Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Enoki Beef Roll Bento

enoki bento
Enoki, or golden needle mushrooms, wrapped up in thin slices of beef is one of my favourite dishes to order along with a bowl of mai sin (米线 rice noodles) in soup. The last time I tried to make the enoki beef rolls at home, I cooked the mushrooms and beef briefly before rolling them. Enoki mushrooms cook very quickly, so I ended up with limp mushrooms and hard to roll cooked beef. Needless to say, it was a failed attempt.

I decided to try it again - this time, I rolled marinated raw beef around uncooked mushrooms, then grilled it briefly. It worked much better this time!

Also in the bento: tamagoyaki triangles, haricot beans stir-fried in sambal belachan chilli, plain rice onigiri and frozen raspberries and blueberries. I made this up this morning and it took much longer than expected, so the frozen fruit tossed in was a great time-saver.

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Enoki Beef Rolls

Thinly sliced, long strips of beef (if your supermarket or butcher sells pre-sliced beef for shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot), this is perfect)
Enoki mushrooms, washed with the bottom roots cut off
sesame oil
soya sauce
  1. Separate the beef strips onto a shallow plate (I used 180g of beef, cut into 7 thin strips). 
  2. Coat the beef with a bit of sesame oil and soya sauce (For 180g beef, I added 1 tsp sesame oil and 2 tsp soya sauce). 
  3. Cut the enoki mushrooms so the length matches the width of your beef strips (or a little longer).
  4. Place a small amount of enoki mushroom at one end of each beef strip, and roll it up.
  5. Heat up a grill, and grill the beef rolls for 1 minute, or until cooked. If your beef is thin, the rolls will cook very quickly. You could also panfry the rolls in a little oil.
Tip: You can also glaze the rolls with some teriyaki or soya sauce, but I found that the marinade was salty enough on its own. 

Monday, September 29, 2008

Homemade Chicken Nuggets Bento

chicken nugget bento
I love chicken nuggets. Can't help it - little morsels of fried battered chicken, dipped in sauce - who can resist? The one thing that often holds me back is the suspicion that the chicken in the nugget contains less chicken and more ...?...

I've seen some organic frozen chicken nuggets in the supermarket, but they are very pricey. So, I decided to make some of my own - I don't know why I never thought of it before, since chicken nuggets are just bits of breaded chicken.

I know the classic breadcrumb steps are flour, egg, breadcrumb (or a variation of that) but I have often wondered what it would taste like without the egg...or flour...and just breadcrumb. Call me curious or lazy, whichever works! Since I was down to my last two eggs, and I needed those for later, I decided to try it out. So... I just cut up some chicken thighs into chunks, seasoned it with a little salt and pepper and rolled it in some panko breadcrumbs. I used thigh meat instead of breast as chicken breast tends to get dry when overcooked, and I planned to re-heat the nuggets the next morning. Using a little oil, I pan-fried them until golden and cooked.

Result: They were still tender after being re-heated, but the crumbs weren't that crispy. They still tasted good, though! Next time I will try it with the eggs and flour...

Also in the bento - a little tub of tomato sauce, roasted rosemary potato slices (from last night's dinner), broccoli, baby corn and asparagus. And watermelon triangles for dessert.

Roast Chicken Pieces & Potatoes

roast chicken
I love to roast a whole chicken in the oven, but we invariably stuff ourselves when I do... so sometimes I prefer to just roast a few chicken thighs and drumsticks instead. If you are pressed for time, as I was last night, slice up the potatoes (and microwave them) before roasting to speed up the cooking time. 

Actually, even for whole potatoes, I recommend microwaving them first before roasting them - I find it is really effective to give you soft, melt-in-your-mouth roast potatoes (and it's energy efficient, too)!

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Roast Chicken Pieces & Potatoes

Chicken thighs and drumsticks (with bones left in)
Potatoes (I used new potatoes, but ordinary sized ones are fine)
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
Light olive oil
Rosemary leaves (fresh is preferable)
  1. Peel and slice the potatoes. If you are using new potatoes, you can keep the skins on, but I prefer to peel them.
  2. Cover and microwave the sliced potatoes with a little water on HIGH for 6 - 8 minutes. (If you have an oven-proof and microwave-proof dish, use this for the potatoes).
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C/400 degrees F).
  4. In an oven-proof dish, place the microwaved potatoes and raw chicken pieces. 
  5. Coat chicken and potatoes with a little olive oil, rosemary leaves, and sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper. Mix well.
  6. Roast for 40 - 45 minutes, or until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through (the juices be clear, with no trace of pinkness).
  7. Serve with steamed/boiled vegetables.
If your oven has a grill, you can grill the chicken for the last 5 minutes to brown it further.
If you have a convection oven, you can speed up the cooking time further by using the microwave+roasting function.

chicken dinner


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Grilled Prawn Mentaiko Pasta

prawn mentaiko pasta
Yet another pasta. I was trying to use up leftover mentaiko pasta, so I just grilled some prawns and added them on top. I found these enormous tiger prawns from the supermarket (City Super). They were - huge! Compare the size with the other smaller prawns (and the "smaller" prawns are normal medium prawns, too, not shrimps!).

