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Sushi and academia

“Shiro dreams of sushi” is a great documentary, about a perfectionist sushi chef in Tokyo who earned himself three Michelin stars. Really worth watching.

In that documentary, a food critic says that great chefs have the following five qualities

  1. They take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level
  2. They aspire to improve their skills
  3. Cleanliness
  4. Impatience
  5. They want things their way

He also says that what makes a great chef is to bring all of these attributes together.

This reminds me of Gladwell, who describes in his book Outliers that lots and lots of experience are often needed to be really successful. There is a certain air of perfectionism in the background, too. And interestingly, many great chefs or artists have learned their trait from scratch, even though they do now things that are really out of the box. The same holds for painters, for instance, like van Gogh or Picasso.

All this makes me wonder to what extent there is a connection to academia. Successful academics are very devoted, take their work very seriously and work very hard. They keep on learning, and they stay curious. They strive for perfection, they are ambitious. And it takes a long time and a lot of training until they are at that point (I still think that it really helps to be a good classical economist to do great work in behavioral economics. And that macroeconomists can benefit from micro theory and empirical skills.). Like it does for great chefs. So far so good.

As for impatience and stubbornness I’m less sure.

There is some impatience involved, but then, what makes an academic do good work seems to be to play the long game, to make sure that contributions are as good as they get. Attention to detail is important, and so is it not to rush. Now, if one thinks of impatience as being eager to move on, that may be true, and it may be related to academics often saying that they want time to do their research.

Last, stubbornness. Yes, academics sometimes want things their way, but what seems to be important is to strike a balance between that and what is useful to society and what the community values.

In the end of the day, there seems to be a connection to being a great chef I believe, even when it comes to those last two qualities. Academics do science for others, and the same holds for preparing a great meal. And if impatience means that one is looking forward to reaching perfection to finish a project before serving it to others, then that could fit too.

Homemade pretzels

I’m from Southern Germany, and just as many of my friends who also came to live somewhere outside of Germany, one of the things I’m really missing on a Saturday morning is a fresh pretzl, with a bit of butter and maybe some cheese. I’m saying Saturday because I recall going to the bakery with my dad before breakfast to get some. And those bakeries were normally closed on Sunday.

We call them “Brezeln” in Germany, and since I’m from Stuttgart I will of course claim that they were invented in Bad Urach, which is not far away. Bavarians will claim that they are from Bavaria, and in the end nobody can say where they really come from. But just as wheat beer they have made their way and are now extremely popular throughout Germany. Which is not surprising because they’re the perfect snack as they are, or with butter, so you will certainly get them on the streets or at train stations, for instance. Sometimes, in the US or elsewhere one comes across something that is called pretzel and looks a bit like it, but it is actually not a pretzel, most of the time (they are not supposed to be heavy and they are not supposed to be too crunchy or dry–instead they are supposed to be crunchy where they are thin and soft where they are thick).

A pretzel is made out of yeast dough and the brown color comes from lye. So it can’t be that hard to make them I thought. It’s a bit like molecular cuisine because of the lye, though. I’ve been practicing making them myself, and I haven’t been too satisfied so far. But this morning I made some that turned out the way they should be, and in the end it’s actually not that hard now that I’ve found the right balance. So here’s the recipe. You’ll probably have to try yourself what works best, because ingredients differ across countries. So this one is optimised for Holland.

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I’m going to make six of them. Here’s how we do the raw dough. I used a kneading machine, but you can easily do the dough by hand. On the picture you see that I put everything into a large bowl, in the following way. Start with 300 grams of standard wheat flour. Bread buns and the like usually have 2% salt relative to the flour in them, so add 6 grams of salt on the side. Don’t mix it with the rest of the dough yet, because it’ll slow down the yeast when we put it together with the flour and water. Put in half  a pack of dry yeast (or 10 grams of fresh yeast), that’s something like 3 to 4 grams, a bit of brown sugar, a bit of butter (about a tablespoon), a bit of milk, and some tepid water, about 150 mills. On the display of the scale you see 467 grams, so that’s it.

You can see that I’ve put the salt to the side, as well as the butter and have dug a little hole in which I’ve put the yeast, the sugar and the water. Then I’ve stirred the water very gently so that the yeast dissolves. This will produce a watery pre-dough. It’ll form bubbles, so let it do that for 15 minutes or half an hour. Then knead the dough. It’ll be a fairly dry dough.

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Form six pieces out of it. Then roll them so that they are about 10 to 20cm long. This is what you see on the picture. It’ll be hard to make them longer, so let the dough expand a bit more by letting it rest for 10 minutes. Roll and pull at the same time. Leave them a bit thicker in the middle (about twice a pencil’s diameter).

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Now it’s time to form the pretzels. The picture shows how it works. There’s no need to rush, you can do this step by step. Place them on a baking sheet with baking paper underneath and wait. Now it’s important to wait a bit, so that he dough expands, but not too much because then it gets too fluffy and will be dry. I’d say wait about 10 minutes.

Now it’s time to put lye on with a brush. It took me a while to figure this out, but you can actually get lye from the Asia shop. In Chinese cooking, lye is used to make some noodles, for instance. I’ve thinned it down a bit with water and have also made sure that I go with the brush a bit underneath the raw pretzels. You can also use natron powder from the baking section, or natron lye from the pharmacy.

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Finally, put coarse salt on top and use a sharp knife to make a cut in the thick part. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes at 210 degrees Celsius. Good luck!

Beef with black bean sauce

This was originally a guest post of mine on Meltem Daysal’s blog. Before we get started we put on some rice.

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Here you see our rice cooker, but of course a pot on the stove will do as well. Pandan rice is nice for this dish. Make sure you wash the rice, then put it into the rice cooker and or the pot and boil it. If you use a stove make sure you use enough water, then bring it to the boil, let it boil for a bit and then don’t open the lid but let it stand for 15 or so minutes.

I’m a big fan of exploring traditional dishes and really trying to get to the idea of the dish. The most important ingredient for our dish today are black beans. You can get them in any Asia store.

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These are actually fermented and salted soy beans called Douchi (豆豉). It’s apparently the oldest known food made from soy beans. They have a salty taste that reminds me a bit of bacon, so no wonder steamed salmon with black bean sauce is so tasty. Soak them in not too much warm water. If you have time, then it’s a good idea to do this some 10 or so minutes before you start cooking.

Today we’re going to do a stir fry. Asian dishes don’t use a whole lot of meat. For two persons a nice steak will do here. Slice it thinly against the grain.

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I really like to use a super sharp knife, it’s just so much fun to cut with it. Then we put some regular oil into a pan, ours is not too big and looks a bit like a wok, and fry the meat. I put my stove on the highest temperature. Unless the meat is of super high quality some water will come out, wait until it’s gone and the meat is a bit brown, but don’t leave it in there too long. Otherwise you kill the taste. This took about two to four minutes. While we handle the pan to turn the meat we cut some pepper, garlic and ginger.

Next put in the garlic, ginger and pepper. Add the soaked black beans and some of the liquid. Next, we add some soy sauce, something like four tablespoons, and a bit less rice wine. Make sure you don’t use Japanese soy sauce. I took the light Chinese one. You can get it, together with the rice wine, in any Asia store. Finally, add some sugar and a bit of cornstarch.

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The latter will make the sauce some thicker, which is a nice texture for this dish. That’s by the way something interesting I didn’t realize for a long time. A lot of the taste is about texture anyways. Leave it on the stove until the sauce thickens. The beans will dissolve and everything will become a creamy, tasty, salty sauce, with a nice tone of ginger and garlic.

I put everything into a bowl and that’s it—enjoy!

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