Also known as 便當

Japanese-style cute bento may be all the rage, but the Taiwanese also have a strong bento culture, or rather 弁当 bento–> 便當 bian4 dang1 (different ways of writing the same kanji Chinese characters, and pronounced in Mandarin).

Fifty years of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan until the end of the Second World War has left a strong legacy of Japanese culture. However, as much as bian dang are very much a part of everyday life in Taiwan today, they are quite distinct from Japanese bento.

As you can see in these photos (which also include photos of Japanese bento – don’t get confused), Taiwanese bian dang are typically packed in shallow, rectangular cardboard boxes, which are held shut by two rubber bands stretched over the diagonal corners, and which can be used to hold down a pair of disposable chopsticks as well. The type of food is also rather different, being stir-fried or braised Chinese dishes, often brown in colour from the soya sauce with some green vegetables; all cooked foods. Not as colourful as Japanese dishes, functional rather than aesthetic.

Without the Japanese focus on fussy, intricate – sometimes outlandish – presentation of foods in the bento box, the Taiwan bian dang is a more likely candidate for being influenced by the Buddhist principles of simplicity, concern for the environment and vegetarianism. Japanese Zen vegan cooking, shojin ryori (see also here), is a more rarified expression of these Buddhist principles in food, which I understand is practised within the confines of temples rather than by lay people as part of everyday life.

The international Buddhist organisation, the Tzu Chi Foundation, which is based in Hualian, Taiwan, produces its own line of plastic Buddhist-inspired bian dang utensils [if you read Chinese, please view the original Tzu Chi Taiwan site], which are promoted as being reusable and hence environmentally-friendly.

When I visited Tzu Chi University in Hualian, I found many of the students toting these lunch sets, even though there was a canteen. It’s because the canteen provides food but not utensils. To eat there, you must bring your own bowl and chopsticks, and there are sinks outside the canteen for you to wash up when you are done.

Tzu Chi lunch
Lunch at Tzu Chi University – no disposable utensils!

The minimalist, Zen styling of the Tzu Chi bian dang range [see also here] is rather attractive but I’ve always found it impractical that the lids don’t shut tight – a bit of pressure and they’re off, and because they are bowl-shaped, you can’t use elastic bands to hold them shut. However, I love the Tzu Chi folding chopsticks :). There are two types: the more more fancy type operates like a click-type ballpoint pen! It’s very clever but I wasn’t sure about washing inside the mechanism so my choice is the cheaper screw-version, which comes in two halves and can be screwed together, In Singapore, it’s available from Tzu Chi’s Jing-Si Cafe; about S$5 for the screw-type, which comes in black or ivory colour.

Tzu Chi folding chopsticks, measured next to 12cm ruler

Tzu Chi Chopsticks A

Tzu Chi Chopsticks C

Aside from the small size when packed, the other advantages of these chopsticks are:
1) they are full-sized when assembled (as compared to the normal non-folding kids/travel-sized Japanese ones that come in attractive plastic cases).
2) they are Chinese-style chopsticks with blunt ends. I’m not used to the pointed Japanese-style chopsticks and find them difficult to manipulate.
3) the narrow ends of the chopsticks have a rough texture to make it easier to pick up food.

Clever solutions

I was saying earlier how I found it difficult to use my Japanese, stainless steel, insulated, multi-container food tote (looks like this) because the containers are not leak-proof, with the exception of the soup one. LunchInABox gives us the solution to this here: the clever ‘rice lid’ idea. Those who like their rice pure and unadulterated at meal time may not approve though :)!

Another idea introduced by LunchInABox is this link to a method of transporting small quantities of condiments using an ordinary drinking straw. Nifty. However if it’s just good old salt & pepper, maybe the traditional screw of paper might work just as well? Assuming there is lots of soggy food around to melt the paper and contents, that is.

Yolks here, whites there

In the instructions for converting any pancake batter to Aebleskiver batter which I wrote about earlier, you’ll need three egg whites to replace each whole egg in the pancake recipe.

What to do with the leftover three yolks? Try this custard recipe, which I think might go very nicely with the Aebleskiver :).

Imperishable bento

No preservatives needed! Cuteness guaranteed! Long lasting pleasure! … But you might be very hungry :).