This dish is probably not good to eat very often for those watching their cholesterol... 

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Birthday Cake for your Cat

catfood cake
My little kitten turned one year old today! To celebrate the day, he received a special birthday "cake" for his evening meal. 

I wanted to personally cook him a little something, but as he is quite fussy and not used to human food, I decided to be safe and made the "cake" out of his favourite cat food.

Here's how I put it together. You can do the same with your cat's favourite food, and I imagine you could do the same for dogs, too...

OBVIOUS WARNING: Do not give the cake to your pet with the candle lit!

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I feed my cat Almo Nature, which I like because it is made from all natural ingredients with no chemical additives, but you can use whatever brand your pet prefers. 

Birthday Cake for a Cat
  • 1 packet jelly/paste cat food (I used Almo Nature Tuna & Chicken Jelly)
  • 1/2 can wet cat food (eg. Almo Nature Salmon)
  • few pieces of dry cat food/dry treats (I used Almo Nature Holistic Salmon & Rice cat food)
  1. Empty out the tin of wet cat food into a separate bowl. 
  2. Open the packet of jelly/paste cat food and pour it into the tin. Press the jelly down gently and firmly so it takes the shape of the can, then unmould onto the serving dish. 
  3. Scoop half (or more) of the wet cat food on top of the moulded jelly. 
  4. Decorate with a ring of dry cat food/treats. You can also spell out the initial of your cat's name on top (eg. like the "S" in the photo).
I used a jelly type food for the base of the cake, but if your normal wet cat food can pop out of the tin without breaking up, then you don't have to use the jelly/paste as well. It's nice to have different flavours in the cake all at the same time, though!

Optional: pop a candle into the "cake", but please do not serve the cake to your pet with the candle lit! 


Friday, September 26, 2008

Beef Soboro & Pesto Spaghetti

soboro pasta

This Japanese-style fusion pasta was created out of the desire to use up leftovers in the fridge. I wanted to use up leftover pesto spaghetti from the previous night's dinner, so I combined it with some beef soboro that I prepared earlier that week (as part of my bento stash). A little to my surprise, the combination worked together really well. The slight bitterness of the basil pesto and the sweetness of the beef soboro provide an interesting and flavourful contrast. In fact, it was good enough that I have added it to the list of pastas I will repeat making.

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The pesto I use is the traditional pesto alla genovese, which is made from (Genovese) basil, salt, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and a grated hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano. I've not actually tried to make pesto on my own, but I intend to get around to it someday. It's easier to buy bottled pesto these days - just look for a good quality product which actually contains all or a high percentage of extra virgin olive oil.

Soboro is a moist, crumbled and seasoned meat/egg in Japanese, and is often sprinkled over rice in bento lunches. It is similar to furikake, which is also sprinkled over rice, but furikake is dry, and soboro more moist.

Beef Soboro (adapted from Just Bento)

450g minced beef (as lean as possible)
1 Tbsp sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp sake
3 Tbsp dark soya sauce
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
  1. Heat the sesame oil in a pan and fry the garlic until fragrant. 
  2. Add the beef and brown well, separating it as you cook so the mince does not clump together. 
  3. Add the sugar and stir until it is a bit caramalised. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer until the liquid is almost gone, but the meat is still moist. 
  4. Taste, and add more seasoning if required. The meat should be strongly flavoured, as it is meant to be eaten with plain rice.
Soboro is a popular rice topping for bentos, and it can also be used as an onigiri filling. It keeps for a week in the fridge and can also be frozen.

Beef Soboro & Pesto Spaghetti

1/2 - 3/4 cup beef soboro
250g spaghetti
approx 4 heaped tsp pesto alla genovese (basil pesto)
  1. Cook spaghetti or other thin, long pasta (in salted water) according to the packet's instructions, less one minute. Drain, then pour back into a pot.
  2. On low heat, add the pesto to the spaghetti and mix. (I use around 4 heaped tsp of pesto for 250g spaghetti.)
  3. Add about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of beef soboro for 250g pasta. (If your soboro has been in the fridge, make sure it is heated through well. You can also microwave it before mixing it into the pasta).
  4. Taste, and season with salt and pepper, and add more pesto or soboro if necessary. The soboro is quite salty, so you may not find it necessary to season the pasta with additional salt. 
Optional: Add some spinach leaves and mix with the heated pasta until the leaves wilt slightly.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sea Turtle Bento

sea turtle bento
This week's Bento Challenge entry! The theme was "Under the Sea"... The sea turtle is in memory of the one we spotted when snorkeling in the Maldives.

It's a bit hard to see the turtle, as he's camouflaged in all the seaweed, dried black fungus, mushrooms, dumpling and capsicum coral - quite realistic, I guess! The turtle is made out of shrimp and mushroom fried rice, with a spinach shell.

