I have evenly become obsessed with a phenomenon introduced to me last night. Aphantasia. Ever heard of it?
Neither had I. Last night I was scrolling along Instagram, as we all do, when I came across a post that demanded action. The post told me to imagine an apple. There were no confines to what I could imagine, just to conjure up the image of an apple. The post then confronted me with the image above, and asked me which ‘apple’ I saw in my brain.
I saw #5. Maybe #4 if I tried really, really hard, but mostly #5. The post then continued to define something called aphantasia: “a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.”
To say that this was an earth shattering revelation is an understatement. I read more about it, watched some videos, and discussed this phenomenon in depth with my roommate 'til around 2am. Was I really an anomaly?
There was another test online I stumbled upon. It told me to imagine a ball on a table. Then it told me to imagine a person coming over and pushing the ball off of the table. It then confronted me with several questions:
I asked Jess, my roommate, to try this exercise. Then I asked her the questions. She answered them without hesitation-the ball was blue. It was about the size of the baseball. A boy with black hair pushed the ball, and the table was our dining table, wooden and rectangular.
When I tried this exercise myself, I was only able to answer these questions after they were asked and I had to then decide on my answers. I decided to make the ball red arbitrarily, and then eh, why not make the person pushing the ball a girl?
My entire life I have struggled with certain things and just assumed everyone in the world struggled the same way! After thinking about it incessantly for 24 hours now, I’ve kind of figured out how to articulate what it’s like to be inside my brain.
My brain functions like a search engine. I obviously still have memories, I can still recall what things look like, but they are all based off of concrete facts that I have learned. For example, I know what an apple looks like because I’ve been exposed to apples, in real life and in photos, my whole life. So when I’m told to imagine an apple I can do so by referring to the facts I know about apples. I know an apple is (typically) red, I know it has a stem and a leaf, I know its general shape and its general size. So yes, I can draw an apple from memory.
But I cannot see the apple in my mind. Hypothetically, if I forgot that apples had leaves, my “mental image” of an apple also wouldn’t have a leaf. If you told me to picture an apple, then told me to change the colour of it, add a leaf, add some bruises, change the background, put the apple on a tree or my hand, I cannot do that. My brain doesn’t play out like a movie. All I see is darkness. My mental images are all pulled 100% from my memories.
Another example is that when I read descriptions in a story I don’t build the scene in my head. When my brain sees a description, for example: “The room was large and oval shaped. Sunlight poured in through the open window to my left onto the ornate Persian rug draped on the floor. In front of me sits a mahogany desk with a portrait of a man hanging on the wall behind it, and a crystal chandelier suspends above my head.” Can you see the room built in your head? Can you mentally place yourself in this room and “walk around”? I can’t.
However, it doesn’t mean I can’t write descriptively. I wrote that phrase above! Evidently I’m capable of placing myself in a scene I just can’t picture the room as a coherent space. I see a chandelier, a window, a rug, a desk, but all independently. They aren’t placed in relation to the other things, they just exist as simultaneously thoughts in my head. And when I say I “see” a chandelier, I mean that I can see a fuzzy sketch of a generic chandelier, or even in some situations, just the word “chandelier.”
Anyway, what does this mean for me as someone working in a creative field? All of you in the creative field must be wondering, how the hell do you manifest cake designs without being able to build the cake in your head? Are you literally winging it all the time?
Well since I’ve never been able to do that, I’ve had to adapt without even knowing I was adapting. My cake design process is based heavily on reference images, sketching, inspiration photos, tried-and-true pattern and colour combinations, and experimentation. Until a texture or colour combination is literally in front of me, I have a very hard time visualizing if it will be a cohesive design. As a result, I’m assuming a cake design takes me longer than someone who doesn’t have aphantasia. It also explains a lot of my biggest creative cake challenges.
I distinctly remember one cake that made me so frustrated–scream and pull out my hair frustrated. I had decided to wrap a band around the bottom of the top tier, but I couldn’t decide what colour and width I wanted to make it. I spent hours taking photos of the cake and sketching over them, looking at colour swatches, painting little off-cuts of fondant and holding them up, and asking people for opinions. It took me days to finally come to a decision, and I still second guessed it. It was this cake right here:
I still look back at this cake with disdain because it challenged me so much creatively, but now there is a little bit of an explanation for why. I couldn’t mentally switch out the band colour and width, I had to do it in the physical realm in order to fully understand how it'd translate on the cake.
Initially, this realization shook my idea of self a little bit despite my best efforts to not let it. Every article I’ve read about it says it’s not a disorder, that it does not mean I am disadvantaged. But I couldn't help but feel like I was missing a cognitive function. And yes I’ve adapted to it and I have been pretty successful in my creative endeavours, but I can’t help but imagine how much easier and more creative I could be given I didn’t have aphantasia.