Imperishable bento A

Imperishable bento B


Bento frenzy; Lock & Lock fetish

This is what happens when:
a) one has a food intolerance and has to pack food from home just about all the time
b) one can’t resist anything super-cute-kawaii
c) one has a fetish for plastic containers

Websites like Lunch in a Box precipitate obsessive devouring (of the site) — get straight to the Lunch in a Box eye candy here — while pictures of ‘lunch tools’ are enough to send the pulse racing. A quick search throws up some bento sites which I will probably continue to explore more in future:
Cooking Cute
My Lunch Can Beat Up Your Lunch!
Bento Lunches
and clearly the bento sub-culture has cornered a quite chunk of Flickr space, or 211 Flickr groups about bento, to be precise!
[Update 12/12/07: Check out my current favourite bento links in the side bar :).]

Looking at those gorgeous photos is inspiring! Packing food from home (which is not the usual thing in foodie-paradise Singapore) now seems less like a chore and more of an exciting project :). Of course, food intolerant individuals must be vigilant to avoid ingredients in the bento recipes that are off-limits, such as artificial colourings for cutesy effect, convenience foods (like hotdogs which can be cut into fancy shapes like octopuses) and sauces.

My usual packed lunches aren’t like typical Japanese bento – dry foods eaten cool, but rice with stirfries so there’s gravy and they are best enjoyed heated in a microwave. Which means that typical Japanese plastic lunch boxes aren’t suitable for me because they are not leakproof or microwave-safe. I even gave up using my beautiful stainless steel insulated lunch tote (looks like this) because gravy will leak out of every container except the soup one :(. [Update: read the clever solution to this here.]

Which brings me to my abiding consumer weakness: Lock & Lock. The websites for different countries display different product ranges, so go straight to the Korean site if you want to see everything! (Also check out this list of Lock & Lock for the Indian kitchen). A Korean-made brand, they are air-tight, leakproof, microwave safe, clear plastic, and come in dozens of shapes for all purposes, with new designs coming out all the time to convince you that you need to buy yet another Lock & Lock. Check out the special lunchbag range. My current favourite designs:

1) Sport water bottle: the brand new rugged model with handstrap, which I just saw for the first time last week (and purchased, even though I already have four Lock & Lock drink containers of different designs and sizes!).

Sport bottle

Compared to the earlier pop-top water bottle (with drinking cup lid), this one has the advantage of having a handstrap, as well as a larger drinking spout, which avoids the problem of a suction developing when you drink. The disadvantage is a more prominent lip to the stopper, which is correspondingly more easily popped open accidentally (which happened inside my bag one day ^o^). This new model isn’t on the English Lock & Lock site, see the China site. For warm water drinkers like me, aluminium water bottles are less user-friendly than hot-water-tolerant ones (like Lock & Lock or Nalgene) because they become scalding-hot when you pour in hot water. Also, with reports of the link between aluminium and dementia, one might want to reduce contact with aluminium products.

2) ‘Zen’ range of nested square bowls with curved sides. I confess, I was sucked in by the sticker of Han Shangong from Da Chang Jin on the front :D. You’ll find her only on the Chinese-language Lock & Lock sites, like here. This new ‘Zen’ shape isn’t so commonly found in Singapore stores [6/10/07 update: good selection of the Zen range in Takashimaya; 19/11/07 update: spotted in Carrefour Suntec; 23/11/07: also in OG].

Lock & Lock Zen
Lock & Lock ‘Zen’ range: 950ml (left), 1.6l (right).

3) the E-Z Lock range which is made of thinner plastic and just has a pop-top instead of the silicone seal and lock-down lid, but which are still air-tight/leakproof/microwave-safe.

EZ Lock divider

The divided boxes seal tight between sections so liquids can’t leak across, unlike with regular Lock & Lock. They are lighter to carry around and come in multipacks – great for food storage in the home as well. I love the ones in tiny sizes for little bits of leftovers and the screwtop jars for keeping dry goods, popcorn and potato crisps.

And Lock & Lock designs I don’t like? I was very disappointed with the plastic tea bottle (tea lover that I am, how could I resist this product :)?) which comes with an internal strainer, similar to such bottles commonly sold in China. The slits in the strainer were too big and my tea leaves slipped through, and the square shape with catches for the lid on all four sides mean that you have to drink out of the corners. I only see this model on the China site.

Lock and Lock aside, these are very attractive and very clever: Built NY® Munchlers™ – Insulated Medium Kids Lunch Bags; but not sure if they are basically just space-wasters which I can’t afford when I’m lugging laptop computer, a stack of books, papers, stationery, personal effects and my food & drink around!

