Fermented bean paste & Japanese organic products

The miso fish & pumpkin recipe I recently wrote about is actually quite close to a fairly common Chinese fish dish, as you can see here and here. Instead of miso, Chinese fermented soy bean paste (豆酱 or tau cheo in Hokkien dialect) is used instead. A typical jar looks like this.

Concerned about additives and my food intolerances, I have avoided commercial supermarket-shelf Asian sauces for some years now. However, miso is a great substitute for tau cheo, which my family has successfully used even in traditional recipes like Mee Siam, and organic miso is also widely available, in many varieties. I’ve seen a huge range of miso at reasonable prices at Organic Paradise (including macrobiotic grade Mitoku and repackaged Muso brands), plenty of unusual varieties by South River brand at rather exorbitant prices at Brown Rice Paradise. Do choose miso made entirely from soya beans if you want a taste as close as possible to tau cheo.

One thing I’ve noticed is that organic products from Japan can also be found in regular supermarkets, hiding amongst the non-organic products. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve found.

miso organic organic miso (in Isetan supermarket)

Udon organic organic udon (in Meidi-ya)

ocha organic organic ocha (in NTUC Fairprice Finest, Bt Timah Plaza)

Kikkoman organic shoyuKikkoman organic soya sauce (in NTUC Fairprice Finest, Bt Timah Plaza) [N.B.: I am unable to discern the production process of this product, but in my experience of trying different brands of organic shoyu, the twenty-four month fermented Johsen Shoyu from Mitoku really stands out with a rich, deep flavour I have never encountered with any other soya sauce.]

roasted-corn-tea.jpg Korean corn tea at Korean grocery store in Novena Square2.

Look out for the kanji or hangul words meaning organic:

udon youji miso youji ocha youji Korean yugioh

as well as organic certification

udon certification miso certification ocha certification organic certification OFDC

Glass tea cups & some teas

I’ve been searching for a nice gaibei/gaiwan (蓋杯/ 蓋碗) for some time now. My tea pots are all far too big for one person, especially for drinking fine teas which should only be consumed in miniscule amounts (partly because of their high caffeine content and very cooling properties, but also in order to savour their delicate tastes). I thought a gaiwanwould be ideal as it can be used for brewing tea as well as drinking milder teas, which can be consumed in larger quantities.

I’ve also always found glass tea utensils to be very pretty as you can see the leaves unfolding and admire the colour of the tea.

These Hario handmade glass items are now on sale in Takashimaya and Istean and I was attracted by their lovely, light, delicate feel. This 85ml fluted gaibei I chose is the cheaper of the two available – S$7.50 (Takashimaya)/S$9 (Isetan & Carrefour) as opposed to the plain glass one at S$23. Oddly enough, in the Hario 2004 catalogue, the fluted cup is 1800¥ and the plain one is 1600¥, so it’s a real steal! I think they are being sold off cheap because they are the last few pieces of a line that’s been discontinued as you can no longer find the fluted items in the 2006 catalogue.

Hario gaibei

The tea shown here is Mitoku brand Mu (無) tea, a blend of sixteen traditional Chinese medicine plants & herbs (in tea bag form), developed by macrobiotic guru, George Ohsawa. The distinctive aroma is pretty powerful, and quite likely to be palatable only to those who are used to drinking Chinese herbal soups and TCM medicinal potions. It’s a potent brew – a tiny shot of this really hits my system! With its pervasive herbal smell, Mu tea is best served in a glass cup like this which won’t absorb the smell. The easiest place to find this Mu (無) tea is at Meidi-ya supermarket at Liang Court, which sells Mitoku products noticeably cheaper than any of the health food shops I’ve been to.

Hario gaibei & cup

In addition to the gaibei, I also bought two tiny matching tea cups (70ml, S$1.90 [Takashimaya]/S$3 [Isetan & Carrefour] each). The 85ml gaibei can brew enough to fill each of the two cups just over half full. The decorative plastic tray is from Daiso (S$2). The fluted decorations give these cups a uniquely retro feel. When he first saw these, my father thought I had dug up some of grandma’s old glassware :).

As glass cups are thin and can be very hot to the touch, they are only suitable for teas which are not brewed with boiling water, i.e. green teas. High quality green teas, such as gyokuro, should be brewed at 50°C-60°C, and everyday green teas at 80°C. Chinese oolong tea, which is a semi-fermented tea, should be brewed at 80°C-90°C. See this temperature chart for Japanese teas.

The tea being served here is Fukujuen brand Japanese gyokuro karigane (to be brewed at 60°C-70°C). Karigane tea is a kind of kukicha as it is the stems and veins of the tea plant, produced as a by-product of either sencha, or in this case, gyokuro. The word ‘karigane’ means ‘wild geese’ because the floating twigs resemble wild geese who rest on the ocean surface with their wings open in the course of their migratory journeys (read more here).

