My bento bags 3: two-layer Tzu Chi

Tzu Chi double-layer bento bag

Tzu Chi double-layer bento bag

Quite often I carry food for more than one meal and it’s a real hassle to get to the largest box (usually the main meal, lunch) at the bottom of the bag. Sometimes this involves unloading everything on top first, and going through the same process all over again to put the box back in!

After struggling with this a few times, I realised how much the two-layer bag from Tzu Chi Foundation would help me. Earlier, I wrote about the range of 便當 biangdang /bento equipment from this Taiwanese Buddhist organisation, which promotes concern for the environment. I’m a huge fan of their folding chopsticks.

[Speaking of folding chopsticks, I found a couple of varieties, including a screw-type similar to the Tzu Chi one, at NTUC Finest Bukit Timah, near the Chinese dried foods. However, they didn't seem to be very well-made, so I would hesitate to recommend them.]

This bag fits a rectangular lunchbox in the bottom zippered layer, the precise size of my Asvel box. I usually squeeze my plastic cutlery or folding chopsticks into this section too.

In the upper compartment, I’ll put my fruit box, tea time snacks and oshibori. There is also a small zipper pocket inside the upper layer – just nice for paper napkins but I have given those up in favour of the more environmentally-friendly oshibori. Sometimes I slip in a teabag if there’s going to be hot water at my lunch destination.

Once I put in all these, there’s no space for my 300ml insulated mug though, unlike with my Muji and Reisenthel bags.

Unfortunately, Tzu Chi in Singapore has moved from a convenient downtown location in Chinatown to Pasir Ris. So it’s worthwhile to call ahead and ask if they have stock. They were out when I wanted to buy this bag about six months ago, and I ended up getting a friend to buy it in Taiwan for me, where it cost about S$10.

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My other bento bags: cream-coloured Muji and green & orange Reisenthel.

My bento bags 2: kiwi green & orange Reisenthel

bento-bag_riesenthel

Reisenthel lunchbag

The German brand, Reisenthel, is mostly known for its folding, environmentally-friendly shopping bags. Whilst browsing the colourful designs at Tangs one day, I chanced upon these small tote bags intended for young children – going by the photographs on the tags. However, they are a perfect size for bento too. I can’t seem to find this bag on the official Reisenthel website though.

Tangs had them in three colours: kiwi green with orange trimming, sky blue with lime trimming, and if I remember correctly also pink with sky blue trimming. The price was S$12.95.

Features I like are the zip closure, the zippered inner side pocket, and the square base, which makes this ideal for square bento boxes that don’t fit so well into my Muji and Tzu Chi bags which are designed for rectangular boxes.

This is big enough to hold a lunch box, extra boxes for fruit, teatime snack, cutlery, oshibori as well as my 300ml insulated mug.

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My other bento bags: cream-coloured Muji and double-layered Tzu Chi.

Choosing insulated mugs

It being the Christmas season and with plenty of sales in the shops, you might be looking to buy an insulated mug. I just saw a newspaper ad for a Thermos warehouse sale this weekend — sorry, I can’t remember the details because I already have enough insulated mugs & flasks and don’t intend to buy anymore (^_^) !

Insulated mugs

Insulated mugs

These are three stainless steel insulated mugs that I have: 290ml Thermos food/soup jar, 300ml Tiger brand slim mug, 450ml Tiger mug with compartment on top of lid for storing tea leaves. Not in the photo is a large 1 litre Thermos food flask I have in which you can make congee (rice porridge).

I’ve learnt that one of the very important thing to look out for is whether the screwtop grooves are on the inside or outside.

Tiger mug - grooves inside

Tiger mug - grooves inside

Thermos jar - grooves outside

Thermos jar - grooves outside

Initially, I used my 290ml Thermos food jar for hot beverages such as tea and powdered grain drinks but soon found that the drink would seep down the grooves and drip down the outside of the mug, making for a very sticky experience. With solid foods, or if you only open the mug once or twice, this is not a problem, but with hot powdered grain drinks, I would replace the lid and shake the mug in between sips throughout the day and every time I opened the lid, I’d end up having to wipe my hands and the mug with a wet tissue (or oshibori, if lucky enough to have one on me ^.^).