The side dish is a fruit jelly, with a konnyaku jelly sea (which is lighter in colour, the photo makes it look a little dark, but by the time I was done I'd lost most of the natural light) and a strawberry parrot fish, and watermelon and honeydew coral. There's also a little strawberry crab and a honeydew starfish that's sitting in the corners, but they are a little hard to make out in the photo.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mentaiko Spaghetti Bento

mentaiko bento1
I don't often put spaghetti in a bento as the thought of cold spaghetti is not that appealing (unlike spiral pasta, which is fine cold as it is like a pasta salad) but today I made an exception... I had leftover mentaiko (cod roe) spaghetti from last night's dinner, and I couldn't let it go to waste.

It wasn't too bad cold. There was enough oil coating the pasta to keep it from sticking together, and if you like eating mentaiko, you won't mind it at room temperature. If you really dislike the thought of room temperature pasta and have access to a microwave,  you can also pack it into a microwaveable bento and zap it for a minute before eating. (Add a few drops of water before microwaving or the pasta will dry out.)

I was also thrilled because I could use one of my new bento sets that arrived in the mail on Saturday! The cute apple container has chinese pear, strawberries and kiwi fruit inside.

Mentaiko spaghetti is a popular Japanese-style fusion pasta dish in Japan. Click here for my mentaiko spaghetti recipe.

mentaiko bento2

Mentaiko Spaghetti #2

mentaiko spaghetti

The Ode to Hokkaido Weekend concluded on Sunday night with my 2nd attempt at Mentaiko Spaghetti - a Japanese-style fusion pasta. (Ok, so this dish is not really Hokkaido-specific, but it still fits my Japanese food theme...)

I actually measured out the ingredients this time, so I could write up a proper recipe. I'd written out rough instructions before, but I'm trying to be a little more exact, so here's a proper recipe for Mentaiko (or tarako) spaghetti (Mentaiko is marinated pollock roe, and Tarako is salted roe, usually from pollock):

Mentaiko/Tarako Spaghetti
(Serves 2)

250g thin spaghetti
130g (or 2 sacks) Alaskan or walleye pollock (cod fish) roe
20g butter
2 tsp light olive oil
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
4 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp Japanese mayonnaise (I use Kewpie brand)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
chilli oil (optional)
shredded nori (seaweed)

roe sacksHere's what the roe looks like in its sacks.

1. Gently slice open the cod roe sacks and scoop out the cod roe. I slit open one end and use the back of a spoon to squeeze the roe out of the sack (as if you are squeezing out the filling from a sausage).

scooped roe
Here's the squeezed out roe (on top) and the empty membrane sacks (bottom).

2. Cook the spaghetti according to the timing on the packet instructions, less 1 minute. Drain, then pour back into the pot. 

3. Add the butter, and melt it using the heat from the spaghetti. Add the light olive oil (or other oil) and mix to coat the spaghetti. I add a mix of butter and oil, so it is slightly healthier, but if you like, you can just add more butter and no oil. 

4. Add the cod roe and mix. If your spaghetti is getting cold, you can do this on low heat.

5. Add the mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, then a dash of salt and pepper. If you like your pasta spicy, sprinkle in a few drops of chilli oil. 

6. Mix well together, then taste. Add more seasoning if necessary.

7. Serve immediately, sprinkled with some shredded nori (seaweed).

Tip: If the pasta is drying out, add a bit of olive oil and/or water (not too much water, just a splash).

Ode to Hokkaido Weekend

Every now and again, one of the supermarkets in Hong Kong called City Super, will promote a certain country/place, and will bring in extra goods from that place to sell. Often, there will also be stalls set up within the supermarket selling cooked food from the country being promoted. Last Friday, I went there and discovered they had started a Hokkaido Promotion! As Hokkaido is one of my favourite destinations in Japan, guess who went a little mad?

Hokkaido is famous for their fresh dairy produce, potatoes, seafood and ramen, so with very little prompting necessary, I proceeded to buy up a lot of the items in the promotion area. I ended up with sausages, cheese, dried seafood snacks, fresh ramen (in a packet) and freshly fried potato korroke.

The result of all this shopping madness was an Ode to Hokkaido Weekend! The first meal was our Hokkaido Breakfast on Sat morning -

breakfastHokkaido Breakfast

We had 2 pan-fried Hokkaido onion-flavoured pork sausages, scrambled eggs (Japanese eggs), 2 slices of Hokkaido milk bread (bread made with milk from Hokkaido), a chunk of Hokkaido apple-cider washed cheese, 3 cherry tomatoes from Hokkaido (they were a bit too ripe), and a cream corn potato korroke. We washed everything down with Ringoworks apple juice from Japan (Aomori region, not Hokkaido) and coffee (not pictured) and we also dipped the bread in some Japanese honey (also not pictured).

It reminded me of the western-style breakfast we ate when in Hokkaido... pretty decadent, though!

Next meal - Sapporo Ramen!

Sapporo Ramen Lunch
To continue the Ode to Hokkaido weekend, we had ramen for lunch on Sunday. Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido, is famous for ramen, although you can really find ramen all over Hokkaido, and each region often sells their own particular style (miso-based, soya sayce based, etc.) The packet of ramen I bought was not like an instant noodle packet - instead, the noodles are fresh, not dried, and there is an expiry date on the packet! The sachets of flavouring for the soup weren't dried powder, but pouches of a moist, thick red miso. When I poured out the miso, the fat in it had congealed and separated, so I scooped the fat away. It didn't make a difference to the flavour, it just made me feel better about it (as really, there was still a lot of oil left). I topped the ramen with grilled pork, bamboo shoots and corn.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree


A little ode to Australia and my entry for this weeks bento challenge topic - "winged" (at the LiveJournal Bento Challenge Community).