The imagery is so evocative and poetic, and is a reflection of the spirit of tea culture. As my tea appreciation teacher would often say, drinking tea is a way to bring a little window of calmness into our hectic lives. The careful attention we pay to the brewing of the tea and elegant use of the brewing utensils strikes me as being very meditative. To smoothly pour the water from the kettle to the pot, and from the pot to the cups, our hearts must be still and we must focus our concentration on the task at hand.

All the more reason to brew karigane in a glass container to watch the floating wild geese (^_^) …

Miracle ingredient: agar!

According to Wikipedia, “agar or agar agar is a gelatinous substance chiefly used as a culture medium for microbiological work.” However, the first thing that pops into my mind are the colourful agar agar jellies from my primary school tuckshop. Baking Mum has some exquisite versions of the traditional layered agar agar dessert here and here.

Also called ‘kanten’ in Japanese, agar agar is made from seaweed and is high in fiber. Read more about what it is and how to store and use it here and here. The second article also allows you to compare agar with other forms of gelatins.

[28/12/07 update: just came across this information which says that in Japan, kanten and agar-agar refer to separate products made from different kinds of seaweed and have different textures. The additional details here suggest that outside of Japan, this distinction may not be so important and the term ‘agar-agar’ is used in a broad fashion to denote a whole family of seaweed products.]

Most interesting to me is the strong historical Malayan connection to this food substance, which is evidenced by the fact that its international name today is the Malay word ‘agar’. The entry on SinglishDictionary.com lists fascinating colonial references to agar in Malaya from 1813, 1820 and 1894 and opens a little window on how this Southeast Asian item made its way further afield.

Making agar agar suddenly sprang to mind a few weeks ago as I was thinking of something non-savoury for my bento boxes. I was reading how LunchInABox uses jello-cups in her bentos and she mentioned melting. In comparison, agar has the advantage of not melting, which is very handy in our tropical weather. It can even set without refrigeration. Now doesn’t that sound like a miracle product ^_^?

The wonderful thing about agar agar is that you can use it to gelatinise (is there such a word?) almost any liquid, except vinegar and foods high in oxalic acid, which includes spinach, chocolate and rhubarb (read more in this article).

I racked my brains for agar flavours to complement my bento and eventually made two flavours:
a) red bean & soy milk (slightly sweetened) – a combination of tastes familiar in Asian desserts which I’ve experimented with in other ways
b) Pu-Erh tea – not a traditional agar flavour here in Singapore/Malaysia (I put a bit of sugar, but so little that I couldn’t taste it, might as well have left it out)
I thought the red bean+soy milk would be a semi-filling snack while the Pu-Erh tea would be a nice palate-cleanser after a savoury, and possibly oily, meal — after all, Chinese tea is good at ‘washing’ away the oiliness of Chinese food :).

Agar tray
The clear agar on top row are Pu-Erh tea, the cloudy ones are red bean+soy milk. The pig shapes are silicone moulds and the other open containers are plastic bento side dish containers. Of the covered ones, the rectangular shape is regular plastic and the round one is a disposable condiments container (which I wash and reuse anyway). All items from Daiso, including plastic tray.

Already much earlier on, I had thought of making a mugicha jelly, which has nice roasted taste and no caffeine. However, the possibilities are endless — puddings, jams, fruit jellies — and even savoury liquids can be used to produce an aspic jelly. This page and this one give suggestions how to use agar in a non-traditional way, mostly as a type of salad. But to extend the idea, savoury agar is a fabulous idea for transporting broths and soups in one’s lunchbox!! I’ll certainly try this out one day.

I used the powdered form that comes in convenient packets, each one enough for 1 litre of liquid. Quite a few cooking blogs recommend Rose brand as it produces a firmer agar than other brands. Swallow Globe brand is also extremely popular. These come in clear, white as well as coloured versions (which you might want to avoid if you don’t care for artificial colourings). There are also organic brands such as Eden and Clearspring, both of whose websites point out that commercial agar tends to use sulphuric acid as a softening agent and chemical bleaches and dyes to whiten the seaweed and remove its smell.

Here are some recipes for Malaysian sweet agar agar desserts:
1) Lily’s Mango Sago Pudding
2) Milo Agar Agar
3) Mooncakes also come in agar agar versions these days; a couple of fancy variations here and here.

Here’s a creative idea for bright red agar jellies made with beetroot — no nasty food colouring needed.

Check out the Japanese perspective on cooking with agar/kanten here.

Also organic/ macrobiotic recipes from Eden and Clearspring. As this page says, macrobiotic recipes often add body to the agar by adding tahini or almond butter.

Now away you go and dream up your own infinite possibilities for agar agar ^_^!

Buying flour & using gluten

Since I got the bread machine, I’m always on the lookout for different types of flours. I’ve been thinking of trying out gluten-free recipes but the combination of hard-to-find flours has stopped me from getting round to it so far.