To solve the problem, I got my second insulated mug, the burgundy-coloured 450ml Tiger brand one, where the grooves are on the inside. I discovered that of all the stainless steel insulated flasks on sale in Singapore, only Tiger brand has the grooves inside. The bad news is that the big sales – sometimes storewide at department stores or for individual stainless steel brands such as Thermos and La Gourmet – usually exclude Tiger brand. Tiger is also the most expensive of all the brands T_T.

This particular Tiger model has a ‘take-apart stopper’ where the rubber parts can be removed to make cleaning easier. Tea-drinkers can also use the screw compartment on top of the lid for storing tea leaves. However, I’ve never used it as I usually brew tea in a pot and pour the ready-made tea into the mug.

After using my 450ml Tiger flask mostly for carrying tea, I realised that almost half a litre of tea is simply too much caffeine for me, resulting in stomach discomfort (and insomnia if drunk in the evening). And with no/low caffeine or herbal teas, such as kukicha, mugicha, or oksusucha, a large amount of strong brew can produce a rather unfortunate laxative effect on me!

Which led to the purchase of the 300ml Tiger slim mug. This is about the volume of a normal coffee mug, with an elegant, lightweight design that makes it perfect for the lunchbag. I use this flask almost everyday now. It’s so well-used that the charcoal-coloured coating has been scratched in a few places already.

A final word on choosing stainless steel insulated brands, I totally wasted my money on a La Gourmet mug. It’s the type with plastic lid that has a small opening with a sliding cover for you to drink from. No matter how I screw the lid on, the liquid leaks out through the screwtop grooves when I try to drink. The leakage is so bad it’s completely impossible to drink with the lid on. In fact, my freebie giveaway stainless steel mug with where the plastic drinking lid is sealed with a rubber gasket, works way better. Will never be tempted by cheap La Gourmet prices again.

Breakfast cereals and cold milk

Before my recent foray into breakfast cereals a couple of weeks ago, I can’t remember when was the previous time I crunched on bowl of crispy breakfast cereal in cold dairy milk. With most commercial cereals full of sugar and additives, not to mention the fact that Kelloggs cereals in Singapore are produced regionally and are much inferior in taste (as I remember from years and years ago, when I was still eating processed foods from the supermarket).

However, I’ve recently noticed the wide variety of breakfast cereals made from alternative grains on health food shelves, including NTUC Finest. For example, from Arrowhead Mills, there’s amaranth, spelt and kamut flakes, while from Nature’s Path brand, you can get spelt or millet flakes, or even ‘heirloom wholegrain’ cereal containing “Organic Kamut®* wheat flour, organic wheat bran, organic evaporated cane juice, organic spelt flour, organic whole oat flour, organic whole wheat meal, organic barley flour, organic whole millet, organic barley malt extract, organic quinoa, sea salt, organic honey.”

First, I chomped through a delicious box of crispy oat flakes from Arrowhead Mills — not raw oats that have to be cooked into a porridge, but just like cornflakes. Having forsworn Kelloggs’ cornflakes so long ago, I had totally erased the idea of cornflakes from my consciousness, but the ‘gluten-free’ tag drew my attention to Nature’s Path Honey’d Corn Flakes (Organic corn meal, organic evaporated cane juice, organic honey, sea salt). What a rediscovery for me! I couldn’t believe how delicious this box of cornflakes tasted, largely thanks to an excellent crisp texture.

As for the milk part, occasionally, I’ll indulge with dairy milk, but otherwise, I’ll rotate oat, rice and soy milks.

Yaay, one more viable snack option :).

29/11/08 Update: Cheapest place to buy Nature’s Path cereals that I’ve found in Singapore so far is Meidi-ya supermarket. It costs S$5.95 a box, which is the same or just a bit more than standard brands like Kelloggs and Post. It’s stocked on the regular breakfast cereal shelves, next to Arrowhead Mills cereals.

Considering making pickled vegetables

As long-standing readers here may have noticed, I like the idea of making from scratch at home products which are often bought as ready-made commercial products. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success with soya bean milk, tofu and salted eggs, which are all very easy.

I’ve also considered making soya sauce at home. While it can be done, as I mentioned in my earlier posting, I’ve decided not to try (at least for now) after chatting to a food scientist who used to work at Kikkoman. During the commercial production process at Kikkoman factories, there is assiduous testing to make sure that the fermentation process does not attract toxic microbes instead of the ‘right’ kind of bacteria, which can easily happen. I’ve also heard how difficult it is to make tempeh at home, and I assume it’s partly for those same reasons.