The laughing kookaburra is made out of mashed potato, covered with oyster mushroom feathers and a portobello mushroom wing and tail. He's sitting on a meatball tree branch surrounded by snap pea gum leaves. (More meatballs are hidden under the leaves.) Accompanying him (and to match the Australian setting) are some golden kiwi slices and strawberry banksia flowers.

Anyone else from Australia who sang (and liked) the kookaburra song? It was one of my childhood favourites!

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree-e,
Merry, merry, king of the bush is he-e,
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh,
Kookaburra gay your life must be!

Btw, they used this song in an episode of the new Doctor Who series (Series 2, Ep.11 "Fear Her"). I found it a little odd though - ie. an Aussie folk song being sung by an English mother to her daughter to calm her down..

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Grilled Lamb and Pesto Pasta

lamb cutlets
This is now one of my favourite dishes to make because it is so fast and easy - grilled lamb on a bed of pesto spaghetti. I usually buy lamb fillet, because the meat is very lean, but still tender. Lamb cutlets (pictured above) are good, too, but they can be a little fatty.

Boil water and cook spaghetti according to the packet instructions. Drain the pasta and add about 4 heaped tsp of pesto for 250g pasta. Taste and add more pesto if necessary. (I cheat and buy bottled pesto, but you can make your own). Add salt and pepper to taste, and some washed baby spinach or rocket leaves. The warmth of the pasta will wilt the leaves slightly.

Coat lamb with a little olive oil and a dash of soya sauce. The soya sauce gives the lamb a nice browned colour when you cook it. Sprinkle the lamb with some fresh rosemary leaves. (If you don't have fresh herbs on hand, dried basil leaves also work). Grill or pan-fry the lamb for a few minutes, then serve on top of of the pasta.

lamb red pesto pasta
The same recipe using sundried tomato pesto instead of basil pesto. Here I've used my preferred lamb fillets (all meat, no fat) instead of lamb cutlets.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mid-Autumn Festival Bento

moon bento
In the spirit of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, I decided to make a bento dinner. The plan was to take our dinner to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, one of the locations around HK where people gather with their children to carry lanterns. However, by the time I'd finished making the bentos, it was 8pm, I was exhausted and did not feel like stepping out the door. As YH had work to do, he was quite happy to stay home as well. 

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Despite it being a mid-autumn bento, which for me evokes images of pumpkins and orange-red leaves, the weather here in HK is still so warm that I decided to make sushi and salad. I rolled some maki (sushi rolls) with an egg and rice circle design to represent the full moon, and mixed salmon flakes with the rice for the outer circle to add colour and flavour.

The salad which accompanies the sushi celebrates the summer harvest. Yellow and green zucchini and snow peas were lightly stir-fried with sesame oil, then cooled, and mixed together with grilled chicken. I also added some ponzu (citrus soy vinegar) dressing in a little squeeze container, and topped the salad with some cherry tomatoes and rabbit-shaped carrots (to follow the Mid-Autumn Festival theme). All the colours put together ended up looking a little garish (also quite appropriate, I thought!)

Here are the completed dinner bentos, with some Japanese apple juice:
moon bento

For dessert, I packed a separate fruit bento, with grapes, starfruit and pomelo.

The starfruit was a gift from a friend for the Mid-Autumn Festival. In Hong Kong, it is common for people to give each other fresh fruits or mooncakes during this time of year. The starfruit I received is one of the largest I've ever seen. It was around 20cm long. I've not eaten starfruit for a while although it is sometimes available in Hong Kong. Starfruit is very common in South East Asia, especially in Malaysia and Singapore, and is a little tart, juicy and very refreshing. (Apparently, starfuit isn't good for people with kidney problems, due to its high content of oxalic acid.)



Homemade Burger

Another guilt-free fast food dish you can easily whip up at home is the burger. Making your own burger is definitely the healthier option, especially if you use the leanest minced meat you can find.
Beef Burgers
(makes around 4 large patties, 5 medium patties)

360g (0.8lb) lean mince beef
1 small onion
2 Tbsp tomato sauce (ketchup)
1 Tbsp soya sauce
1 egg
5 Tbsp breadcrumbs
dash dry basil leaves
dash salt and pepper
  1. Chop the onion and pan fry it with a little oil until the onion is soft. Set aside to cool a little.
  2. In a bowl, mix all the other ingredients together. Add the cooked onion. 
  3. Mix well, form into patties.
  4. Heat up a grill or non-stick frying pan. Add a small amount of oil. Grill/pan-fry the burger patties for 2-3 minutes or until cooked through.
  5. Sandwich the burger patty between a hamburger bun and add your desired toppings - eg. cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach leaves, bacon, mushrooms, jalapeno chillis etc.
In the picture above, I added low fat cheese, sliced cherry tomatoes, butter lettuce, bacon and a grilled portobello mushroom. You can also add some mayonnaise or sauce, but I didn't, as I find this burger is tasty enough without the sauce (it's healthier this way, too!)