Anyway, after browsing all those bento photos and sites, I’m itching to rush down to Plaza Singapura. Why Plaza Singapura? Because Carrefour has lots of Lock & Lock (sometimes on special offer) and Daiso is paradise for stocking up on Japanese kitchen utensils and cute stuff for bento.

Read more bento entries on this blog.

Danish sweet takoyaki?

Takoyaki, or Japanese squid balls, are relatively common here in Singapore, but just today for the first time I came across aebleskiver, a Danish puffy pastry made from batter.

Ableskiver filled with jam [Source: The Prepared Pantry]

I instantly made the connection between the two when I saw the shape of the aebleskiver pan. It turns out others have made this connection too – this online shop for Japanese goods sells takoyaki pans and explicitly says you can use them to make aebleskiver as well. Takoyaki pans are easily available in Japanese stores in Singapore, so it won’t be difficult to get into aebleskiver production at home :)!

Aebleskiver pan
Aebleskiver pan [Source: The Prepared Pantry]

Read more about aebleskiver and how to make it:
The Story of Aebleskiver

Prepared Pantry’s Aebleskiver Centre

Some pages on takoyaki:
LunchInABox’s takoyaki tutorial
Gindaco Takoyaki franchise
Plastique Monkey on takoyaki
YouTube videos on making takoyaki

These are great ideas for expanding your range of foods if you are on a Failsafe diet. Those who are gluten-intolerant simply need to use a gluten-free pancake recipe. To convert any pancake recipe to make aebleskivers, simply replace each egg with the whites of three eggs – whipped and folded into the batter.

Although aebleskiver is traditionally filled with jam or applesauce and dusted with icing sugar, you could easily use any filling you wish. Similarly takoyaki is traditionally a savoury dish, but you could start with the batter and fill it with anything you like.

Unfortunately, many of the ingredients in traditional takoyaki are definitely not Failsafe: takoyaki brown sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dashi soup stock, pickled ginger and bonito flakes.

Time to get creative here! You might get some ideas how to adapt takoyaki by reading this quick history of takoyaki, which was preceded by choboyaki and radioyaki (yes, it was named after the new modern sound machine at the time!). Or try this vegan takoyaki using konnyaku for inspiration!

Once you’ve bought your takoyaki/aebleskiver pan, you can also make :

1) these cute little egg-shaped cakes (Ji Dan Gao 雞蛋糕), which can also be stuffed with whatever you fancy.

2) Thai kranom krok – coconut pudding (uses rice flour & coconut milk, a bit like apom balik in Malaysia/Singapore), which can even be stuffed with mussels. Recipes here and here. (Don’t forget, coconut milk is not OK for the Failsafe diet.)

3) “Hokkaido hot-cakes”, which I’ve never tried before and just saw for the first time at a Japanese desserts stall in the basement of Plaza Singapura earlier today. They are stuffed with custard.

Daily bread

In order to push my entire family towards better eating practices, in addition to making salted eggs at home, I have finally taken that crucial step of purchasing a breadmaker to entice my family members to eschew commercial sliced bread.

Why you should avoid commercial, sliced bread

The short answer is that commercial, sliced bread from the supermarket contains plenty of additives in the form of dough conditioners and preservatives. If you are on a Failsafe diet, you’ll also need to watch out for undeclared anti-oxidants in the oils used.

The Failsafe Network has plenty of information about additives in bread and the possible reactions:
Fact Sheet on Bread Preservative (282 calcium propionate)
Bread Preservative Research
and also section in the pages on Sulphites and Product Updates.

The Wild Yeast Bakery in the UK says:

Commercial bread is all about speed of processing. This makes it cheap, uniform, tasteless and with a flabby texture, with all kinds off additives to stop it from going dry and mouldy (sourdoughs have natural resistance to going mouldy and last much better). Large amounts of commercial yeast are used to fluff up the bread quickly and there are residues of unprocessed yeast in the bread. The yeast used is designed to be quick working, is fed on sugar residues and inorganic fertilisers with a number of other chemical additives, and is not easily digested by the body.

Bread standards allow commercial bakers to include a whole array of flour improvers, sweeteners, colours, flavour enhancers, texturisers, preservatives, and enzymes. The presence of these additives must be on the label, but there is no requirement to name the chemicals. These additives are only needed because commercial bakers force flour do things it can’t do naturally – like turn into real bread quickly.

