Another word on tofu coagulants

This homemade tofu thing is getting complicated.

Yesterday, I came across this information from Wholesome Living, an organic shop in Singapore that conducts all sorts of cooking workshops:

Commercial bean curds contain chemical substances such as bleaching agent, de-foaming agent, preservatives and coagulant (calcium sulfate a.k.a. gypsum). Commercial tofu manufacturers usually utilize calcium sulfate as a coagulant and marketing it as high calcium food to mislead consumers that it is a good source of calcium to prevent osteoporosis. In fact, this inorganic calcium will cause various health problems such as renal stone problems and so forth. Furthermore from the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) perspective, consuming too much commercial tofu will make your body too ‘YING’.

[Wholesome Living conducts a Tofu, Soy Milk & Okara 2-session workshop that teaches tofu-making with non-mineral coagulants.]

Various websites, especially those promoting particular brands of calcium supplements based on water-soluble organic calcium (e.g. calcium aspartate etc.), support these points; see here, here and here.

On the TCM view of tofu, Paul Pitchford’s fantastic book, Healing with Wholefoods, elaborates:

For most people, its yin, cooling quality needs to be altered by thorough cooking; adding warming spices such as ginger is particularly helpful for cold persons. . . . Eating massive amounts of tofu regularly (as some Americans do) can contribute to kidney-adrenal weakness, loss and graying of hair, impotence, frigidity and decrease in sexual sensitivity.

At the same time, calcium sulphate is the oldest tofu coagulant used in China, with 2000 years of history (see here).

According to this Singapore-oriented discussion thread from 2005, Phoon Huat stopped selling gypsum (sometimes mistakenly equated with borax) as it was banned from sale, and therefore began stocking Glucono delta-lactone/GDL instead.

(GDL), which is naturally found in honey, fruit juices and wine, is the coagulant used for making silken tofu. As the Wholesome Living workshop teaches the making of silken tofu, I suspect GDL is the ‘non-mineral coagulant’ being used. The action of GDL is different from nigari & gypsum type coagulants as it works as an acid, not as a salt (see Asian Foods: Science and Technology by Catharina Yung-Kang, Wang Ang, KeShun Liu, Yao-Wen Huang).

Sounds like GDL is the way to go, especially for soft tofu for 豆花 douhua/tau foo fa/tau huay.

Read my previous posts on tofu-making:
Coagulants for homemade tofu
Making tofu at home
Making tofu at home P.S.

Finger foods bento & the ‘Five Principles’

Finger foods often work better for me in bento because they can be more easily eaten when one doesn’t have the luxury of sitting down for a long stretch to enjoy a meal at a table. So this was quite a fun bento box to tuck into, apart from the abysmal attempt at making sushi with tuna filling (and making even more of a mess by simply pouring the extra aoi nori over the top because I didn’t want to waste it).

Bento fingerfoods variety

This was also one of the few bento I’ve done that includes enough of a variety to come closer to meeting the five sets of five rules of traditional Japanese cooking (read more here and here), which includes bento.

Although the online bento community frequently discusses what makes a good bento, there’s not much on creating bento that meet the principles of five colors (goshiki), the five methods (goho), the five flavors (gomi), the five senses (gokan); and for now, let’s leave out gokan no mon, a set of Buddhist principles on the appropriate state of mind when consuming food ^_^.

Perhaps the most commonly-known of these principles is that of colour, as this Washington Post article describes. Browsing Japanese bento cookbooks, you’ll often find a section dedicated to side dishes organised by colour to help you select a combination in contrasting colours. Of the five principles, this one is the one most obvious as the visual impact of a bento is the most immediate. (N.B.: Frank Tastes writes a commentary on the aesthetics of bento from a different perspective here.)

Some bento cookbooks lay out the fundamentals of bento-making, and 毎日おいしい!中高生のお弁当 is one that explains how important balance is. A balance of nutritional elements (carbohydrates, protein, vegetables), colours as well as tastes.

On tastes, the book presents a chart listing four tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This follows the categorisation in Tradtional Chinese Medicine, which also includes a fifth category – pungent, which refers to acrid, spicy, hot and aromatic flavours. As explained in Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford, each of these categories has particular warming/cooling values as well as therapeutic applications. Pungent and sweet flavours are yang, while sour, bitter and salty flavours are yin. The aim is to use these flavours to bring a person into balance with seasonal influences whilst considering the individual constitution.

Although 毎日おいしい!中高生のお弁当 talks about different flavours, and using mild and strong tastes in different proportions, it is from the viewpoint of taste and variety only.