However I was rather impressed with the selection of flours on sale at Marketplace supermarket at Tanglin Mall. Being one of the most expensive supermarkets on the island, I hardly ever go there, but if one is in need of unusual flours, it’s definitely worth a visit. There’s a wide range from Bob’s Red Mill and Origins Healthcare.

Even for basics, Marketplace is the only store I know of that stocks my favourite flour: Waitrose Organic range. The Waitrose range has the following flours:
Plain White Flour
Self-Raising White Flour
Plain White Bread Flour
Plain Stoneground Wholemeal
Stoneground Wholemeal Bread Flour

Unlike other flours I’ve bought before, Waitrose never seems to smell stale or produce weevils even when it’s passed the use-by date. (It is recommended that you keep wholemeal products in the fridge as they go rancid quickly, but my Waitrose flour has kept very well outside the fridge too.)

The Waitrose stoneground wholemeal flour is also finely-ground so the texture is smooth and light, even for cakes. Don’t believe it if you are told wholemeal cakes are heavy and unpalatable; most people will eat my wholemeal cakes without even realising they aren’t plain flour (although those with sensitive palates will notice a slightly more gritty texture).

In contrast, Prima brand Wholemeal Flour which is the most commonly available type in Singapore supermarkets is a very different type of product. It’s extremely coarse and must be combined with plain flour. However, the coarse grains are still noticeable and I have given up using this for any kind of baking, even if just to mix a small amount with plain flour.

[Update 18/12/07: I’ve now decided to use Origins Healthcare organic wholemeal flour as it seems to be more finely-ground than Waitrose wholemeal flour, and is also cheaper. It’s easily available at NTUC supermarkets as well. See my other comments on flour here.]

Where Waitrose stands out is that it is the only brand of wholemeal bread flour which I’ve come across. Regular wholemeal flour is easy to find, but it’s not suitable for making bread with. One health food shop staff I asked suggested I mix wholemeal with plain bread flour instead, which is a reasonable idea but I want a fully wholemeal bread and a lower proportion of bread flour affects the texture of the bread. The other solution is to get some vital wheat gluten and add it to plain (wholemeal) flour as described here. Bob’s Red Mill produces vital wheat gluten but it’s quite hard to find in the stores. (Read more about flour here and here.)

Then again, maybe vital wheat gluten might be easier to find if I stopped looking in the baking section but tried to find it health food stores among products for vegetarians. [Update 14/11/07: found vital wheat gluten from Bob’s Red Mill brand in Cold Storage Naturally Marketplace at Vivocity, but it was so expensive! S$20+ for about half a kilo? It’s only US$5.79 for a 1.5lb bag on the Bob’s Red Mill mail order site.]

Vital wheat gluten is also the main ingredient in producing the gluten chunks commonly used in savoury Chinese vegetarian dishes, also known in Japanese as fu or seitan in macrobiotics. Read more about gluten as a food here, here and here (with recipes in latter two links). Hope our gluten-intolerant friends aren’t getting shivers down their spine reading about all this!

P.S. Tanglin Mall also has the organic store, Brown Rice Paradise on the 3rd floor. They have a great selection of teas from Yogi Tea brand and Traditional Medicinals (including some flavours I’ve not seen elsewhere, such as Yogi Tea’s Chai range), organic miso from South River in amazing varieties such as Dandelion Leek, and it is the only place I’ve found Muso brand furikake (which costs S$5.50, as compared to Eden brand furikake which is $11.85 at Supernature). However… for most products they are rather expensive. I would definitely compare prices before buying anything there: some sea salt in exactly the same brand was half the price at the ‘expensive’ Marketplace supermarket downstairs, and some Avalon toiletries were nearly three times the price compared to the Nature’s Farm chain store!

17/03/08 update: new info on buying vital wheat gluten here.

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.


Tea and your constitution

Just as each individual needs to discover his or her own level of caffeine tolerance, it’s also important to know the state of your body’s constitution to determine what kind of tea and how much you should drink.

I’m trying to find out more about tea and the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts of heaty/cooling/damp/dry.

According to macrobiotics, all teas are yin, but houjicha and kukicha are more neutral. The teacher from the Chinese tea appreciation class I attended also warned us that tea is very yin, so those with yin constitutions should drink in moderation. She also pointed out that drinking tea cold made it even more yin. Among Chinese teas, Pu Erh tea is the most neutral.

This page on the side-effects of green tea points out that the way the tea is handled also affects its properties. In TCM, tea left to go cold is ‘damp’ and causes phlegm, while drinking tea on an empty stomach causes ‘coldness’ to enter the lung & stomach system.

Related posts on this blog:
Tea, caffeine & one’s constitution pt. 2
Cooling properties of tea

plus other posts on tea.