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

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