This isn't the right way to think about it though. This thing–this aphantasia–doesn't define me or my abilities at all. If anything, finding out about this has made me feel more in control of myself and the way I learn. Now I know that if I'm not grasping something right away, it isn't because I am dumber or less talented, it just means I have to find an alternative way of understanding the concept–my own way.
I am SO intrigued by this phenomenon and I want to continue to research it and ask all of you guys about it. Do you think you have aphantasia? If you do, how do you feel about it? Did you know? If you don’t have it, were you aware of it? Did you think everyone had the ability to form mental images?
I’m so curious and I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts on the topic. Leave a comment, DM me on Instagram, reach out! Let’s talk about it.
PS. Watch this video! It explains aphantasia really well and it's how I discovered I had it.
Sometimes I get these uncontrollable bursts of inspiration and ambition. Yesterday was the most tiring day I’ve had in a long time… It was a combination of not resting over the weekend and having a full day of classes that just resulted in me feeling absolutely drained the whole day. There were also the typical issues with my commute, like the subway stopping and me having to run to class, the bus leaving without me as I sped up to catch it, and getting a blister on my heels from my shoes. So you know, a pretty standard New York day.
I got home, wet from the rain, ready to crawl into bed and melt away. I spent a few minutes lying on the carpet in the living room just because the sheer idea of moving was too much. My amazing roommate had cooked me dinner, so she finally coaxed me up to eat, we turned on Terrace House, and caught up with each other about our days.
Recently, life’s been a little bit crazy and I’ve been a little more anxious than usual. When I was younger, as cliché as it sounds, baking was the thing I craved doing when I was feeling stressed. When I chose to pursue pastry as a career, I made a promise to myself. I told myself that if there ever came a moment where baking at home didn't relieve my anxiety, that I needed to step away from work. Baking at home acts almost as a test for me to make sure I'm still in love with what I do. It can be stressful and hard and horrible while I'm working, but the second I'm experimenting at home or doing it for fun, I need to be loving every second of it.
It had been a few months since I had baked to de-stress and I was starting to get worried. This is what I love... right?
So when I suddenly had the urge, in the middle of yet another consecutive episode of Terrace House, to make cream puffs, I jumped–leaped at it. More specifically, I really wanted to make hojicha craquelin cream puffs, a flavour I had never even experimented with before.
If you are unfamiliar with hojicha, it is a roasted green tea. The roasting of the green tea leaves adds a nuttier flavour to the tea, and it’s delicious as both a tea and as a flavour in desserts.
I chose to incorporate hojicha by infusing the milk in a pastry cream recipe with a fuck ton of hojicha tea leaves–like perhaps an excessive amount of hojicha leaves. I heated the milk and the tea leaves to a boil, then turned off the heat, covered the pot, and let the tea steep for 10 minutes. I was incredibly committed to getting as much of that hojicha flavour into this pastry cream!
I have always struggled with the intensity of my flavours in the past. Most of the things I've made I've craved a stronger flavour. I'm proud to say that the second you bite into these bad boys you get sucker-punched by that delicious hojicha flavour. I am so happy with the end result! And I'm so glad that I decided to make these because even after a crazy, tiring day, I felt so exhausted but also so much better after making these. I have proven to myself, yet again, that yeah, I'm doing the right thing... I'm in the right industry.
And here they are! Look at these beauties! My Hojicha Craquelin Cream Puffs.
I’m not a good cook.
“Oh whaaat but you went to CuLINarY ScHoOL??” Alright look, I know it seems weird that I work in the food industry but can’t cook, but think about it for a second. If someone says they went to med school, that can mean a million different things.
I went to culinary school with a focus in pastry and baking arts. My chef instructors were pastry chefs, the curriculum was completely different, and we got a whole different set of tools from the culinary students.
It’s actually not that uncommon that pastry chefs can’t cook, and culinary chefs can’t bake. It’s weird right? They seem like such similar professions but the two careers are actually really different. Pastry and baking is all about exact measurements, details, meticulous and repetitive work. Culinary is about improvisation, experimenting, big movements and lots of flourish. A lot of culinary chefs find pastry tedious. A lot of pastry chefs find cooking too boundless.
Circling back to my first sentence, I’ve never really been a good cook. Cooking didn’t inspire me the way baking did. I would always feel really stumped looking at a mismatch of ingredients in the fridge. I didn’t understand how to season–how do you know how much salt something needs?! You can’t taste raw meat so how do you know it’s seasoned?! Also every time I cooked chicken it tasted like rubber. I realize now that it was just because I was overcooking the crap out of it, but at the time it was really discouraging. I thought cooking chicken was just something that was really hard to do–how pathetic is that.