It’s no surprise to us that many people have yeast or wheat intolerance when this is going on. Many who can’t deal with normal bread find our sourdoughs fine to eat.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a politics academic, presents a fascinating account of the history of the industrialisation of bread-making in the USA. He mentions that an obsession with the whiteness of bread led to complaints in the first two decades of the 20th century that bakeries were whitening bread with ‘plaster of Paris, sulfate of lime, borax, bone, pipe clay, chalk, alum and other nefarious compounds’. There was even a debate in the US Supreme Court over whether bleaching flour with chlorine gas could be considered a criminal act. More generally, the article ‘traces the articulation of capital and bio-politics over the terrain of baking’. Well worth reading.

Choosing a bread maker

I surfed the internet for as much information as I could before I hit the big department stores to check out what they had for sale. Basically, Tangs and Takashimaya sell a few different brands of breadmakers, but essentially they all fall into the price range of S$160-190 and have a very similar set of features.

So I settled on the Morphy Richards one, which was not only one of the cheapest, but also the only brand with a two year guarantee. The Morphy Richards bread machines have a reputation for having good instruction manuals. They’re downloadable here.

Comparing notes with a friend in Hong Kong, it seems as if most companies do not release their full range of bread makers in Asia. For example, my Morphy Richards machine does not have any model number, it’s simply labelled ‘Fastbake’.
It also claimed to have a mixing paddle which would drop down after kneading instead of remaining vertical and creating a huge hole in the loaf, but so far I’ve not had this happen! Oh well, it’s only cosmetic anyway.

Some of the standard features are:
1) 10 or 12 programmes for different types of bread + jam
2) 2 loaf sizes: 1.5lb or 2lb (Philips does 700g and 900g, I think)
3) 3 settings for crust colour
4) vertical loaf (most have square cross-sections, one brand had long cross-section)
5) single mixing paddle (some upmarket models I saw on the internet have two paddles for a horizontal loaf)
6) “resume programme” function in case of cut in electricity for up to 15 mins

Making bread is a whole art & craft of its own. Even using bread makers can involve a lot of experimentation. The measurement of the ingredients must be precise, the order in which you put them into the bread maker must follow the instruction book (the yeast cannot touch any liquid), and the temperature of the liquids – if even a couple of degrees off – affects the final result, not to mention the general temperature and humidity of your climate and kitchen. I haven’t done a whole lot of reading up yet, but so far, I’ve found some useful articles on this site, especially the ‘Bread Machine Bread’ section.

More notes from my rudimentary bread making experience later :). Tomorrow’s experiment: to use the dough function to make buns that I will stuff with red bean filling to make tau sar pau 豆沙包. Not the white steamed kind but the type in a breaded bun. Trust Lily’s Wai Sek Hong to have a recipe for this too! Red bean filling is very much acceptable in the Failsafe diet, by the way.

The salted egg crunch

Today’s Straits Times carries the news that prices of mooncakes have gone up this year because of a shortage of salted eggs! And the reason for the shortage is this:

1.8 million salted duck eggs rejected, destroyed
BETWEEN Jan 1 and July 12 this year, 1.8 million salted duck eggs, or 30 per cent of the total imports here, were rejected and destroyed due to the presence of the carcinogenic dye, Sudan red. Twenty-two exporters from China, Vietnam and Malaysia were also suspended.

Now, amid tougher regulations, every consignment of salted duck eggs imported into Singapore has to be accompanied by a health certificate from the country of origin stating that the eggs have been tested and found to be free from Sudan red.

And on arrival, every consignment is tested again.

Since July 13, all consignments of salted duck eggs have passed undestroyed into the market.

The duck-egg supply crunch is also seen in these AVA figures:

About 292 tonnes of salted duck eggs were imported from July 13 to Sept 6. Yet last year, for two months (August and September) leading up to the mid-Autumn festival in October, some 606 tonnes of salted duck eggs were imported.

Related earlier posts on this blog:
A good reason to make your own salted eggs
Onigiri, Chinese salted eggs and salt

How are you?

The last few postings may have made wellness seem like a very complicated issue. In some ways it is, and I’m constantly trying to find a way to improve my well-being.

