Strawberry & pear agar-agar

This was part of my menu for a tea party. I had to choose some foods to suit the extremely hot weather at the moment, as well as things that would go well with Chinese tea. I flipped through my summer wagashi recipe books and decided that a co0l, non-melting kanten/agar agar dish would go down well.

strawberry & pear agar-agar

strawberry & pear agar-agar

Started out planning green tea and red bean agar, but found my matcha had expired and turned a dusky brown colour *yuck*. Looking around in the kitchen for tasty alternatives, I found  some strawberries in the fridge — small Korean strawberries which, if you’re lucky, can be very sweet. This batch wasn’t, so I didn’t mind using them to make agar-agar instead of enjoying fresh with crème frâiche (Carrefour’s La Reflets de France premium house brand, great with scones too).

I put the strawberries into the microwave for a short while, then mashed them with a potato masher (a fork will also do). As there were only  a few strawberries, I chucked in some canned pears leftover from the improvised gluten-free pear muffins, and mashed up the whole lot.

Measured the fruit puree then added water to make up 1 litre. Put in quite a lot of sugar, which I normally wouldn’t do but since these were for a party, the tastebuds of the guests took priority over my own food preferences.

Heated the mixture and added the agar-agar powder according to the packet instructions, then chilled it in moulds. Super easy and they were a big hit!

The full tea party menu:
Strawberry & pear agar-agar
Pumpkin walnut sponge cake [adapted from this]
Earl Grey creme caramel [using this basic recipe]
Chinese “gong fu” tea: oolong and pu-er

Bento primer part 2: planning bento meals

The five principles of traditional Japanese cooking, which are also applied to bento, are extremely useful in putting together a meal that has a variety of colours (visual stimulation) and textures (sensory stimulation in your mouth), different nutrients (which foods of different colours are an indication of), a range of cooking styles and a the five tastes classified in Traditional Chinese Medicine (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy/pungent) which help to ensure a meal balanced in yin/yang as well as other as oriental medicine concepts.
Although it may not always be possible to fulfil these criteria, paying some attention to them will certainly pay off. Again, the wider your repertoire of ingredients, cooking methods and flavours, the more likely you will be able to come up with a combination that comes close to creating the variety of colours, textures and tastes that make an appealing bento.

More bento tips:
Bento primer part 1: foods for bento

Just like instant packet ramen

Ramen

Ramen

After watching too many Korean TV shows with people slurping enticing-looking noodles, the ramen craving became quite unbearable! Of course commercial packet instant noodles are quite out of the question for me. Not only do the noodles themselves contain plenty of additives, the flavouring is usually more MSG (or other similarly glutamate-heavy MSG-substitute in ‘No MSG’ varieties) than anything else. The last time I gave into a packet noodle craving some years ago, I suffered indigestion, fuzzy-headedness and terrible itching — not worth it at all!

So this time, I whipped up a midnight ramen snack using what was on-hand in my kitchen cupboard. At least with control over individual ingredients, I would stand a much better chance of surviving — and enjoying! — my noodles.

Ingredients for ramen

Ingredients for ramen

INGREDIENTS
Multigrain ramen — packet is divided into single serve sections
Organic wheat-free tamari
Sesame oil
Furikake , Muso brand (white sesame seeds, black sesame seeds, salted shiso leaves, ao nori)
Shredded nori seaweed (make sure it’s plain without any seasoning)

To prepare the ramen, cook the noodles in boiling water. This multigrain variety takes at least 4 minutes but it’s much more substantial and more chewy than regular noodles, which I like because it gives a good ‘bite’ and is more filling. Drain noodles and simply toss with other ingredients to taste!

It’s worth mentioning that my ‘safe’ version is only relatively safe. The tamari and seaweed are rich in glutamates and the ramen, although a multigrain variety from the health food shop, is certainly not gluten-free. Watch out also for high salicylate level in the sesame oil. Personally, I would only resort to this once in a way.

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.

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…?

Bento boxes at Meidi-ya Singapore

Finally! I have found functional bento boxes (as opposed to cutesy and child-sized type which are plentiful in Daiso) in different capacities on sale in Singapore! If you’re looking for a basic bento box similiar in design to my Asvel box, head straight to Meidi-ya.

Lustroware clear boxes in three sizes: 490ml (S$13.90), 670ml (S$14.90), and 890ml (S$18.90). They are microwavable, have leakproof seal, and a movable divider.