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bacon & Egg Muffin

If you like the breakfast muffins at McDonalds, but question their fat and nutrient content, it's really easy to make your own at home. I don't actually mean to make the muffins yourself (that falls under too much work) but if you can buy some nice English muffins, you're all set. It is really simple to do, and the homemade version does taste better.

Bacon & Egg Muffin

English Muffins
Eggs (1 per muffin)
Back Bacon (1-2 slices per muffin, depending on the size of the bacon)
Cheese (1 slice per muffin)
Butter for the muffins (optional)
  1. Trim any fat off the back bacon, and fry it (without or with very little oil) in a frying pan. Set aside.
  2. Fry one egg per muffin.
  3. Split each muffin into two and toast it lightly in a toaster.
  4. Make up the muffin by buttering it (optional), and placing the egg, bacon, and cheese inside the two muffin halves. Season with some freshly ground black pepper and salt.
Melt the cheese by placing a slice on top of the fried egg just before the egg has finished cooking.

For added taste, you can also spread a little bit of mayonnaise on the muffin.

For the sausage and egg version, substitute the bacon for sausage. Fry a good quality sausage and slice it up diagonally.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mooncakes & the Mid-Autumn Festival

This Sunday, 14th September 2008, is the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. As with most Chinese festivals, the Mid-Autumn Festival has been celebrated for thousands of years and has many myths and history associated with it. I grew up hearing different versions about a lady in the moon, a rabbit in the moon, messages in mooncakes, lanterns and revolts. As a child (and later as an adult!) I've paraded around holding colourful lanterns with lit candles inside them (how dangerous!) and watched my mother make home-made mooncakes. Now, I annually gorge myself silly on mooncakes, but I still only have a vague idea about what is actually being celebrated. So this year, I finally decided to do a bit of research...

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated every year on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It is also referred to as the Full Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, and is one of the more major Chinese festivals. As its name suggests, it occurs exactly in the middle of autumn according to the lunar calendar (ie. autumn runs from the seventh to the ninth month, and mid-autumn is the fifteenth day of the eighth month) and corresponds to the autumn equinox. On this day, the moon's orbit is at the lowest angle to the horizon, which makes the moon appear larger and brighter than any other time of the year.

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What is actually celebrated?
Here's where things get a little hazy. The Festival probably had its origins in ancient China, when emperors (and then later, the common people) offered sacrifices to the sun in spring and the moon in autumn. Some say farmers celebrate the end of the summer harvest season on this day, and others worship the moon goddess. In today's context, the festival is a celebration of abundance and family (rather like American Thanksgiving), where families gather for dinner, mooncake is eaten and given to family and friends as gifts and children carry lanterns and parade around under the bright moon.

Myth of Chang'e
There are many different versions of a beautiful lady/goddess who lives on the moon, Chang'e (also Ch'ang-O, Chang-Ngo). Although the story changes greatly with each version (eg. she loves her husband/hates him, she steals an immortality elixir, or takes it so the enemy doesn't get his hands on it, etc.), all variations generally explain how Chang'e ends up taking an elixir/pill and floats up from earth to the moon. The different versions usually include mention of Houyi (the archer/hunter/husband), an emperor, an enemy and some elixir of life/immortality pill. Generally accepted is Chang'e's companion - an immortal rabbit who lives on the moon and mixes immortality elixirs.

The versions are all so different that it seems incomplete (and yet necessary) to mention just one (taken from Wikipedia). If you are interested, you can read some of the other versions here and here.

Chang'e, a beautiful young girl working in the Jade Emperor's Palace, was married to an immortal, Houyi. One day Houyi was slandered by jealous immortals before the Jade Emperor, and he and Chang'e were banished from heaven and forced to live on earth. Houyi became a famous archer. At that time, there were 10 suns, but one day, all 10 suns circled together, causing the earth to burn. The Emperor of China commanded Houyi to shoot all but one sun down. When he had done this, the Emperor rewarded him with a pill of immortality and asked him to pray and fast for a year before taking it. Houyi returned home and hid the pill under a rafter. Chang'e, noticing a white light from the rafters, discovered the pill and swallowed it. She found she could fly. Houyi returned home at this time, started to scold her, so she flew out the window. Houyi chased her across the sky, but had to return to earth due to the force of the wind. Chang'e reached the moon, and as she was breathless, coughed. Part of the pill fell out of her mouth. She asked the rabbit who was on the moon to make another pill out of it so she could return to earth to her husband. Apparently, the rabbit is still pounding herbs, trying to make the pill. Houyi built a palace in the sun, and once a year, on the 15th day of the full moon, he visits his wife, which is why on that night, the moon is full and beautiful.

