Lunch bento & notes on okonomiyaki

This was a bento lunch from last week comprising a lot of leftovers from the fridge.

Bento lunch 071120

In anti-clockwise direction starting from top left-hand corner:
1) Stir-fried cauliflower in pink silicone baking cup.

2) Squares of okonomiyaki made with squid, as I mentioned here. The slightly fishy taste of squid gives a stronger flavour to the dish, just be careful not to cook it too long as squid turns hard when overcooked (which also means that reheated leftovers have unchewable squid bits :P).

Taking my cue from this recipe, I tend to use a huge amount of yam and only just enough flour to bind everything together – this makes my okonomiyaki taste a bit different, rather than just a vegetable pancake. Actually, I’ve been using the wrong kind of yam, the usual roundish Chinese yam in the supermarket, when really it’s the long, slender, brown-skinned Japanese mountain yam (yamaimo) that should be used. Here’s a photo of the very sticky liquid produced from grating yamaimo.

Yamaimo is easily available (but pricey) in Singapore at Japanese supermarkets Isetan and Meidi-ya and Takashimaya Cold Storage (which seems to a wider selection of Japanese foods than other Cold Storage).

However, if we leave the world of Japanese cuisine behind, yamaimo is also commonly found in the local wet markets. Take a look at this picture of dried, sliced yamaimo and anyone who makes Chinese herbal soups will recognise it instantly! In Chinese it’s known as huái shān (), or shān yào (), and the botanical name is Dioscorea opposita (read more here and here). Of course, there are many therapeutic effects of this plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine, including as a lung and kidney tonic and as part of prescriptions for diabetes and diarrhoea. [Reference: Cooking with Asian Roots by Devagi Sanmugam and Christopher Tan (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2006)]

As for the rest of the ingredients, after becoming utterly confused by the very different quantities of ingredients in the many recipes on the internet (and the many different styles of okonomiyaki), I gave up and decided to make the batter by guesswork based on my experience with pancakes, waffles and the one time I ate okonomiyaki in Osaka six years ago :P.

Anyway, the end result (apart from the rubbery squid in reheated okonomiyaki) tasted very yummy to me, even without any sauces to go with it.

[Update 5/12/07: read my notes on first experiences cooking with yamaimo here.]

3) Fried strips/slices of Japanese sweet potato with purple skin (satsumaimo) in blue plastic bento side dish container.

4) Claypot chicken rice made with chopped garlic, cubes of yam and mixed mushrooms. (Unlike traditional Chinese claypot rice, this doesn’t include any preserved meats such as Chinese sausages, salted fish, or any of the usual sauces: soya sauce, oyster sauce and rice wine.)

5) Pu-Erh tea agar agar in heart-shaped container. I used a plastic food divider sheet to prevent the rice from falling into the agar agar.

Perhaps you would have noticed by now that my bento are pretty monochrome by the five-colour principle of Japanese cuisine and bento-making. One of the things that my family noticed when I started on the Failsafe food intolerance diet with particular attention to salicylates is that the vegetable & fruit selection seems to exclude most things with colour. For example, Packham pears are the only okay fruit on the list and acceptable vegetables are basically cauliflower, cabbage, bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, chayote (fo shou gua 佛手瓜), as well as some green veg in the form of green beans, celery, iceberg lettuce, leeks and Brussels sprouts (hard to find and can be expensive in Singapore). [One problem is that many Asian fruits and vegetables have not yet been tested for salicylate levels as I've discussed here.] My tolerance to salicylates is getting better so you will notice in my other bento some flirtation with high salicylate foods such as tomatoes and avocados, but that’s really just for the sake of the bento and on non-bento days, I’ll stick to the safe foods.

Miracle ingredient: agar!

According to Wikipedia, “agar or agar agar is a gelatinous substance chiefly used as a culture medium for microbiological work.” However, the first thing that pops into my mind are the colourful agar agar jellies from my primary school tuckshop. Baking Mum has some exquisite versions of the traditional layered agar agar dessert here and here.

Also called ‘kanten’ in Japanese, agar agar is made from seaweed and is high in fiber. Read more about what it is and how to store and use it here and here. The second article also allows you to compare agar with other forms of gelatins.