There are also dark grey and black, very large men’s style bento, some of which come with insulated slipcase, and which cost up to S$31.90. There are single layer and double layer men’s boxes.

The boxes are all labelled with Ag+, indicating silver ions to give the plastic an anti-bacterial property.

All the Lustroware boxes which I saw in Meidi-ya are manufactured in China for the Japanese market.

Green tea silken tofu

Following my attempt at making firm tofu using nigari as a coagulant, I picked up some Glucono-Delta Lactone (GDL) coagulant at Phoon Huat and decided to give this dessert-style tofu pudding (a.k.a. 豆花 douhua/tau huay/ tau foo fah) a go. GDL is thought to be a more healthy coagulant compared to inorganic calcium compounds.

Unlike moulded tofu, silken tofu doesn’t require any special container and produces a greater volume of tofu in relation to the amount of soya milk used. Typically, it takes less than an hour to be ready for serving.

William Shurtleff’s Book of Tofu says that

[GDL is] an organic acid that solidifies soymilk in much the same was that lactic acid or a yoghurt starter is used to curdle dairy milk. A newly discovered solidifier made from natural gluconic acid, lactone makes it possible for the first time to solidify very thin soymilk, and even cold soymilk, by simply heating it to somewhat below the boiling point.

green-tea-silken-tofu-450.jpg

Following the recipe in Shurtleff’s Book of Tofu:
1 tsp lactone, dissolved in 2 Tbs water
3 1/4 cups soya bean milk
1 Tbs matcha green tea powder
3 Tbs sugar or honey

1) First, I began by making soya bean milk and measured out 3 1/4 cups whilst it was still hot.
2) Mixed in 1 Tbs green tea matcha powder and 3 Tbs sugar. As matcha often clumps up, it helps to sift it into the milk and use a whisk to make sure it is thoroughly incorporated.
3) Dissolved the 1 tsp lactone in 2 Tbs of water.
4) Poured the lactone solution into the soya bean milk, whilst gently stirring.
5) I made individual portions by dividing the still liquid soya bean milk into 6 custard cups. You can also leave the tofu to set inside a single pot. There is no separation of curds and whey, unlike the other method of making firm tofu.
6) The Book of Tofu says to let the soya milk stand uncovered for half an hour while it cools and sets, then cover with cling film and refrigerate. I made the mistake of covering the custard cups with cling film right away, and ended up with condensation on the inside.

Verdict: compared to commercially prepared tofu, mine definitely tasted like an amateur’s attempt. The texture, while very light and soft, could have been smoother. There was also a faint sour taste The green tea flavour was quite subtle, and the amount of sugar was just nice – I wonder what it would have tasted like without any sugar at all?

Anyhow, this is definitely worth another try. The Book of Tofu says that nigari makes the most delicate and delicious silken tofu, so I may use that alternative the next time.

My previous tofu-making postings:
Coagulants for homemade tofu
Making tofu at home
Making tofu at home P.S.
Another word on tofu coagulants

Green tea smoothie with rice & soy milk

This is just too yummy not to write about. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo because I made it for a midnight snack so no natural light for getting good shots. [P.S. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to consume green tea at midnight! I was so hyper when I went to bed :P]

edensoy-rice-soy-beverage.jpg

Of all the commercial non-dairy milks, my favourite is the Rice & Soy Beverage from Eden Foods. It’s got a rich, creamy texture and it’s subtle tastes are probably due to the inclusion of amazake, which is made from organic short grain brown rice and the fermentation starter, koji (Aspergillus Oryzae) as well as kombu seaweed. As amazake is fermented, those on a strict anti-candida diet should probably avoid this milk alternative. Read more about amazake and a detailed description of the product here.

There are instructions on the side of the carton to make the green tea smoothie:
1 cup Rice & Soy Beverage
1 tsp matcha green tea powder [1 used 1 1/2 tsp]
Blend till green tea dissolves and enjoy!

I have some homemade red bean paste in the fridge, so perhaps tomorrow morning I’ll try a red bean version.

Making tofu at home

After making soya bean milk at home, with okara and yuba as by-products, the next logical thing to try was making tofu. It was so easy and gave me a great sense of satisfaction (^_^). I refered to the ‘bible’ of tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi.