Mooncakes & History
cut mooncake
The food most associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is the mooncake (yuèbĭng "moon biscuit"). The mooncake is a round or rectangular Chinese pastry with a thin, sweet-oily dough crust and a thick sweet filling inside, traditionally made out of lotus seed paste. A standard size mooncake is around 8 - 10cm in diameter and 4 cm thick. As mooncakes are very rich and dense, people usually cut them into smaller wedges to share and eat. Smaller, mini sized mooncakes are also sometimes available.

Many mooncakes contain a whole, salted egg yolk inside, which represents the full moon. You can also find mooncakes with no yolk, 2 or 4 yolks inside. Crusts can be chewy, flaky, or tender according to regional preferences and are often imprinted with a design, such as the Chinese character for "longevity", "harmony" or the name of the store that made them. As making a mooncake is quite a labour intensive process, people seldom make their own.

There are now many different mooncake fillings available, from the more traditional yellow or white lotus seed paste, to red bean paste, mung bean paste, and yam paste. With the advent of the unbaked snow-skin mooncake (made from glutinous rice flour, sugar and shortening) and jelly mooncakes, the range of fillings available exploded and includes everything from ice-cream to durian, jackfruit, chocolate, coffee, green tea and birds nest flavoured pastes. 

snowskin mooncake
A milk-tea flavoured snow-skin mooncake.

Also associated with the mooncake is the story of how they were used in a rebellion in the 14th century during the Yuan dynasty, when the Mongolians were ruling China. Apparently, the Chinese hid messages inside each mooncake and distributed it to coordinate a rebellion. Thus, they managed to drive out the Mongolians and the Ming Dynasty was established. Regardless or whether it is true or not, it makes for a nice story, and something to discuss as you eat your mooncake!


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sunflower Bento

sunflower bento
Despite having several two-tier bento boxes, I actually find myself using a single layer box more often. I like the feel of all that open space to lay out the food, like for today's sunflower bento. You don't need any fancy accessories for this bento, and apart from laying out the fillings, it is pretty easy to make.

I made the sunflower using beef soboro (minced beef) and cut-up tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette) - see how to make tamagoyaki for a pictorial step-by-step guide. The background is made out of cherry tomatoes and blanched snow peas on a bed of rice. I also added some stir-fried capsicum (hidden under the rice) for added flavour.

Directions for the sunflower petals:
Make a rectangular shaped tamagoyaki and slice it into 1/4 inch (or 1/2 cm) pieces as shown in the picture. Cut each rectangular slice into half diagonally to make one petal. Arrange in a circle to form the sunflower.

How To Make Tamagoyaki (Rolled Omelette)

Tamagoyaki (lit. "egg fried") is a Japanese rolled omelette that is popularly eaten for breakfast in Japan, or used as a bento filling. It is also a common sushi topping. Despite it being one of the cheapest types of sushi available, it is also used as the ultimate test of a sushi bar (although apparently many sushi bars now do not make their own tamagoyaki, but serve a pre-made one).

For fans of Japanese food dramas, there is an excellent drama made in 1996 called Shota no Sushi (or King of Sushi), about a young sushi apprentice who dreams of becoming Japan's #1 sushi chef. One episode features his struggles to make the perfect tamagoyaki that is springy enough that it can bend in a U-shape without breaking.

There are many different tamagoyaki recipes. Some are sweet, others salty. Some add dashi (a Japanese stock made by boiling kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)), and others mirin (Japanese rice wine). My preference is to add mirin but not dashi, and I skip the sugar as eggs for me should taste savoury. Sometimes if I'm in a rush, I'll skip the mirin as well, and just make a plain soya sauce version... In other words, my tamagoyaki is not a traditional Japanese one, but rather a rolled omelette, but hey, it still tastes good...

Continue reading...

How to Make Tamagoyaki
Tamagoyaki is usually made in a rectangular shaped frying pan, but if you don't have one (like me), you can use a small, round, non-stick frying pan.

2 large eggs
sprinkle of sugar (if you want it sweet)
1/2 tsp mirin
1/4 tsp soya sauce
light olive oil (or other cooking oil)

1. Mix the eggs, sugar, mirin and soya sauce together lightly.

2. Pour a small amount of oil (approx 1 tsp) into a small non-stick frying pan and swirl it around with a spatula to coat the bottom. Heat up the pan on low heat.

3. Pour 1/3 of the egg mixture into the frying pan and swirl the pan around so the egg coats the base evenly. When the egg is half-cooked, carefully move the spatula around the edge of the circle of egg to loosen the egg from the pan. Starting at one edge, fold/roll the egg over and over until it has reached the other side of the pan.

4. Pour 1/2 of the remaining egg mix into the pan beside the rolled egg. Some people coat the pan with more oil before pouring more egg in - do this if you need to, but I find my non-stick pan doesn't require more oil (you can see there are enough drops of oil in the above photo). Lift up the rolled egg to allow the raw egg mix to flow underneath it.

5. Beginning at the edge of the rolled egg, fold/roll it over the half-cooked egg until all the egg has been rolled up. (ie. in the photo, the egg is being rolled from left to right.)

6. Repeat steps 4. and 5. with the remainder of the raw egg mix. ie. pour the egg mix into the pan next to the rolled egg, and lift the rolled egg up to allow the raw egg to flow underneath it. Starting at the edge of the rolled egg, roll it back to the other side.