[28/12/07 update: just came across this information which says that in Japan, kanten and agar-agar refer to separate products made from different kinds of seaweed and have different textures. The additional details here suggest that outside of Japan, this distinction may not be so important and the term 'agar-agar' is used in a broad fashion to denote a whole family of seaweed products.]

Most interesting to me is the strong historical Malayan connection to this food substance, which is evidenced by the fact that its international name today is the Malay word ‘agar’. The entry on SinglishDictionary.com lists fascinating colonial references to agar in Malaya from 1813, 1820 and 1894 and opens a little window on how this Southeast Asian item made its way further afield.

Making agar agar suddenly sprang to mind a few weeks ago as I was thinking of something non-savoury for my bento boxes. I was reading how LunchInABox uses jello-cups in her bentos and she mentioned melting. In comparison, agar has the advantage of not melting, which is very handy in our tropical weather. It can even set without refrigeration. Now doesn’t that sound like a miracle product ^_^?

The wonderful thing about agar agar is that you can use it to gelatinise (is there such a word?) almost any liquid, except vinegar and foods high in oxalic acid, which includes spinach, chocolate and rhubarb (read more in this article).

I racked my brains for agar flavours to complement my bento and eventually made two flavours:
a) red bean & soy milk (slightly sweetened) – a combination of tastes familiar in Asian desserts which I’ve experimented with in other ways
b) Pu-Erh tea – not a traditional agar flavour here in Singapore/Malaysia (I put a bit of sugar, but so little that I couldn’t taste it, might as well have left it out)
I thought the red bean+soy milk would be a semi-filling snack while the Pu-Erh tea would be a nice palate-cleanser after a savoury, and possibly oily, meal — after all, Chinese tea is good at ‘washing’ away the oiliness of Chinese food :).

Agar tray
The clear agar on top row are Pu-Erh tea, the cloudy ones are red bean+soy milk. The pig shapes are silicone moulds and the other open containers are plastic bento side dish containers. Of the covered ones, the rectangular shape is regular plastic and the round one is a disposable condiments container (which I wash and reuse anyway). All items from Daiso, including plastic tray.

Already much earlier on, I had thought of making a mugicha jelly, which has nice roasted taste and no caffeine. However, the possibilities are endless — puddings, jams, fruit jellies — and even savoury liquids can be used to produce an aspic jelly. This page and this one give suggestions how to use agar in a non-traditional way, mostly as a type of salad. But to extend the idea, savoury agar is a fabulous idea for transporting broths and soups in one’s lunchbox!! I’ll certainly try this out one day.

I used the powdered form that comes in convenient packets, each one enough for 1 litre of liquid. Quite a few cooking blogs recommend Rose brand as it produces a firmer agar than other brands. Swallow Globe brand is also extremely popular. These come in clear, white as well as coloured versions (which you might want to avoid if you don’t care for artificial colourings). There are also organic brands such as Eden and Clearspring, both of whose websites point out that commercial agar tends to use sulphuric acid as a softening agent and chemical bleaches and dyes to whiten the seaweed and remove its smell.

Here are some recipes for Malaysian sweet agar agar desserts:
1) Lily’s Mango Sago Pudding
2) Milo Agar Agar
3) Mooncakes also come in agar agar versions these days; a couple of fancy variations here and here.

Here’s a creative idea for bright red agar jellies made with beetroot — no nasty food colouring needed.

Check out the Japanese perspective on cooking with agar/kanten here.

Also organic/ macrobiotic recipes from Eden and Clearspring. As this page says, macrobiotic recipes often add body to the agar by adding tahini or almond butter.

Now away you go and dream up your own infinite possibilities for agar agar ^_^!

Oatmeal cake

Last week’s frozen snack stash comprised this Oatmeal Cake - another recipe from the Bob’s Red Mill website. I like their recipes because they often use wholegrains and have a clearly-marked gluten-free category (which I haven’t tried yet).

As usual, I modified the recipe by (a) omitting the topping out of laziness, lack of the additional ingredients, and unwillingness to add more butter/sugar to what was already a very nice-tasting cake, and (b) reducing the amount of sugar — in this case, by half. However, the cake was still very sweet, no doubt because of the substantial amount of raisins (I used Waitrose organic sultanas which I had lying around in my fridge). From my experience with no sugar muffins, if you use plenty of fruit, you can easily produce a delicious cake without adding any sugar at all; although friends & family with untrained palates may complain :P.