The worst part is that I like cooking!! I find it so fun and it’s a nice break from having to be exact all the time.
Today was my day off from work and I’ve been trying to save money by cooking at home more. I woke up this morning craving shrimp fried rice so badly. I didn’t have any shrimp in the fridge, but what I did have were a pack of dumpling peels I bought in Chinatown a few weeks ago.
What I’m about to say will greatly offend my ancestors and every other Asian person out there–but I’ve never made dumplings from scratch. IT’S NOT MY FAULT!! It just never came up at home! Our New Year’s tradition is making Filipino lumpia, not dumplings.
Filled with a very sudden and random burst of motivation and inspiration, I decided I’d spend my day off making dumplings. Guess what, they turned out amazing. I will now fill this blog post with just tons of photos of the process.
I’m not a good cook, but I’m getting there. I’m not gonna be a culinary chef–ever–but I want to be at the stage where I can cook for myself and have it not be pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches.
There was no point to this blog post. I just wanted to show off my dumplings really. Also! The Woks of Life is amazing, and I got this pork and chive dumpling recipe from them. Check 'em out!
Happy Earth Day everyone. I’m gonna tell you all a quick story.
When I was in high school, I wanted to get a job in a bakery. I found a job at a big supermarket called Loblaws that had just opened up at the mall near my house. This would be my first time working in the food industry.
The bakery section of this supermarket was tucked into a corner. They sold everything from birthday cakes to baklava to cannolis. The supermarket itself had a pretty steady stream of customers, but the bakery section was always dead. My job was to restock whatever was running low in the case and to serve customers. “Restocking” meant running back and forth to the huge walk-in freezer to grab frozen cakes, peel the plastic packaging off, slap an expiry date on the bottom, push them into the case, and pretend that it was freshly baked. (A huge reason why you should purchase your baked goods from a real bakery but that’s an argument for another blog post)
Since I was a full-time high school student, I could only work late nights. I worked until closing every night–9pm. My first night closing, I was trained by another employee. She taught me how to clean things up and stack things away until finally we reached all the food in the case.
“Here,” she said, handing me three large garbage bags, “Throw away all the cakes and cupcakes that are past expiry and all of the freshly baked goods.” My job every night was to take all this perfectly good food and toss it.
Perhaps I was naive or perhaps I didn’t want to admit it in the past, but I was shaken that this is what happened every single night. It absolutely destroyed me, and I so desperately wanted to take the whole bag of fresh croissants and hand them out to homeless people all over downtown Vancouver. Every night when I left work I felt sick, and I would brainstorm all the things I could do to reduce the amount of food waste that supermarkets produced. I asked my boss if I could take the bags home, and she said no. She told me I wasn’t even technically allowed to take one or two things home for myself, but that she would look past that. I lasted at that job for 2 weeks before I couldn’t take it anymore and left.
This experience sparked something in me. I vowed to myself that when I owned my own food business that I would do whatever I could to reduce food waste. I vowed that when I owned my own home and when I had complete control over my life that I would do what I could to reduce my carbon footprint and reduce my negative impact on the environment.
Now, I work at Butter Lane–a small cupcake shop in the East Village. Every night, we also toss all our cupcakes because our cupcakes are baked fresh every morning. Every night it still hurts to see all that perfectly good food in a garbage bag.
The difference is that now I can do something about it.
I know this post has already been long and winding, but I’m getting to the point I swear. This Earth Day, I want to share some of the things that I do in my daily life as an employee in the food industry, as a pastry chef and cake decorator, and as a homeowner, that help reduce food waste and also make my life more sustainable. Every day I am aware of the waste I produce and I am constantly trying to change. Every difference is a big difference if we all do it, so I hope you continue reading and try to employ some of these things in your own lives.
A Food Employee
A Chef and Decorator
A Consumer and Homeowner
I am Chinese. I was not born in China. I have never lived in Asia. I was born in Honolulu and moved to Vancouver when I was 11. My first language was English. My family speaks an uncommon Chinese dialect called Hokkien, and unlike Cantonese and Mandarin, it is spoken in very few places of the world.
As the result of my pretty westernized life, sometimes I find it hard to feel Chinese. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t still raised with some very Asian ideals and values–yes I save all my plastic bags and take off my shoes at the front door–but to other Chinese people, I wasn’t very Chinese at all.
One of the biggest parts of any culture is food, and in Chinese culture food is massively important. I love Chinese food! I love those big family gatherings where me and 15 of my extended family members met up and ordered a million dishes–noodles, duck, rice, fish, prawns–and eat until one piece was left on every plate. (And no one would eat it to be polite.)
