about love”, “cooking is therapeutic”. She is a practical woman– cooking was a mission to her. It was about making sure my sister and I got tasty, healthy food on the table so we could grow properly into productive adults. Her mission is now accomplished.

Now this Christmas was my turn to cook for the family.

Christmas Day Dinner. Garlic Shrimp Pasta and Pigs in a Blanket. For a while, the only time I had western food was at the Taipei American School I attended as a kid from an expatriate family in Taiwan. Western cuisines slowly trickled into Taiwan around the time I was in the 5th grade. There was a dinky restaurant on a street that led up to the little expatriate community on a hill close to the American School. The restaurant served Italian food and was constantly packed. It was the only Italian place in town. 

My family decided to try this place since we knew that spaghetti would be involved. We could deal with that: they would be like Chinese noodles and we wouldn’t have to deal with any “foreign” ingredients.

Ever since then, our family has been hooked on Italian food. Today, Italian food continues to be the dominant and most loved western cuisine consumed by Taiwanese.  Italian food is so similar in many ways to Chinese food with its pastas, risottos and less meat-based dishes. We were always taught in school that Marco Polo brought back noodles from China and didn’t know how to make a sauce. He decided to use tomatoes instead of soy sauce and thus pasta was born.

On Christmas day, I decided it would be nice to have an Italian dish that any Chinese would love.

My sister also made some pigs in a blanket. She says she uses them to 1) say sorry 2) get people to like her 3) seem like a nice person without putting in too much effort.  What a deal.

The Psychology of Children’s Eating: How to Leverage it for Good

This post was originally a guest post for, a blog run by Sarah Wu author of Fed Up with Lunch and school lunch reform advocate. 

I once overheard a friend say, “ What is the deal with all these school lunch advocates? I had bad school lunches when I was a kid and I dealt with it. All that matters is that now I am eating healthy.”

He said this while he was forking some salad into his mouth … but downing America’s favorite beverage—Coca-Cola.

Actually, it matters more than ever that children should be eating healthily. Habits and palates are formed when young and surprisingly impact diet choices significantly later in life.

School lunch is where children have a chance of developing healthy eating habits when older. Try to imagine any other eating establishment that has a captive serving audience of 5 meals a week over 40 weeks which equals 200 meals a year for thirteen years (K-12). There are probably few to none that wield this amount of power.

Let’s evaluate the statement, “All that matters is that now I am eating healthy.” Such a statement is misleading because in psychological research we see time and time again that people are hindered by behavioral inertia to adopt new behaviors (even if they know those new behaviors are much better than their old ones). If children start eating unhealthily they need to overcome much more behavioral inertia to switch over to healthier ways of eating when older.

Status quo and default options are large forces in determining what gets eaten later in life. If children eat French fries and unrecognizable mystery meat day in and day out, this becomes ingrained in their perceptions of what is normal. Familiarity then leads to increased preference for these foods due to mere exposure, as has been evidenced in classic psychological studies. The psychological framework below illustrates how these forces strengthen and propel people into a never ending loop of potato chips and Coke.


The biological explanation further supports the point that school lunches can ruin or create a lifetime of healthful eating.  I had the pleasure of studying under Bart Hoebel, renowned Princeton neuropsychologist who built his research empire on obesity. His work investigated the effects of the two most prevalent ingredients in processed food including school lunches: High Fructose Corn Syrup and Fat.

He found that High Fructose Corn Syrup enables weight gain much faster than less processed versions of sugar such as sucrose. What is even more surprising is that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) intake triggers addictive behavior. Rats who received HFCS for a while and then stopped being fed HFCS exhibited signs (teeth chattering, eating more sugar after the sugar-fast period was over) similar to symptoms of nicotine and alcohol withdrawal.

Fat, while hasn’t been proven to be addictive, can mess around with people’s perceptions of food satiety. In 2001, Jiali Wang and colleagues showed that rats who were fed high-fat high-energy diets were desensitized towards eating fat (in human terms, this means it takes more and more fat to feel satiated if you regularly eat fatty foods).  If we are feeding kids high-fat diets, how easy will it be for them to change to healthier diets later on in life without feeling starved? It is pretty darn hard considering that an adult brain becomes less plastic and malleable with age.

What can schools and parents do?! Tips from the marketing department

Schools and parents should fight for school reforms and changes in home cooking with an understanding of how food is perceived by these kids for maximum effectiveness.

Why do kids hate vegetables and fruits, the most nutrient dense foods per calorie? They are definitely not filling on their own and definitely not addictive. How are fruits and vegetables going to compete with greasy pizza and strawberry milk then?

Flavor your vegetables!

A natural grilled beef patty is actually harder to process for kids than your average boiled cabbage, but is only much more palatable when it’s drenched in a sweet sauce or has been wrapped with chunks of fatty meat in a sausage casing.