I also baked it into cupcakes rather than a loaf shape for easy freezing into single-portions, as well as a shorter baking time (saves power ^^).

Oatmeal cake

Here’s my modified version of the recipe:

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups Boiling Water
1 cup Oats, Rolled, Quick Cooking
1 cup Raisins (Unsulfured)
1/2 cup Canola Oil
1/2 cup Brown Sugar, packed
1/4 cup White Sugar
2 large Eggs, well beaten
1-1/2 cups sifted Whole Wheat Flour
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a mixing bowl combine boiling water, quick rolled oats and chopped raisins, set aside to cool.

In a separate mixing bowl cream together the shortening, brown sugar, granulated sugar and eggs.

In another mixing bowl sift together whole wheat flour, cinnamon, baking soda and sea salt, add to sugar mixture, add oatmeal-raisin mixture, blend well.

Spoon into cupcake paper baking cases. Bake at 350° for 20-25 minutes or until done.

Makes 18 Servings.

The recipe reminds us to use unsulphured raisins. I’m not entirely sure what the status of the Waitrose organic sultanas is; there’s no mention of any preservative on the list of ingredients. As you can read here, dried fruit is a major source of sulphites and can cause sensitivity reactions. I’ve had bad reactions before, so I avoid regular commercial dried fruit. I even bought a food dryer in order to make dried fruit at home. It’s so easy to make (just that it takes about 8hrs in the dryer so you need patience), delicious and makes a great gift for friends too.

When my salicylate intolerance shot through the roof some months back, the high levels of salicylates in dried fruit (and herbs) were lethal for me. Fortunately, my tolerance to salicylates has slowly improved, and this is Oatmeal Cake is my first step on the road back to dried fruit eating – I survived! Perhaps also because when baked into cakes, one doesn’t eat as much as when snacking on plain dried fruit.

Bento, diets and appetites

It was very interesting to read how Maki of JustBento successfully employed bento boxes as part of a weight loss plan which helped her shed 30+lbs. LunchInABox has detailed instructions on the Japanese method of calorie counting by choosing a bento box size appropriate for one’s age & gender. In my case, however, I’ve been struggling with how to eat more, not less.

Firstly, the food intolerances mean a restricted choice of foods, even more difficult when it also has to be portable and easily prepared early in the morning. Discovering bento culture has given me a lot of inspiration and ideas for ways to prepare food for the lunchbox, as well as skills on functional and aesthetic packing. Visual attractiveness and variety in the foods really does enhance the appetite ^_^.

Secondly, toting a bento means that it’s a day when I’m out of the house and am probably rushing around trying to get a million things done. Stress totally kills my appetite and the last thing I feel like eating is a hearty meal of rice and cooked dishes, even if it’s hot in the insulated flask or freshly-heated in a microwave. Sometimes I don’t have the luxury of a table to sit down at and lay out my dishes. On such days, finger foods in bite-sized portions and raw foods stand a better chance of being eaten.

So for me, LunchInABox‘s daily attempts to get her young child to finish his bento meals hold many useful tips for feeding myself! And I love all those cute bento accessories. The child in me never grows up :).

For Lock & Lock fans

Having spent hours perusing the full range of Lock & Lock at the Korean Lock & Lock site (yes, very sad, I know :P), it gives me a kick to chance upon less common Lock & Lock items in Singapore shops.

This beautiful range of ‘Glass Lock‘ – glass casserole dishes with airtight Lock & Lock plastic lids – is now available in Singapore. OG is the first local store to stock this, but only a version without the intricate floral detailing on the lid. There are a couple of gift sets which are a good deal. [26/12/07 update: the floral lid version now available in Isetan! Iwaki glass but label says glass container is made in Thailand, lids made in Korea, one year warranty.]

Lock & Lock glass

Or if you fancy this set of airtight Lock & Lock condiments containers, Takashimaya and Carrefour have the three-container set, and OG stocks the two-container set.

Lock & Lock condiments

Incidentally, many of you will probably already have noticed the heavy product endorsement in Korean dramas especially for handphones, however in the last month, I’ve noticed Lock & Lock playing a serious role too!

