On plastic water bottles

Recently I realised that my expensive Nalgene water bottles and ‘premium’ range Lock & Lock lunch box were all made of BPA-leeching polycarbonate. Many others have already blogged about unsafe food plastics and the BPA problem before (see Just Bento: What are Japanese plastic bento boxes made of? and The SIGG water bottle controversy and the water bottle conundrum) and there’s plenty of information on the web about how to choose safer plastics.

The good news is that newer Nalgene bottles are made from BPA-free Tritan. Look out for the ‘Nalgene Choice’ labelling that identifies the new-range bottles. The recycling category “7” includes both BPA-polycarbonates as well as Tritan, so don’t use that as a conclusive identification of the material used.

The two styles of Lock n Lock Sport bottles I have been using for some years are also categorised as a “7”, and as they are from the pre-BPA-consciousness days, there’s a high chance both are polycarbonate. Some other Lock & Lock bottles are safer “5” plastics.

However, Lock & Lock has come out with several new lines of bottles, made with Tritan and all marked with large ‘BPA-free’ labels. These are not yet found on the international website, but are in the Singapore stores. I picked up two types on 30% discount at NTUC Fairprice a few weeks ago.

P1010410500ml

P1010404600ml

My main gripe is that the largest bottle is only 600ml, and that only in the range where the screw-lid is not attached to the bottle itself, which means the chance of dropping the lid and having to wash it before screwing it back on, not very practical when one is outdoors.

I  do love the positive screw grooves on the green bottle, but there’s something else that annoys me, which is that the screw grooves result in a lot of water dripping when I drink! I’ve had the same problem with insulated mugs too. The problem seems to be much less when the screw top mouth is small, such as with this narrow-mouthed Nalgene style which I also have (unfortunately an old bottle, in polycarbonate).

So maybe I should stick to flip-top bottles? However, in my experience, the flip-tops can easily be accidentally popped open and I’ve had many spills inside my bags before :(. So I try to put them on the outside mesh pocket of my rucksack or placed upright at the side of handbag.

The other thing about flip-tops is that if the mouth is too small, such as this Lock & Lock sports bottle, it’s hard to drink without creating a vacuum seal with your mouth.

LocknLock sports bottle

My water bottle wish list:
* 750ml
* BPA-free
* lid that is attached to bottle
* non-drip mouth
* mouth that’s not too small
* tall, slim shape that fits into standard water bottle pockets on sports bags
* and if it’s cute, that’s just a bonus ^^

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

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

Bento primer part 1: foods for bento

Although this is primarily a food intolerance blog, quite a lot of readers end up here whilst searching the term ‘bento’. It was because of increasingly complex food sensitivities that I was motivated to learn more about cooking and bento culture, so as to be able to adapt recipes and to make my packed meals from home more appetising. The principles of bento culture go a long way in making our food-intolerance-friendly lunchboxes more tasty and attractive. Learning to be creative in those two areas is particularly important when one is faced with the limitations of food restrictions.

So it’s about time I articulated my approach to making bento and this will be the first in a series of posts with my top tips.

Foods for bento

Food intolerances and special diets (including vegetarian, vegan, halal, kosher etc.) vary greatly from individual to individual, so only you know best what you can or can’t eat. Even if you do not have food sensitivities, one of the great advantages of making your own bento meals is having the opportunity to provide yourself with healthy, nutritious, fresh food that is free of processed products, preservatives and artificial additives.

Bento don’t have to be filled with Japanese food, as Lunch In A Box demonstrates. My main suggestion to managing food intolerances would be to seek out ingredients and cooking methods from a broad range of food cultures. For example, many gluten-free flours are commonplace in Indian cooking, so I head to an Indian supermarket to stock up on flours for western-style gluten-free baking, and also have the option of making Indian snacks from these same ingredients. Trying new foods and new tastes may take some getting used to but the more cosmopolitan your palate is, the wider your options for finding foods within your restrictions.

When it comes to unfamiliar cuisines, it’s worthwhile doing some background reading on the properties of ingredients and how to handle them, the principles of cooking methods, as well as to understand how tastes & textures are combined. For example, you might want to find out which dishes taste good at room temperature if you don’t have the opportunity to heat up your bento. Also, don’t forget that some ingredients turn rancid quickly, especially in hot weather, including coconut milk.Once you understand the fundamental principles of cooking across different food cultures, it will open up many possibilities for almost limitless experimentation. I’m not a purist when it comes to cuisines and tastes — one can’t afford to be when faced with wide-ranging food sensitivities — I’m only interested in creating a dish that is palatable to myself.

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.

********

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

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