For the coagulant, I used nigari, purchased from a health food store (Nature’s Glory). This is the coagulant usually used in Japan comprising mostly magnesium sulphate and is made by evaporating sea water. Shurtleff advises that ‘calcium sulfate, a fine white powder, is sometimes mislabelled in the West and sold as nigari. The latter usually has a coarse, granular or crystalline texture, natural nigari is beige and refined nigari is white.’

Aside from nigari, Epsom salts/magnesium sulphate (a popular antidote for food intolerance reactions!), gypsum/calcium sulphate, lemon or lime juice or vinegar can also be used as coagulants. The coagulant used for Chinese tofu is gypsum/calcium sulphate. Glucono delta-lactone (GDL) is a naturally occurring organic acid that is used to produce ‘silken’ tofu. Read more in my earlier post on coagulants for tofu.

The choice of coagulant affects the texture and taste of the tofu, as does the amount used. For firmer tofu, use nigari; softer tofu, use calcium sulphate. The amount of pressure used when pressing the tofu and the length of time it’s pressed also influences how soft or firm it is.

For a quantity of soya bean milk using 1 1/2 cups soya beans + 16 cups water, Shurtleff suggests:
* for subtly sweet, nigari tofu: 2 tsp natural nigari (magnesium chloride) or refined nigari (calcium chloride)
* for mild, soft tofu: 2 tsp Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) or gypsum (calcium sulphate)
* for subtly tart or sour tofu: 4 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice or 3 Tbs apple cider vinegar.

Here’s what I did:

To use nigari, dissolve 1 tsp nigari in 1 cup water. Reduce quantities as appropriate.
For every 4 cups soya bean milk, use 1/2 cup nigari solution.

1) Start by making soya bean milk. See the detailed instructions at Just Hungry.
2) After boiling the milk for 5 mins, remove from heat and leave to cool for another five minutes.
3) Slowly add coagulant and stir gently. Watch the curds form.

img-80891.jpg

4) Leave for 10 mins and allow curds to settle in the bottom.
5) Prepare tofu-mould. Ideally, use a square/rectangular box with holes. If not, you can improvise with a colander but you will end up with an unevenly-shaped piece of tofu (see photo below). Next time, I will try using one of those plastic boxes for storing ready-made tofu from Daiso, or by Lock & Lock, which have an inner container or even non-tofu specific Daiso plastic containers with inner strainers.
6) Place a piece of muslin cloth into the colander/mould.
7) Gently scoop the curds into the muslin cloth. Squeeze out whey liquid.
8) Fold the cloth over the top of the curds.
9) Place a plate or something flat on top of the curds, and weight it down. I used an unopened 1kg bag of rice and balanced a heavy tin can on top.
10) Leave to set. The firmness of the tofu depends on how long it is left to set and how heavily it is weighted down. I left mine for about 3hrs and ended up with the firm consistency of taukwa, which can be easily fried.

img-82751.jpg

This small slab (about 12cm or 5 inches across) was made from 2 cups of soya bean milk.

What to do with the whey liquid? If you’ve added the correct amount of coagulant, the whey will be amber-coloured and taste sweetish. Too little coagulant and the whey will be cloudy from bits of loose curds; too much coagulant and the whey will taste bitter.

img-82591.jpg

Don’t throw away the whey as it’s full of B vitamin nutrients, protein (9% of the protein originally found in the dry soya beans) and natural sugars. You can add it to soup, use in cooking in place of other liquids, or even use it as a biodegradable soap! According to Shurtleff, traditional tofu shops in Japan use the whey to wash their equipment at the end of the day because the soy lecithin in whey cuts through fats. Whey can also be used as a facial wash or shampoo (how’s that for homemade, environmentally-friendly, chemical-free toiletries ?), washing and polishing wooden floors or woodwork to give a natural, seasoned look, as well as a plant nutrient.

Please check out Just Hungry’s detailed tofu-making instructions complete with step-by-step photos (she’s got a real tofu press!).
The comprehensive Wikipedia entry on tofu.
Read about the history of tofu in China here.

Don’t forget to check out my postscript to this entry, with many more links, including how to make your own tofu mould/press from a used milk carton!

Cutie cutie bread making toy!

If you like kawaii character bento, I’m sure you’ll love this! It’s a ‘toy’ called Konepan that helps you to knead and shape bread dough into cutesy shapes which can then be baked in a regular oven. Watch a movie of how it works here. NOT a substitute for a real bread machine :D.

konepan1.jpg

konepan21.jpg

Link via TokyoMango.

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