Lock & Lock picnic large red
This is picnic set I spotted in Coffee Prince (stripey bag in the chicken feet clip and orange bag for the leftover spring onion pancakes). 9 Ends 2 Out not only has the stripey picnic set, but do keep an eye on all the refrigerator shots too ^^! If you are dying for a picnic set with stripey bag just like on TV, I see them in more & more shops in Singapore, e.g. at Carrefour for $21.90 .

Lock & Lock picnic small blue
This stripey set for one person is harder to find though, after I grabbed the very last dark green colour set at Isetan a couple of months back, I haven’t seen them anywhere since. The second box has a removable divider with two sections so it’s different from this set used by LunchInABox, where one of the boxes is divided into three sections.

Shopping for bento boxes

As I’ve mentioned before, Lock & Lock boxes are my usual containers, although I’ve also acquired some very affordable S$2 double-tiered boxes from Daiso. I’ve often wondered about the paucity of decorative bento box choices in Singapore, not counting the insulated sets that cost over S$50.

Whilst browsing around Orchard Road, I looked through some department store toy departments and discovered that if you like Hello Kitty, Shinkansen etc and have the appetite of a 5 year old, there are a few more cute choices out there. Even so, the more exciting options at specialist Sanrio corners are about half the cost of those expensive insulated sets! For example, if you got excited by JustBento’s giant Hello Kitty box, it will set you back about S$24 at Isetan Orchard :P.

Minimalist boxes are currently in stock at Daiso, but I also saw some nice white ones with dividers (and a slightly larger two-tiered box) at Muji (S$19). See photos and review (in French) of the Muji boxes at French Bento, who also thinks they are too expensive :).

The shopping range is nothing much to rave about at all … not that the aesthetics of the box is really important at all, as JustBento reminds us, any functional box will do. However, LunchInABox has made me realise the advantages of having boxes of different sizes and shapes to fit the kind of food and pack it securely. It also makes lunch more exciting when there’s variety in the packaging :).

P.S. If you have been admiring these ice cream sandwich moulds at LunchInABox which can be used for shaping onigiri and hard-boiled eggs , Tangs sells them under the Mastrad sillicone range. The good news is that there is currently at 20% discount, the bad news is that a set of three costs S$33 before discount. Still waaaay more than the onigiri and egg moulds at Daiso that come in packs of two or three for S$2!

Essential kitchen equipment: the freezer

Bento fans will already have realised the necessity of the freezer to being able to produce bento boxes speedily on a regular basis. LunchInABox.net and Just Hungry/Just Bento frequently discuss the foods that freeze well such as cooked rice (see also this), inarizushi, takoyaki, spaghetti, pancakes, sandwiches, ground ginger, chopped herbs etc (see the full list from LunchInABox here). Read also their speed bento primers:
Make-ahead lunch tips from Japanese magazine
Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto
Johbisai or Joubisai: Building up a bento making ‘stash’

People who do cooking for just one person, or are trying to juggle a busy schedule might also find the freezer their best friend: cooking large quantities then freezing it in single-portions.

Since I started on a food intolerance diet five years ago, I’ve always tried to have a stash of baked goods on hand for snacking, whether at home or on the go. This works wonderfully for muffins, scones, cupcakes, doughnuts, waffles and bread. As soon as the baked items cool, I put them in a freezer bag or plastic box and pop them into the freezer to preserve freshness.

When I want to eat them, waffles & thinner slices of bread go straight into the toaster and thicker slices of bread in the oven toaster. In the case of muffins, cakes and scones, I microwave on medium-high for 40 seconds, first wrapping them in a paper napkin/kitchen towel to keep them moist but also prevent them from getting soggy.

Microwaved things go hard and rubbery pretty quickly, so when I do this, I make sure I eat them whilst they are still hot. If I want to put the cake into a bento box for eating later, I make sure I take them out of the freezer early enough for them to defrost naturally by the time I want to eat them. Important to wrap them in paper napkin/kitchen towel to soak up any melting ice particles.

I’ve kept things for uh, months in the freezer :P but they still taste pretty good once heated up :). However, the longer they stay in the freezer, the greater the build-up of ice particles, which will make the food soggy when they melt, so you have to take the trouble to deal with them (not easy for waffles full of holes!)

I do love my baked goods deliciously hot, so I’ve not done any frosting or icing for my cakes so far, which would mean having to keep them in the fridge to be eaten cold and also having to finish them off very quickly. Of course, it’s also healthier to keep off all that extra butter and sugar from your cakes :)!

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