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.

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Epsom salt body scrub

Those of you who have read Sue Dengate’s books on food intolerances or the discussions on the Failsafe food intolerance discussion lists will have come across mention of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) as one way of counteracting food reactions. This article explains how sulphates form a key element in a particular detoxification pathway in the body, which “processes other phenolic compounds including salicylates (salicylates are a subset of phenols), artificial food colorings, artificial flavorings, and some preservatives.” Sulphates are not necessarily absorbed into the body well via the gut, so skin absorbtion by using Epsom salts is a good alternative.

Epsom salt is also a magnesium compound and magnesium is helpful in reducing muscle aches and stiffness as well as the tension that causes teeth grinding (see here, here and here).

The Epsom Salt Industry Council summarizes the health benefits:

Magnesium:

  • Ease stress and improves sleep and concentration
  • Help muscles and nerves function properly
  • Regulate activity of 325+ enzymes
  • Help prevent artery hardening and blood clots
  • Make insulin more effective
  • Reduce inflammation to relieve pain and muscle cramps
  • Improve oxygen use

Sulfates:

  • Flush toxins
  • Improve absorption of nutrients
  • Help form joint proteins, brain tissue and mucin proteins
  • Help prevent or ease migraine headaches

There are also beauty benefits to using Epsom salt because it can be used for exofoliating, as I learnt when I chanced upon this recipe for a DIY Epsom salt bath scrub on a great Singapore beauty blog which has a focus on natural & DIY skincare. She liked the Epsom salt scrub so much that she declared it her bath staple. (If you want to know where in Singapore to get cosmetics and toiletries with minimal/no chemical additives, you’ll find many suggestions on the Viva Woman blog.)

However, I would suggest leaving out the food colouring, and perhaps another option to jojoba/olive/almond oil might be coconut oil. Read about the benefits of coconut oil for skin here, here and here. I also happen to need to use up a huge 1 litre bottle of virgin coconut oil from Nature’s Glory :); I only use it occasionally or sparingly in baking and cooking as it imparts a very strong and distinctive flavour.

If you’re wondering where to get Epsom salt in Singapore (as I was for a long time), Viva Woman tells us “S$4.60 from Guardian Pharmacy”.