My mom cooked Chinese food a lot when I was a kid, but since cooking was never really something I enjoyed I never really learned. And when I started baking, I didn’t bake Chinese pastries, and I rarely ever incorporate Asian flavours into my stuff (something I absolutely want to start doing.)
But I loved Chinese bakeries. In Chinatown, they’re everywhere. My family used to go and I would always want to be the person in charge of holding the little white tray covered in wax paper, picking up the little breads with tongs. It would always smell like freshly baked bread, and the display cases were full of little pork buns, ham and cheese buns, tuna salad buns, and custard buns (that usually looked like a bear or something cute).
My mom would always say, “Pick out one or two things you want for breakfast tomorrow,” and I would always get the same thing: hot dog buns. If you are a little Asian kid, I can almost guarantee that you’ve had a Chinese hot dog bun before. They’re an Asian bakery staple. If a bakery doesn’t have hot dog buns, leave because they can’t be good. Even here in NYC, I will occasionally pick up a hot dog bun from the Japanese bakery down the street. They have been and still are a huge part of my life.
As I grew up eating these buns, I was always amazed at the dough encasing the hot dogs. Asian bakery bread is nothing like western bread. It is so soft and smooth–even moist. The texture of Asian bakery bread is something I have never experienced in western baked goods ever, and therefore, I didn’t learn how they were made in school. Most culinary schools have a European curriculum and this would never be something they taught.
So I went through culinary school learning all about how to make various European breads, but my question of how to make that soft, silky Asian bread was never answered. So I continued to buy hot dog buns until one day… I realized… what the hell was stopping me from learning how to make it myself?
For some reason, I had never thought to just Google it. I don’t know–I think a part of me thought that it’d require rare Asian ingredients that I couldn’t acquire, or that it’d need some sort of antique Asian tools and equipment.
Spoiler alert, it’s really freaking easy.
So yesterday, I looked up a recipe. I stumbled across one from the food blog, The Woks of Life, and it looked promising. The Woks of Life is a blog run by an Asian family that finds authentic Asian recipes, tests them, and then posts them online. Definitely go check them out, they’re awesome. The exact recipe I used is here.
I gathered my ingredients and got to work. The dough is so simple: put everything in a bowl and then knead for 15-20 minutes. It is a very unique dough in its ingredients, and I think it has everything to do with why the texture is so smooth and soft. Like a basic bread dough, it has yeast, flour, a liquid, and salt. What makes it different is that instead of just bread flour, it also has a small amount of cake flour. And for the liquid it calls for milk, but also heavy cream.
When it was done kneading, I left the dough for an hour to proof. Meanwhile, I quickly pan fried the sausages and let them cool.
The dough was incredibly soft and fluffy. I portioned it into 10 balls and rolled each ball into a long log. These logs were then wrapped around each individual hot dog and the buns were covered and proofed again.
Finally, they were egg washed and baked. I was so excited to see how they would turn out. They looked amazing wrapped up in the puffy dough already, but I really hoped they were going to bake just as beautifully.
When they came out of the oven, I brushed them with a light coat of simple syrup, which–(I didn’t know this!)–gives the breads in Chinese bakeries their signature shine.
So what’s the verdict?
Well, they were delicious! But were they the best they could be? Not quite. So in The Woks of Life, they recommend pan frying the sausages lightly before baking to give them a better texture and flavour. In most Chinese bakeries, the sausages are just baked raw, and it results in a rubbery texture. These buns with the pan fried hot dogs were infinitely better than the buns where the hot dog is just baked in. That is something I highly recommend doing as well.
The dough was very soft, however, not as soft as I know Asian bakeries can get them! I think the reason for this is because this dough did not use the tangzhong method–aka “water roux.” It is a Japanese bread making method, where a small portion of the water and flour of a bread recipe are separated and cooked. Specifically, 1 parts bread flour to 5 parts water cooked to 65C. This method of bread making results in a soft and bouncy bread that is unique to Asia. The science makes sense: cooking the flour pre-gelatinizes the starches in the flour and heating the flour and water strengthens the gluten structure. This means that it can hold much more water throughout the bread making process, resulting in a moister, softer dough! (source: here)
Magic? Nah. Asians.
So I think the next time I attempt these hot dog buns I will use the tangzhong method. Regardless, I am very happy with the result of these hot dog buns. Maybe it’s stupid, but I feel more connected to my culture after having made them. It’s one of the only Asian things I can make from scratch, and after I perfect them, I hope that one day my great grandchildren will buy a hot dog bun from a bakery and angrily say to themselves, “My grandma makes better hot dog buns. Can't believe I wasted $1.50 on this." That's Asian grandma goals right there.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out The Woks of Life if you wanna try this recipe too!