Apart from flavours, the method of cooking also affects the yin/yang value of a food, and that’s where goho comes in, which helps to achieve a better balance within a meal. In this bento, there’s tuna sushi rolled in aoi nori, fried mock poh piah (‘remade’ leftovers), fried sweet potato strips (also leftovers), a hard-boiled egg and raw pear pieces. Maybe not quite five methods, but at least at attempt in that direction.

I’ve personally experienced the importance of balancing yin/yang in bento, and bearing in mind goshiki, goho and gomi are good ways to encourage a variety and balance in this respect.

As for stimulating the five senses through gokan, I see it as a way of making one more mindful of the present by drawing attention to bodily sensations, along the lines of mindfulness practice in Zen Buddhism. Unfortunately, not something I’m able to achieve whilst dashing around and grabbing occasional mouthfuls of finger foods from my bento!

Red bean soy smoothie

I’ve blogged earlier about various azuki/ red bean recipes and how versatile an ingredient they are. In my recent attempts at making Chinese snacks and Japanese wagashi, red beans are a very common ingredient.

Inspired by the packaged red bean milk 紅豆奶 and green bean milk 綠豆奶 I saw in convenience stores everywhere in Taiwan, one of my favourite ways to consume red beans (and green mung beans) is in a smoothie with whatever type of milk I have on hand – cow’s milk, soya bean milk, oat milk, rice milk etc. It’s a great breakfast food, sustaining and healthy.

Red milk soya milk

The best part about having red bean soya milk is that both the red bean and soya milk can be easily made at home with as little sugar as you want. I usually omit sugar completely and even with no sugar at all the smoothie can be very yummy!

Follow the instructions at Just Hungry for making soya bean milk and do have a look at Zlamushka’s helpful slideshow on how to make soya milk. Just Hungry also describes how to make red bean paste, however I do it slightly differently. I soak the beans in at least two and a half times the volume of water for a few hours – not as long as 24 hours – until they swell up, then I cook them in fresh water without salt or sugar in a mini electric crockpot, adding more water if it gets too dry.

Chunky red bean paste (as described in Just Hungry’s instructions) tastes better in various snacks and sweets (such as the familiar Chinese tau sar/dou sha bao 豆沙包, in steamed or bread bun versions, and Japanese botamochi/ohagi) but I’ve found that it’s more useful to blend the cooked red beans into a smooth paste. When you want to make a smoothie, the smooth red bean paste can be easily mixed by hand with the soya bean milk to the desired consistency. A mini whisk for beverages is very useful for this (available in Daiso).

I used to drink my red/green bean smoothies cold, but in the last couple of years I’ve noticed how cold foods upset my digestive system. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cold foods and drinks are generally to be avoided as they are too cooling/yin. Do note that green mung beans are also classified as yin in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Red azuki beans are more neutral in yin/yang terms and therefore a better choice.

However, the wonderful thing about red/green bean milk is that it’s also delicious hot! Think of warm Chinese red bean desserts, such as the glutinous rice balls in sweet red bean soup I made earlier or the Korean version. After mixing the red bean paste & soya bean milk from the fridge, just heat up the smoothie in the microwave or on the stove and it’s ready to be enjoyed ^_^.

Glutinous rice balls in ginger soup

Tangyuan ginger

After the rather misshapen tang yuan the last time, I made more of an effort today. I think the tang yuan taste nicer today too: small, round and very smooth (^_^).

With the cool weather and regular monsoon storms (I sleep with a fleece blanket and no air conditioning!), I really felt like a warming food, which is why I thought a strong ginger soup – a common warming tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine – would be ideal to go with my tang yuan.

Ginger is not free from salicylates, however, and this was my first foray into ginger consumption since my salicylate intolerance shot through the roof some months back. The good news that I survived – hooray! ^.^v

While some people have their tang yuan in a simple light rock sugar syrup flavoured with pandan leaf and a couple of slices of old ginger, such as this recipe, I wanted a potent ginger brew.

Couldn’t find old ginger in the supermarket so I made do with regular ginger and used a large bowlful and bashed it up with a rolling pin (looks like cooked chicken, doesn’t it?).

ginger bashed

The ginger then went into the electric crockpot with just twice the volume of water to ginger, and three pandan leaves.

After simmering for five hours, the ginger brew turned out deliciously strong! I stored half in the freezer and half in the fridge.

To serve with tang yuan, I mixed in half as much water to dilute the mind-blowing ginger heat. Heated it up with sugar to taste and some of the tang yuan I made earlier using the method I described here. I’ve also been drinking it straight as a hot drink.