Another type of food I thought of making at home is Chinese pickled vegetables: mui choy, chye poh, kiam chye — all the things that would give the right ‘kick’ to my somewhat bland dishes. Today’s Sunday Times food question column by Chris Tan addressed this precise issue. The bad news is:

They are not as easy to make as they might seem, requiring successive rounds of drying, seasoning, salting, brining or steaming. These methods may look simple or crude but they are very sensitive to the quality of the starting ingredients, the ambient humidity and temperature as well as the microbes naturally present in the immediate environment.Hence, an experienced eye is needed to tell if the fermentation or preservation is proceeding correctly. Doing this kind of multiple-stage preserving at home is very tricky, frequently entailing much trial and error. Therefore, nowadays most people are content to leave it to the specialists.

The good news is that “many Asian cuisines have easy recipes for mildly sour, briefly fermented pickled greens that are designed to be made and consumed within a few days.” Examples of pickled gai choy, which is a kind of mustard green, include Laotian som pak, Filipino burung mastasa and Vietnamese cai chua or dua chua.

The advice from Chris Tan concludes with this advice:

The Japanese pickling tradition also has many quick pickle recipes. For a good introduction to methods and ingredients, I recommend the book Tsukemono: Japanese Pickled Vegetables by Kay Shimizu.

I don’t have that particular title, but have already been pouring over TSUKEMONO―Japanese Pickling Recipes (Quick&Easy) which is part of my collection of food books. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with how the different types of Japanese pickles taste and I’m not a big enough fan of pickles in general to go all out on experimenting. I wonder if quick pickles will taste more like nonya acar, rather than anything like chye poh…?

Gluten-free date & nut drop scones

A big thank you to Pattycake for this terrific recipe! My family has been enjoying them as well, which is amazing because my ‘alternative’ baking usually does not go down well with them :D — proof of the success of this recipe.

What’s amazing is also the combination of healthy grains: brown rice flour, chickpea/garbanzo bean flour, as well as flax seed meal!

I got some dates from the fresh fruit section of the supermarket. There are several different varieties in both Cold Storage and NTUC. As a dried fruit, dates are not recommended for those avoiding high salicylate foods or on an anti-candida diet.

My tweaks:
– reduced maple syrup from 4 Tbs to 2 Tbs. With only 2Tbs, maple syrup taste is very subtle, probably wouldn’t have noticed if I’d omitted it altogether.
– anyway, the dates are so sweet, there’s no need for any additional sweetener! I can’t even eat these these jam because the sweetness would be overwhelming.

Have a look at the wonderful texture:

Improved recipe for gluten-free, yeast-free bean bread

I loved this recipe so much that I made it again with twice the quantities and with some tweaks to try and improve the result.

I modified the quantities of ingredients given in the recipe in my last posting. The quantities this time I used were:

FOUR FLOUR BEAN MIX
chickpea/garbanzo bean flour – 1/3 part
green/mung bean flour – 1/3 part
sorghum/ jowar flour – 1/3 part
tapioca starch – 1 part
cornstarch – 1 part

DRY INGREDIENTS
Four Flour Bean Mix (see above) – 4 cups
Xantham gum – 3 tsp
Baking soda – 1 tsp
Baking powder – 2 tsp
Salt – 1 tsp

[omitted brown sugar and egg replacer]

WET INGREDIENTS
Eggs – 4
Butter, melted – 6 Tbs
Light argave syrup [in place of honey] – 2 Tbs
Buttermilk – 1 1/2 cups
Water about 1/4 cup

METHOD: Muffin method

Having had problems with tunneling of large airholes and heavy texture the last time, I did away with the use of an electric mixer to avoid over-beating. I made this in exactly the same way I make muffins – quick and easy, by hand.

1) Sift all dry ingredients thoroughly.

2) Mix wet ingredients.

3) Mix dry and wet ingredients until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

4) Pour into greased baking tins. Do not fill tins more than half-full as the batter will rise about three times its volume. This happened even though I reduced the amount of baking powder to the same quantity I use for my muffins.

5) Bake at 180°C for 55 to 60 mins, covering with aluminum foil after 30 mins.

When the loaves come out the oven, as they cool, they will rapidly deflate (see photo above). I’ve never seen this happen before with other baked goods. However, the final result was still pretty good. The photo below illustrates the light crumb texture that looks remarkably like ‘real’ bread.

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