7. Cook for a little longer, then remove from the pan. If you are using a round pan, you may wish to reshape the tamagoyaki at this point. Using a bamboo rolling mat, put the warm tamagoyaki on the mat and roll it up or shape it accordingly. Cool, then slice. If you don't want to shape it, it will turn out rectangular with rounded edges (as in the photo).

Update: If you find yourself making tamagoyaki regularly, you may wish to invest in a small, rectangular shaped non-stick pan. I picked one up at a cheap price, and it has been really handy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ode to the 80s Bento

80s bento
My entry for this week's Bento Challenge (at the LiveJournal Bento Challenge Community). The theme was "I Love the 80s".

Yes, I'm showing my age a little, but I did have very fond memories of the 80s! Who can forget the one-hand fingerless glove, the frilly skirt with the thick black elastic belt that snapped close at the front with shiny silver buttons, and of course, the legendary Sony Walkman (not that I had one - I had some other cheaper brand). I still remember staying up late on a Sat night, listening to the Top 40 music on the radio, anxiously waiting for the No.#1 song, only to discover it was Lionel Richie's "Hello"...

Contents of my 80s bento - a cheese hand, an egg (dyed pink) fingerless glove, and a rice and nori seaweed Walkman, on top of fried rice. The rice was fried with minced beef, onion and capsicum. The side salad contains lettuce, corn and cherry tomatoes, with a frilly skirt made out of dyed pink egg and a seaweed belt with cheese buttons.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tonkatsu Sandwich Bento

tonkatsu bento
I made my favourite tonkatsu sandwich for lunch again today. This time, I actually remembered to season the meat with salt and pepper first (which I strangely forget to do). It's pan-fried in light olive oil, so it's not as "bad" as a deep fried version. I decided to make this week's bento theme a floral one, so the mashed potato in the potato salad is supposed to be (a strange 5-petaled) flower. 

This tonkatsu sandwich looks a lot better than my previous attempt. For one, I didn't cut it up into strips which made for a strange-looking sandwich. I also ditched buttering one side of the bread - I figured the oil content was already way too high!

Continue reading for the Tonkatsu Sandwich recipe...

Tonkatsu Sandwich

Thinly sliced pork chops (deboned is preferable, but if you can only find boned ones, just cut away the bone.
Sandwich bread
Tonkatsu sauce (Store bought is fine. eg. Bulldog brand Tonkatsu Sauce)
1 egg, beaten
flour to coat pork chops
breadcrumbs (preferably Japanese panko breadcrumbs)
Salt & pepper
  1. Trim away any fat on the pork chops and cut away the bones (if you have a boned pork chop). If your pork chop is thick, pound it gently to flatten it to around 0.5cm). 
  2. Season the pork chops with a little salt and pepper.
  3. Lay out 3 separate plates/bowls with the flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs on each plate/bowl. 
  4. Coat each pork chop with flour, then dip it into beaten egg, and finally roll it in the breadcrumbs. You can use your hands, but I like using chopsticks or tongs as it is less messy.
  5. Heat up a small, non-stick frying pan with some oil (I use 1 -2 Tbsp light olive oil) on medium heat. 
  6. Fry the pork chops a few at a time (depending on the size of your pan) until golden brown (around 2 minutes). As the pork is thin, it will cook quite quickly. To test, lightly press the pork chop - if it is firm, it should be cooked. Remove from the heat and make a small cut in the centre to check the meat is no longer pink. 
  7. Continue frying the rest of the pork chops, adding a bit more oil into the pan each time if necessary. Set aside to cool on paper towels to soak up the oil.
  8. Take 2 slices of sandwich bread and remove the crust. Lay the cooled tonkatsu pork chop on one slice. Depending on the size of your pork chop, you may need to use 1.5 or 2 pork chops to cover the bread. 
  9. Spread some tonkatsu sauce on the other slice and lay it on top of the pork. 
  10. With a serrated knife, cut the sandwich up and pack it into your bento. (Make sure your tonkatsu is cool before packing it, otherwise the bread will get soggy.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Spam Spiral Pasta Bento

pasta bento
Yet another pasta bento...it was the easiest thing to make late on Sunday night after a lazy weekend. Long story, but as I had to pick up some groceries in-between stops on the weekend, I was forced to buy non-perishable food (ie. canned food)! That's my reason for adding Spam to the pasta. Despite my obsession with luncheon meat, I actually don't buy it very often. It's not exactly the healthiest thing in the world, but it tastes oh so good!

The sprial pasta holds up well in a bento (it doesn't get soggy) and is made with a tomato pasta sauce, garlic, Spam lite luncheon meat, and mushrooms. I added a side salad of corn, with carrots and cucumber shaped like flowers.

pasta bento

Easy Tuna Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

aglio olio
"Aglio e olio" means "garlic and oil" in Italian, and it is my favourite pasta "sauce". I find Italian restaurants in my area seem to feature a lot of tomato and cream based sauces, and their aglio e olio dishes are usually plain without much meat (not suitable for a carnivore like me). 