Why aren’t we taking this approach to vegetables as well (but keeping our common sense about nutrition)? Spice up the flavor of vegetables by adding flavor! It is a bizarre phenomenon how school lunches are plagued with rock hard carrot bits and sharp tasting celery sticks. A  December 2011 publication from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that kids increased their consumption of vegetables by 80 percent when they were offered dips with them. Low-fat yogurts and regular yogurts both were equally effective! This means children’s neural pathways are not craving unhealthy food, they are merely craving flavor. Hummus and apple sauce are also good dips to use.

Present your vegetables (strategically)!

Mrs. Q posted a picture of her “party rice” some time ago where she included a variety of vegetables chopped up and dispersed within a large bed of rice. It was a huge hit for her son. What Mrs. Q did was successfully “market” her vegetables (or in other words, hiding them). In July 2011, Maureen Spill and colleagues published a paper showing that vegetables that were pureed and incorporated into other food prompted children to eat more vegetables. Kids ate 73% more vegetables calorie-wise when pureed than in their un-pureed forms and reduced their overall calorie intake by 12%! Because schools are forced to think about their lunches from a food pyramid standpoint, it is hard not to compartmentalize foods when planning menus.  But the extra step of mixing fruits or vegetables into starch or protein dishes may prove to be an effective tactic. Hide those vegetables and before you know it, kids will be eating more of them without even knowing.

Tofu Cuisine

Warning: food porn with absolutely no psychological substance in sight.


This is a comfort food for me on a wintry day. It’s called mapo tofu and is a combination of nutty (from the sesame oil), salty (oyster sauce), spicy (chili bean sauce) and numbing ( from the secret ingredient Sichuan pepper corns which impart a tangy lemony bite to the dish). Spoon this over some hot rice and I’m in heaven. My mom would never order this dish at restaurants because she thought it would be too hot for a kid to handle. And ever since I learned to cook I have been making myself this dish at least once a month. I have fallen in love with what I couldn’t have (I heard they make movies about stuff like this).


This is a Cantonese seafood tofu pot and is full of flavor from cooking in a clay pot traditionally. Seafood and soft tofu is a combination I love and can’t really be found in Americanized Chinese food.

A psychology post will follow this food porn post soon! Stay tuned.

What Do IKEA Furniture and Woks Have in Common?

Today’s post is about the IKEA effect by Mike Norton and why I love my carbon steel wok so much because of it (and why professional Chinese chefs have extremely strong emotional connections with their cookware). The IKEA effect explains why I am not crazy.

(Right: Yang wok, carbon steel which handles oil-based cooking Left: Yin wok, stainless steel for handling water based cooking, requires no seasoning)

Consumer products companies are people pleasers. To sell product they want to give as much comfort, happiness, and value to the consumer. Often times this means making a product as intuitive, simple and easy to use as possible so the consumer can be as lazy as possible.

“Siri, please write my blog post for me because I am too lazy to use my fingers.”

No, I did not write this post using Siri, but there is no doubt that companies are enabling more and more laziness (or “ease” is what Apple would say) for the consumer. This trend might not be the catch-all approach to success.

Mike Norton and his colleagues ran an experiment in which they discovered people who put effort into the products they bought, such as assembling their IKEA furniture or making their own teddy bears from Build-A-Bear, consistently overvalued these products (even if they were of a lower quality). There are two psychological explanations that are not mutually exclusive:

1) We form an emotional attachment with the product because we are spending a lot more time investing in it than we would a product that requires no upfront effort.

2) Cognitive dissonance and effort justification theory suggests we might change our cognition to explain our behavior. In this case, we increase our valuations for the product, because we want to justify why we put effort into it in the first place.

3) The infamous effect economists call sunk cost bias can be basically attributed to a combination of effort justification and emotional attachment.

Woks require an intense seasoning process before you can use them and also require some good old-school care. In other words, it is not dummy proof and requires large amounts of effort to use properly. For that reason, I love my wok so much more than any of the other quick easy fixes like non-stick pans.

It is absurd to ever hear someone talk about a personal connection with a non-stick Teflon pan. A non-stick pan gets weaker as it ages, and you buy a new one when it’s done its 2 years. Chinese chefs describe woks as “alive”, getting stronger as they age. The patina (shiny coating of anti-corroding black rust with carbonized oil that prevents the wok from rusting and sticking) builds up over time imparting a nice flavor to the food that is produced.  Home cooks have woks they pass down generation to generation.

Grace Young, award-winning Chinese cookbook writer, lists a million ways to season a wok in her book Breath of a Wok. I have tried probably five different ways to season and clean my wok and do so regularly. I worry about it incessantly at times and would never let a novice cook touch it. When it comes down to it, the wok is just a thirty dollar piece of metal that has my stamp on it (literally, the rims of the wok shows bronze splashes from the first time I erroneously used olive oil to season it).

It was something I built up and has sentimental value. Any traditional Chinese grandmother will tell you the same.

This is an example of the IKEA effect in action. A thirty dollar product has been transformed into, for me, a priceless product. Therefore, it would be fruitful for marketers to start thinking of ways to let people in on the “construction” process of the products they use—not necessarily customization features (which is already popular and need not be effortful) but finding ways to get people to expend effort. This can create enormous value.