Bento: yin/yang balance

One of the challenges of preparing bento for myself is that my appetite and the kinds of food I feel like eating depend on the yin/yang levels of my body at the time of the meal.

The first lesson I learnt about imbalance in my bento was when I packed a lunch box that comprised just claypot chicken rice and okonomiyaki. Despite the high proportion of vegetables in the okonomiyaki, when I looked at the lunch, I just wished I had more fresh vegetables and fruit.

So the other day, I packed this lunch:

bento lunch 071203

Can you spot the problem here? Even the friend I was lunching with noticed: too yin (or 凉 liang2, in Mandarin)! The lotus root was the thing that caught her eye, but there’s also the raw fruit and cold chicken sandwich.

Most days when I pack a bento, I’m rushing around with a million things to do – a pretty yang & stressed out state, so it’s no wonder I only feel like room temperature finger foods and raw fruit/fresh veg. So I packed this box on that basis, but I forgot to take into consideration the fact that:
a) it wasn’t a day when I had a million tasks to complete, but a leisurely get-together with a friend;
b) it’s monsoon season in Singapore now so the weather is cool, breezy and very rainy – so hot foods are more suitable. As this article on practising macrobiotics in the tropics reminds us, it’s all about balancing the overall yin/yang with respect to one’s constitution, environmental conditions and foods.

In the end, I didn’t finish the raw stuff and lotus root. The chicken sandwich wasn’t enough to fill me up and I had to go home soon after to tuck into some hot soup and cooked food!

Lunch bento & notes on okonomiyaki

This was a bento lunch from last week comprising a lot of leftovers from the fridge.

Bento lunch 071120

In anti-clockwise direction starting from top left-hand corner:
1) Stir-fried cauliflower in pink silicone baking cup.

2) Squares of okonomiyaki made with squid, as I mentioned here. The slightly fishy taste of squid gives a stronger flavour to the dish, just be careful not to cook it too long as squid turns hard when overcooked (which also means that reheated leftovers have unchewable squid bits :P).

Taking my cue from this recipe, I tend to use a huge amount of yam and only just enough flour to bind everything together – this makes my okonomiyaki taste a bit different, rather than just a vegetable pancake. Actually, I’ve been using the wrong kind of yam, the usual roundish Chinese yam in the supermarket, when really it’s the long, slender, brown-skinned Japanese mountain yam (yamaimo) that should be used. Here’s a photo of the very sticky liquid produced from grating yamaimo.

Yamaimo is easily available (but pricey) in Singapore at Japanese supermarkets Isetan and Meidi-ya and Takashimaya Cold Storage (which seems to a wider selection of Japanese foods than other Cold Storage).

However, if we leave the world of Japanese cuisine behind, yamaimo is also commonly found in the local wet markets. Take a look at this picture of dried, sliced yamaimo and anyone who makes Chinese herbal soups will recognise it instantly! In Chinese it’s known as huái shān (), or shān yào (), and the botanical name is Dioscorea opposita (read more here and here). Of course, there are many therapeutic effects of this plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine, including as a lung and kidney tonic and as part of prescriptions for diabetes and diarrhoea. [Reference: Cooking with Asian Roots by Devagi Sanmugam and Christopher Tan (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2006)]

As for the rest of the ingredients, after becoming utterly confused by the very different quantities of ingredients in the many recipes on the internet (and the many different styles of okonomiyaki), I gave up and decided to make the batter by guesswork based on my experience with pancakes, waffles and the one time I ate okonomiyaki in Osaka six years ago :P.

Anyway, the end result (apart from the rubbery squid in reheated okonomiyaki) tasted very yummy to me, even without any sauces to go with it.

[Update 5/12/07: read my notes on first experiences cooking with yamaimo here.]

3) Fried strips/slices of Japanese sweet potato with purple skin (satsumaimo) in blue plastic bento side dish container.

4) Claypot chicken rice made with chopped garlic, cubes of yam and mixed mushrooms. (Unlike traditional Chinese claypot rice, this doesn’t include any preserved meats such as Chinese sausages, salted fish, or any of the usual sauces: soya sauce, oyster sauce and rice wine.)

5) Pu-Erh tea agar agar in heart-shaped container. I used a plastic food divider sheet to prevent the rice from falling into the agar agar.

