Anti-bacterial EZ-Lock boxes for bento

EZLock Ag+

EZLock Ag+

Japanese bento boxes have come with anti-bacterial silver ions for some time, like these ones. This helps to prevent your food from going bad, especially in hot weather.

Now Lock n Lock’s EZ-Lock range also some with Ag+ ions. After you remove the cardboard packaging, the Ag+ boxes can be distinguished by their lids of a slightly lighter shade of blue compared to standard EZ-Lock. View the latest 2009-2010 Lock n Lock catalogue here (only works with Internet Explorer).

Here are some suitable sizes for bento.

EZlock Ag+: 520ml & 620ml

EZlock Ag+: 520ml & 620ml

EZlock Ag+: 890ml & 965ml

EZlock Ag+: 890ml & 965ml

Bento primer 4: stocking up on bento equipment

It might seem indulgent to buy lots of different plastic boxes, but given the importance of choosing the right box, it is worthwhile to do so. Daiso and Lock n Lock provide good selections at affordable prices. Wherever possible, choose airtight boxes as they will prevent spillage of any sauce or liquid contents (I’ve packed soups and yoghurt before), while also keeping dry foods like biscuits crisp in humid weather.

Beside the main lunchbox, I also have a selection of other plastic boxes: smaller ones for pieces of cut fruit (which accompany every meal bento I have), a round box for a single muffin, a deep, rectangular box for two muffins, and shallow rectangular boxes for angular snacks like pieces of cake. Most of my plastic boxes are not reserved for bento use only as we use them for storing all sorts of foods at home, such as dried goods removed from plastic packaging or leftovers in the fridge/freezer. With a large variety of plastic boxes on hand, I can easily find one to suit anything I want to pack into my bento bag.

Aside from boxes, I regularly carry a small insulated mug/flask, and always have a wet towel (oshibori) and plastic cutlery –either a fork and spoon in a ziploc bag or foldable chopsticks which come in their own case.

You’ll need a bag to hold all these things. Again, it’s good to have bags in different sizes to accommodate the amount of food you’ll need. The bags I use most of the time hold my lunch, fruit and a snack. I also have one larger bag, which can also fit a one litre water bottle, and several smaller zipper or drawstring bags from Daiso which hold a single plastic box and cutlery and sometimes also an oshibori. Usually, the small zipper/drawstring bag will go inside my main holdall or backpack, where it helps to keep the food items together and hopefully, prevent the food boxes from being knocked open as well.

If you do mostly rice bento rather than sandwiches, it’s much better to find a bag that will allow you to hold the bento boxes horizontally. Briefcase-style lunchbags tilt your boxes on their side and may disturb the arrangement of food or increase the chance of spillage. It’s not necessary to go hunting for dedicated lunch bags, any small tote bag with a large enough flat base will do, although I am very partial to two-layer bags that enable easy access to the main lunchbox itself.

More bento tips:
Bento primer part 1: foods for bento
Bento primer part 2: planning bento meals
Bento primer part 3: packing bento

Bento primer part 3: packing bento

Perhaps the first thing many people associate with bento culture are the elaborate kyaraben (character bento), but everyday bento don’t have to be that difficult. However, the fundamental ideas of packing bento can take your lunchbox from unappetising mess to something to look forward to. It feels really good when instead of being pitied for one’s food intolerances, people think your food looks better than theirs!

You don’t need to do cutesy or complicated, but it helps to have some aesthetic sense to guide you in composition, arrangement and the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Frank Tastes provides some excellent examples of simple, almost Zen-like bento arrangments. As with developing any kind of artistic sensibility, exposure to as many examples as possible will build up your visual ‘vocabulary’ to facilitate creativity. Apart from the plethora of bento websites, if you have access to a Japanese bookstore, do browse through Japanese-language books on bento for  inspiration — the bento examples and the overall art direction are usually absolutely excellent.

It’s also important to choose a box of the correct shape and size. A shallow box is better as it allows you to lay out the foods horizontally, almost like a painting. Also, if the foods come up to the lid when the box is sealed, they won’t move around during transportation and your bento will still be intact when you come to eating it.

Just Bento oftens discusses the usefulness of bento in controlling portion sizes, and Japanese guidelines on the optimal size for men, women and children are very useful. However, I have also discovered that the volume I can finish in one meal differs according to the type of food. The type of rice makes a huge difference, not so much in terms of managing the caloric value, but in terms of how much is enough to make me feel full. With brown rice, I eat much less than the half-box portion of sticky, short-grain Japanese white rice recommended for standard Japanese bento, and it’s likely you’ll find that with long-grain white rice typical of Southeast Asia and in southern Chinese cuisines, you’ll need quite a bit more than that. Any kind of glutinous rice would be the most filling of all.

Noodle dishes are a different ball game because not only do I consume a larger volume than if I had a meal of brown rice and side dishes, you need some empty space in your bento box to allow you to loosen the noodles and pick up the strands, or to toss the noodles with the topping ingredients (in terms of presentation, noodles look much nicer with the toppings heaped on top than ready mixed).