But only if the end product is satisfying! Are there any products that inherently grow in value from “effort investments” not just from a psychological standpoint?

The key is marrying the psychological value of the IKEA effect with the tangible value that the seasoned product delivers.  I love my wok because I spent effort on it and because I see the progress and taste better dishes coming out of it every day. If a product is of a significantly inferior quality after it is assembled, there is no hope for that. It is just a bad product no matter how you spin it.

Thanksgiving and Food Porn

A new post is coming very soon. In the meantime, here is some food porn to keep you occupied.

From Thanksgiving. I made glutinous rice with pumpkin wrapped in lotus leaves (南瓜糯米雞) . It was a huge hit. This dish offers every mouthfeel imaginable and is full of flavor because all of it gets trapped inside the lotus leaves.

Classic dish: Kung Pao Chicken. Seriously sichuan peppers (lemony and numbing) make this dish really pop.

What do you do when you have left overs? Dump it into the rice cooker and boil it with the rice. Here we have chicken, ground pork, mushrooms and very fragrant pumpkin paste in the rice.


A Schoolteacher Who Ate American School Lunches For A Year

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon one of the most interesting blogs I have seen in a long time: Fed Up With Lunch. The blog is about a school teacher, who happened to forget her lunch one day and had to buy a school lunch, discovered the horrific quality of the food being served to the children.


When I visited, it turned out she had just released a book which I bought immediately since I had seen a few episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunches and Jamie’s Food Revolution (two shows focused on improving school nutrition in the UK and US respectively). This book seemed even better, because Mrs. Q (now revealed as Sarah Wu) took on the task to eat school lunch everyday for a full year, documenting all the meals that were served through writing and photos.

This is an absolutely amazing idea, because Mrs. Q overcomes the social projection bias, allowing her to understand the plight that school children are facing. Often times in marketing and psychology we talk about social projection bias (termed false consensus effect in earlier research). It is widely documented in social psychology that we really do not understand others due to an inherent bias to map our own experiences and preferences onto others. It happens everywhere.

In 1977, Ross, Greene and House conducted a classic study that exposed the false consensus effect where they gave participants four stories and asked, between two courses of action, what the protagonists would do at the end of it. They were asked to estimate the percentage of their peers who choose those answers. Then they were given a few distracter survey questions and then asked to choose the answer for themselves. The results showed that those who chose course of action A for a certain story gave higher percentages for choice action A in all four scenarios!

Our first year marketing students at Harvard Business School also show this bias. The marketing course always starts off with a marketing survey asking students to fill out a survey with questions that test certain preferences or behaviors (e.g. How many times have you ever posted a video on YouTube? or Rate how much you like to eat sushi?) Then we ask the students to answer the exact same questions but to mentally step into the shoes of everyone else in the class. So what would your colleagues say on average about the Youtube question or the sushi question? We did this with a variety of questions and ALL of them showed a systematic bias– a bias to estimate other people’s answers closer to their own. People who rated higher preferences for sushi estimated that the class had higher preferences for sushi. People who gave higher numbers for the youtube question estimated that the class had higher number of uploads than those who gave lower numbers for themselves. This makes sense that in a situation of no information, people use themselves as a data point to launch their estimations BUT this bias can be detrimental to fully grasping the magnitude of the plight of others like the students who eat horrible school lunches everyday.

There are two ways to overcome the social projection bias:

1)      You do it the old fashioned way, the way social ethnographers have done it for years. Go into a community and become one of the people you wish to study. Do what they do and integrate so that you can fully step into their shoes. This is the approach Mrs. Q has taken.

2)      But if you are male and you would like to understand how females feel when they head into a Sephora store, you can’t possibly step into the shoes of a female! This is where marketing research comes in. This can take the form of people reporting to you what you are asking them OR even better, you are gathering information about their behavior without them even realizing it since what people say can often times be counter to what they actually do.

This bias is so troubling, that it has enabled us to form double standards for the food we eat and the food our children eat at school. Many people wrote to Mrs. Q over the course of the year inquiring about her health eating all this junk food at school… I found myself sympathizing for her misery as well. However, Mrs. Q responded with such a powerful statement that I realize how psychologically blind we are towards people unlike us. She said something along the lines of: the kids are eating this everyday so why are you worrying about me. I did not even feel any sort of concern towards the kids’ wellbeing until Mrs. Q mentioned it. Thank you Mrs. Q.

Grant Achatz: Food that Captures Childhood for Adults

I absolutely love these two warm videos of Grant Achatz, famous molecular gastronomist/chef from Chicago’s Alinea, showing his planning process for the Childhood Menu. Harvard University held a talk where Achatz showed how he achieved the burning logs effect seen in the video.

Unfortunately the YouTube videos have been taken down but please watch the lecture on lighting some edible logs on fire at the link below. 

I love seeing the kids work in parallel with the adults in this next video.

And here (from Grub Street)  is the talk about how Achatz uses a high proof spirit and maltodextrin to light his edible beet soaked logs on fire. Gorgeous.

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