Perhaps you would have noticed by now that my bento are pretty monochrome by the five-colour principle of Japanese cuisine and bento-making. One of the things that my family noticed when I started on the Failsafe food intolerance diet with particular attention to salicylates is that the vegetable & fruit selection seems to exclude most things with colour. For example, Packham pears are the only okay fruit on the list and acceptable vegetables are basically cauliflower, cabbage, bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, chayote (fo shou gua 佛手瓜), as well as some green veg in the form of green beans, celery, iceberg lettuce, leeks and Brussels sprouts (hard to find and can be expensive in Singapore). [One problem is that many Asian fruits and vegetables have not yet been tested for salicylate levels as I’ve discussed here.] My tolerance to salicylates is getting better so you will notice in my other bento some flirtation with high salicylate foods such as tomatoes and avocados, but that’s really just for the sake of the bento and on non-bento days, I’ll stick to the safe foods.

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.


Failsafe cashew-carob paste

From The Failsafe Cookbook, p. 187, ‘Deborah’s Cashew Paste’ with carob variation.

I halved the quantities, so I used:

1/2 cup raw cashews
approx. 2 tbs canola oil
1/2 tbs carob powder
1 tsp caster sugar

Put cashews in blender, blend briefly. Add carob powder and sugar. Add oil a little at a time and blend until the desired consistency is reached. Use as sandwich spread as a Nutella substitute.



1) Bought organic raw cashews from Eat Organic. A pack (seems like just over 1 cup) cost S$12 but tastes very fresh, unlike a lot of commercial raw nuts which have a raw and stale taste.

2) I bought toasted carob powder from Organic Paradise, S$3.70 for 250g (Eat Organic doesn’t sell carob, I was rather surprised.). There was a choice of raw or toasted. I wonder if there is any difference between the two for Failsafers?

3) Reduced the amount of sugar in recipe – have done so for all recipes in The Failsafe Cookbook and found the result more than sweet enough. In any case, carob doesn’t have the bitter overtones of pure cocoa so tastes sweeter, and hence less sugar is needed when replacing cocoa with carob.

4) End result tastes very nice, and strangely enough, tastes like banana!?!

5) *WARNING* the cashew-carob paste is terribly heaty/yang! I tasted 1/4 tsp and my throat started to hurt immediately. I will just have to save this for special treats and consume in tiny amounts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because of the concentrated nuts and oil. My guess is that carob is not as heaty as real cocoa but my guess is that it is still on the heaty end of the scale, and the fact that I used toasted carob must have made it even more yang.

Moral of the story: Failsafe eating may avoid certain nasty food reactions but doesn’t mean it’s good for you in terms of having a balancing constitution in Traditional Chinese Medicine terms *sigh*……

Cooling properties of tea

At yesterday’s Chinese tea appreciation class, there were questions about Japanese cold teas and cold-brewing techniques, to which the teacher responded that her personal view is that cold tea is not worth drinking! She’d rather drink orange juice! I have to say that I beg to differ (as you can tell from my many posts on cold teas.)

However the teacher did raise an important point: unfermented/green teas are inherently cooling in nature, so by drinking them cold, it makes them even more yin. For people with a yin constitution this is not very good. I suppose if you have a yang constitution the cooling tea should be beneficial?

Also I was surprised to find out that I’m not the only one who is so sensitive to tea. One classmate and the teacher herself mentioned stomach pain from too much tannin, and drinking tea on an empty stomach. Anyway, I was relieved to survive the class this week with no pain (salicylate intolerance improving? I ate a buttery waffle just before class? We made less rounds of tea?).

Tea, caffeine & one’s constitution pt. 2

I have just started attending a short course in Chinese tea appreciation. Among the many things the teacher talked about, two areas related directly to my earlier postings on this blog about caffeine and one’s body constitution.

On caffeine
Chinese green teas (classified as unfermented) have the highest level of caffeine. Therefore they are best drunk in the morning.

Pu-Er tea, which undergoes the longest fermentation (it is often left to age for years and decades), has the lowest caffeine and can be drunk in the evenings. The older the Pu Er, the lower the caffeine.

One’s constitution
The tea appreciation instructor, when she sells tea, will always ask who the tea is for, and about the age, health and lifestyle of the person drinking the tea. This information will enable her to recommend a suitable tea.

For example, if you tend to cough and often feel cold (does that indicate a yin constitution?), you should not drink too much green tea. Pu Er tea is more suitable.

She also corroborated my own stand on this – you know best your own constitution so you need to make sure that you choose suitable teas. This of course begs the question, how do we know what our own constitution is? I suppose the answer is to learn more about Traditional Chinese Medicine. Muscle testing, as used in applied kinesiology, is also a good skill to help us test our own condition.