Travelling with food intolerances can be a bit of a headache and the best solution is often to pack your own food for the journey. A short while back, Lunch in a Box blogged about avoiding airline food by packing your own bento, which is what I did too.
I was rather paranoid about going hungry on the 24hr+ journey and made all this food. In the end, it did look way too much so I put the rolled oats bars into the suitcase instead.
All food packed in microwave-safe plastic containers from SKP, thanks to the tip from Canton Pixie. They are supposed to be disposable, but are hardy enough to be washed and reused several times. The black boxes are about 500ml in volume.
Clockwise from the top:
1) Roasted chicken sandwich: homemade wholewheat bread, crockpot-roasted chicken, lettuce, tomato, seasoned with salt and mustard freshly made-up from mustard powder.
This is my standard sandwich recipe, which you would already have noticed in my other bento, the only difference is that I decided to try using mustard. Prepared supermarket mustard tends to have additional ingredients (and possibly preservatives) so I bought some plain Colman’s mustard powder. In any case, as I’ve not tested my tolerance to mustard powder, I used just a miniscule amount. It wasn’t worth using it, the taste wasn’t strong enough to enhance the sandwich, yet it was sufficient to impart a bitter edge and faint odour of rotten eggs. *Sigh*, so much for the taste experiment.
My roast chicken is made in an electric crockpot as I find this gives a wonderfully-tender result and you don’t have to watch the time too carefully. The only drawback is that there won’t be the crispy skin produced by oven-roasting. I don’t season the raw chicken with anything, but of course you can rub salt, pepper, lemon juice, honey, garlic, herbs – whatever you wish. You’ll need to raise the chicken carcass away from the bottom of the pot. One way is to use one of the small metal racks for steaming; alternatively, a less environmentally-friendly method is to crush aluminium foil into loose balls to cover the base of the pot and place the chicken on top of them. If you turn the electric crockpot onto ‘High’ or ‘Auto’, check the chicken for doneness after 2 hrs. The fats will all have dripped to the bottom of the crockpot. Sometimes I put potatoes in round the side as well.
I originally cut the sandwich into these tiny pieces intending to fit them into a different shaped box, but the box turned out to be too small. The bite-sized sections are handy for snacking, but they also result in the filling spilling out, hence the clingfilm wrap for each section.
2) Rolled oats, okara & almond bars. Recipe is here. Packed with paper napkins to cushion them and also stop them from moving around inside the plastic box.
3) Fried rice topped with lettuce strips, and side dish of chopped pear. The ingredients comprised sliced pork, chopped French beans, garlic, onions and homemade salted egg.
Although Chinese salted eggs are usually eaten hard-boiled with plain rice, I decided to experiment with scrambling the raw eggs, the way one normally does with fresh eggs for fried rice. Only after cracking open the egg did I discover that salted egg yolks are solid when raw! It had to smashed up when the egg was being cooked.
The egg seasoned the rice with a nice salty flavour, but I don’t think I would use this method again. Firstly, the special taste of the salted egg, in particular the yolk, is lost when it’s incorporated into the fried rice – what a waste of the salted eggs that took me five weeks to make! Secondly, it can be hard to gauge the amount of rice and other ingredients to go with the salted egg so that the final dish is of the correct saltiness.
The rice here was brown Japanese rice, genmai, which gave a sticky and chewy texture as compared to long-grain rice usually used for Chinese fried rice.
The syrup was packed in a lidded sauce dish and tiny ziploc bag, then put inside the larger ziploc bag used to contain all my hand-carry liquids and gels!
In order to stop the foil dish of stewed apple from sliding around, I filled the gaps with two small pieces of steamed sponge cake.
5) Snack box of fried sweet potato strips, steamed sponge cake, and chopped pears. I used a cute plastic sheet bento divider between the sweet potato and the sponge cake, and kept the juicy pears enclosed in foil.
I was worried about having my food confiscated at the airport security check, but fortunately, I got through without any problem. I’ve also found out that while liquids in containers of more than 100ml are banned on flights, empty containers are allowed – at least at Singapore Changi Airport and the few other places I’ve been to. So I carry my Lock & Lock bottle on board and get the flight attendant to fill it up with warm water. (Do note that disposable plastic bottles will melt if filled with hot water.) Lock and Lock bottles are far cheaper than nalgene plastic bottles, so in the event that my empty bottle does get swiped by airport security, no need for heartache.
The other ‘problem’ I anticipated would be the curious stares and questions from fellow travellers, and this may sound strange but having to keep explaining my bento boxes and describe my food intolerances can be a source of great stress to me. The mere thought of having to answer questions about why I’m not eating the food provided, or of having to fight with serving staff in ‘no outside food allowed’ places is sometimes enough to make me decide to stay at home. So I had also planned my response to any questions: ‘I don’t like aeroplane food so I don’t want to eat it.’ True enough, the girl sitting next to me asked me once when the meal was served and again when we met at the baggage claim!
I did accept the aeroplane meals, just to see how much of it I could tolerate – using a combination of muscle testing and eating a bit to see how I felt. Mostly, bread and butter was fine for me, and the cooked meals had bits with no sauce that were all right, but if I had had to rely entirely on the aeroplane food, I would have been verrrrry hungry by the end of the trip.
In fact, I had tried to order a special meal for the flight as the airline’s website listed a ‘Low Calorie Meal’ (no sauces, no fried foods, low salt, low sugar) which sounded relatively less likely to produce a food sensitivity reaction. However, I had left it too late and after 15 minutes on hold with the airline reservation office, I gave up without an opportunity to try calling them again as special meals have to be ordered at least 24hrs in advance.
The best experience I’ve had with ordering special meals on the plane was a couple of years ago when I travelled long-haul on Singapore Airlines (and it’s not because I’m from Singapore that I say this :)!). I called and requested something that was outside their list of special meals: if I recall correctly, my request was no MSG, no soya sauce and no sugar (a watered-down version of an anti-candida diet). Amazingly, they agreed to do it! The meal out of Singapore Changi Airport was a deliciously tender beef steak, and I was impressed with their attention to detail by giving me diabetic jam at breakfast.
Even more amazingly, although I did not call the airline on the other end to arrange for the special meal on my return journey, when I got on the plane several weeks later, my ‘extra-special’ meal was served up! Unfortunately, this time round it tasted pretty horrible though and I had to resort to asking for a normal meal or risk prolonged hunger :P. Well, that was a few years ago and I don’t know what the current level of service is like now. If one had a serious food intolerance problem, I wouldn’t completely rely any kind of externally-prepared food anyway because you just can’t be sure.
And one thing I like to check out on planes is the disposable plastic cutlery ^_^, which has become prevalent after 9/11. So far, I’ve collected two types of sturdy plastic cutlery that are more like baby utensils than fragile disposable picnic ware. Why the fetish for plastic cutlery? It’s light and small-sized, so great for bento (^.^)v!