This recipe is adapted from the very first pasta I used to make during my Uni years. It is really simple to prepare, and I'd recommend it for days when you feel a little lazy or don't have much time to cook. For those people who don't like preparing something elaborate just for themselves or for two people, this is also the perfect dish. You can also make it all in just one pot (less washing up)!

When I started making tuna pasta in Uni, I used to buy cans of flavoured tuna (John West sundried tomato tuna was the best) and mix it with spaghetti. As I only had a microwave and kettle to use at the time, I couldn't do much more. Since then, the recipe has become a little more complex than just opening a can of tuna and adding it in, but essentially, that's all there is to it...

Continue reading...

Here's how to make it:

Easy Tuna Spaghetti Aglio e Olio
(Serves 2)

250g thin spaghetti
1 whole bulb garlic, chopped
2 cans tuna (tuna in oil works best, but try to find tuna in olive oil, or else go for tuna in springwater)
light olive oil
sea salt
black pepper
red pepper flakes (optional)
rocket or spinach leaves (optional)
  1. Cook the spaghetti in salted water according to the cooking time on the packet, less one minute. When ready, cool under running tap water, drain and set aside.
  2. Chop garlic. In a large pot (you can use the same one you boiled the spaghetti in), heat up around 3 Tbsp of olive oil on low heat. 
  3. Add the garlic, and fry gently until the garlic is fragrant and just turning a light golden colour (be careful not to burn it). If you like your pasta a little spicy, shake some red pepper flakes into the oil as well. 
  4. Turn up the heat to medium and add the spaghetti. Fry the spaghetti with the garlic oil, then add the tuna. Mix well. Turn the heat down to low. 
  5. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and more red pepper flakes, to taste. Stir in some washed rocket or spinach leaves at the end, if desired. Serve immediately.
For even more spice, stir a few drops of chilli oil into the pasta before you eat it. This may sound odd, but it really tastes good. It's like adding tabasco sauce into pasta (without the sour vinegar taste of tabasco).

Update: Another variation to this recipe - Add a squirt (around 1 Tbsp) of tomato paste into the spaghetti during Step 4 and mix well. You don't want to add too much, as the addition of the tomato is only for a hint of added flavour, and not for turning the dish into a tomato-based pasta.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Backgammon Bento

backgammon bento
Backgammon, anyone?

Today's bento was prepared for the Bento Challenge Live Journal Community I recently joined. Every week a different theme is given, and everyone has one week to prepare their themed bento (if they wish to). This week's theme is "board games", so I thought I would try it out for fun. I remember playing backgammon with my sister when I was young, but thinking about it now, I've actually forgotten how to play it!

The bento contains minced beef soboro and rice for the board, little carrots and cheese pieces, rice dice, and a beef soboro gunkan sushi for the dice cup on a bed of shredded cabbage. Taste-wise, there's not much variety of food, but it was very fun to make.

backgammon bento

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Grilled Mackerel Bento

mackerel bento
Today's bento was a little fishy...with grilled mackerel, tamagoyaki (fried egg), rice and shredded cabbage. I included a creamy sesame dressing to eat with the cabbage, and a citrus soy dressing to put on the mackerel - it really needed it because it was a little too fishy.. Mackerel is quite a fishy fish, and you could smell it when I opened the lid. Picking out the bones was also not such a fun experience, and I suspect I may not pack it into too many future bentos...

mackerel bento 1 layer
This is the same bento, except packed into a single-layered bento box (and without additional seaweed on the rice). This was the original bento, but I wasn't too happy with how it was looking, so I swapped it to a 2-tier bento box. 

Which layout do you prefer?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Penne Pasta Bento

pasta bento
Today's bento is pretty simple - tomato, beef and prawn penne with a salad of rocket, parmesan, and a citrus soy dressing. I included a hard-boiled egg as well - mine was shaped like a bunny, and YH's one a fish. The fish split into two when I opened up the mould, so YH's salad included 'two' fish, instead of one! 

The penne was tasty, but it had softened by lunchtime due to the re-heating this morning (even though I'd undercooked it slightly knowing it would have to go through this process). I thought the penne would hold up a little better, but it didn't. The larger tri-colour spiral pasta I've used before works much better for bentos as it remains springy despite the re-heat. 

fish-shaped egg

Monday, September 1, 2008

Onigiri Bento

onigiri bento
I usually don't go grocery shopping on weekends, so on Mondays I'm forced to use up whatever is in the fridge. Today was no exception - I used up the remaining salmon flakes I had for the onigiri (rice ball) filling, and defrosted some more meatballs. I made a tamagoyaki (fried egg) with the last two eggs in the fridge and stir-fried a carrot with sesame oil and chilli flakes. 

onigiri bento
I was very pleased with my new onigiri bento boxes - they worked very well. I don't like wrapping the onigiri in nori (seaweed) in advance, as the nori will get soggy. instead, I packed the nori in a separate ziplock bag and wrapped the onigiri in the seaweed just before eating. It is a bit more fiddly this way, but the crunchy nori makes it worthwhile.

How to Make Onigiri

onigiri bento