But in another respect, wellness is very simple. The fundamental question is, “Do you feel well?” If the answer is yes, then that’s good. If the answer is no, then it indicates that something could be done make you feel better, whether in physical, emotional or energetic terms.

Wellness isn’t simply about the state of your body, it’s a state of being. So even if you are coping with difficult health issues, if you are happy and manage to have a decent quality of life, you might still feel well. Similarly, you might feel unhappy or “off”, even if the medical tests all turn out clear.

Yin/Yang balance

Continuing from my previous posting on the theme of listening to your body, and earlier ones commenting on the yin/yang properties of foods, over the years I have come to notice a very clear instance when my body chooses what food it needs to correct an imbalance.

At times when I’m very stressed, I simply don’t feel like eating meat. In the past I thought it was because meat was too ‘heavy’ to be managed by my digestive system when my stomach was feeling uncomfortable or even nauseous from stress.

In a way that’s true, but what could also be happening is that meats are also very yang. This chart shows where different foods lie on the yin/yang scale in macrobiotics.

Balance Chart 500

Stress is one of the characteristics of a body that is excessively yang. Therefore, the body leans towards foods that are neutral or yin in nature to balance out the excess yang. If the body is seriously imbalanced, then it will crave for things on the other extreme of the scale — e.g. if you are very stressed and yang, there’ll be a tendency to reach for sugar, coffee, alcohol and processed junk food.

However, information about food sensitivities often mention that the very food you crave is likely to be what triggers a reaction, in other words, it worsens the problem rather than balances it. So far, I have not found a satisfactory explanation of why food intolerances lead to cravings, so I still don’t really know how to integrate this information with the concept of the body’s natural leaning towards yin/yang food balance. [For further reading on cravings in terms of need for nutrients, yin/yang balance, acidic/alkaline balance and ‘satiety’ or ability to stave off hunger & the urge to eat, see The Food and Mood Handbook: Find Relief at Last from Depression, Anxiety, PMS, Cravings and Mood Swings by Amanda Geary, Chapter 2, ‘Craving Balance’.]

When looking through the book, Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life by Gail Reichstein, I noticed her reminder to vegetarians to be careful of the tendency to eat too many yin foods. Going by the chart above, you’ll be all right with enough eggs, diary, miso and tamari (I won’t recommend too much salt!).

Here are more tables to help you balance your yin/yang by adjusting your food intake to your emotional and physical state at a particular point in time.

Food Mood connection

Food Symptom Link

All charts are from The Self-Healing Cookbook: Whole Foods To Balance Body, Mind and Moods by Kristina Turner (2002)

Although it doesn’t say so in the title, the Turner book is actually based on macrobiotics. I have found it very helpful in learning to understand yin/yang, because the principles are quite well-explained. (I’ve also found these articles by Richard Seah very useful.) It can be rather frustrating not understanding how to tell what foods are yin or yang. Once, I went to see a Traditional Chinese Medicine physician who told me that my constitution was too yin, rattled off a few foods I should avoid (such as green beans 綠豆 and tomatoes) but had no time or patience to explain more, and sent me off with some Chinese herbal potions. Besides the herbal medicine, I was very keen to know how to balance my system with foods in a more general way. I’m still trying to learn enough to do so.

However, the problem with macrobiotics & Traditional Chinese Medicine is that the classification of yin/yang in the two systems is rather different. This analysis of the development of the macrobiotics movement (2005) deals with the issue, as does this page and this one.

I don’t know enough to suggest how to manage this, apart from falling back upon the basic method of simply listening to your body, for which muscle testing is a very useful tool. In other words, instead of subscribing to any rigid ideas about what can or can’t be eaten, it’s about the Big Picture, rather, as Singapore macrobiotic counsellor, Richard Seah, explains here. This takes into consideration the needs of each individual and

Even though macrobiotics seems to place a lot of importance on diet, it actually covers very broad areas including the environment, climate, the landscape (as in geomancy and feng shui), Northern vs Southern hemisphere and even cosmic forces. It also considers human relationships, exercise, work and other activity, emotions, attitudes and a host of other lifestyle factors.

I gave up on macrobiotics when I felt that I couldn’t learn enough about the basic principles from the books I was reading in order to apply them to my own personal conditions. For one thing, most books are targeted at readers in temperate countries, not tropical Southeast Asia. However, as I try to understand and read myself and my circumstances more accurately, I may get better at putting into practice ways of balancing yin & yang.