More bento tips:
Bento primer part 1: foods for bento
Bento primer part 2: planning bento meals

Dualock 550ml bento box

Dual Lock 580ml

Dual Lock 550ml

On Boxing Day last year, my Asvel bento box died. The sad thing was, it wasn’t totally dead, just that a miniscule knob that held the hinge mechanism of the lock-tight lid broke off and that was the end of the lid.

So instead I turned to using this shallow Dualock box from Lock ‘n’ Lock. The shallow shape is ideal for packing bento, as I explained here. At 550ml, it’s relatively close in volume to the 630ml capacity of the Asvel one, and it has a watertight lid.

Japanese guidelines state 630ml as about the ideal size box for an adult woman’s meal, hence this is a standard size for many Japanese boxes. That’s true if I have white rice or a noodle dish. However, I’ve found that for a meal with brown rice, I usually can’t finish that amount of food, and instead, this 550ml box provides exactly the right amount for me.

I’ve since acquired a brand new Asvel box, but I shall continue using this one a lot more from now on, especially since I have brown rice for most of my meals.

Curious what’s for lunch inside the box :)?

 Aubergine & pork brown rice bento

Aubergine & pork brown rice bento

Brown rice, stir-fried pork (shabu-shabu or sukiyaki cut from the supermarket), with pan-fried brinjal (local aubergine).

Buying Shinzi Katoh in Singapore

If your bento aesthetics lean towards zakka (such as FrankTastes), and you are hoping for Shinzi Katoh items to appear in your Christmas stocking this year, you might want to hint to your friends and family with these Singapore Shinzi Katoh shopping tips (^.^).

Maameemoo (Orchard Cineleisure, 02-09) is a tiny zakka heaven, with a selection of Shinzi Katoh items, including bento boxes and bags. Short totes (which can double as lunch bags) cost S$39 and there are regular new shipments, according to the sales assistant. I’ve seen a much larger zakka shop at Cathay Building, but can’t remember if they actually had Shinzi Katoh or bento items.

However, an online search turns up a few Singapore-based online zakka stores:
The Little Happy Shop
Zakkaart.com

Both of these seem well-organised at very similar prices: lunch totes at S$26.90 (The Little Happy Shop) and S$26 (Zakkaart.com), double-tier bento boxes at S$29.90 (The Little Happy Shop) and $$28 (Zakkaart.com), single-tier boxes at S$17.80 (The Little Happy Shop) and S$24 (Zakkaart.com). Don’t forget to factor in the delivery charges (pretty minimal if by standard mail within Singapore).

There is also Momo’s World, which seems to be a new online shop, less professionally-organised website than the other two and with a limited selection.

Or perhaps you want to order directly from Shinzi Katoh’s Japan online shop; prices vary according to design. Here’s a guide for English-speakers to navigate the site. Shinzi Katoh’s UK website also does international orders (currently 25% off lunchboxes): lunch totes are £18, single-tier boxes on sale at £7.50, double-tier ones – £8.65.

Don’t forget: if ordering lunchboxes, do check the size as the double-tier ones come in 460ml and 540ml. If the lunch bags are too small for you, another option could be the short tote bags which are the same height but twice the length of the lunch bags (W315×H160×D110mm).

N.B.: I haven’t purchased from any of these shops myself so no comments on the actual level of service. I’ll just keep wishing hard for my Christmas this year… or next.

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.

*******

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.

My bento bags: cream-coloured Muji

Some readers have asked about my bento equipment, which I occasionally – only very occasionally – write about. Perhaps my favourite of all my bento things are my bags, a natural extension of my love of bags in general :). I love the shape of lunch bags and in my pre-bento past, have been known to carry Daiso lunchbags as handbags, even the silver-coloured insulated ones!

muji-bento-bag-view-4001.jpg

To kick off my bento bag series, here is my classic cream-coloured Muji bag (about S$13), which I bought after having busted my third Daiso lunchbag! (They’re OK for just a simple lunchbox but a 700ml bottle of drink will certainly bust those cheapo S$2 handles!). It’s the same Muji bag I wrote about here, but this one came separately, not in a set.

The high quality of this Muji bag was such a welcome relief and indeed a pleasure. The silky, lined interior and botton-clasp top flap are lovely touches.

It also matches well with my white Asvel bento box, and white plastic cutlery.

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My other bento bags: green & orange Reisenthel and double-layered Tzu Chi.

Fit N Fresh lunchbox products at Spotlight Singapore

If you want a box with an ice-pack, then the Fit N Fresh might be what you are looking for (although there are some Daiso as well as Lock n Lock plastic boxes that have a section under the lid where to fit in an ice pack).

Some of the Fit N Fresh range is available in Spotlight at Plaza Singapura – great place to shop because if you can also check out Daiso and the Lock n Lock range at Carrefour at the same time!

Just Bento has reviewed a small Fit N Fresh chiller plastic box here. Personally I wasn’t impressed, the lunchboxes aren’t very attractive, don’t look leakproof and don’t seem to be particularly well-made, certainly not of the quality one might expect from a US brand. Anyway, these are not especially useful for me because my packed lunches are almost always rice with side dishes that are best warm or at room temperature, rather than chilled.

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