Monday, February 25, 2008

Tiffin Bento

At long last, I finally put togehter a true tiffin style bento for my lunch yesterday in a leftover takeout container.

Contents: rice with ghee, leftover shortcut ghugni, two halves of roasted plum tomatoes, multi grain pita wedges, a schmear of sweet mango pickle, some yogurt on the side. I would have liked to have fit it all in the same container, but it wasn't going to happen. I must confess that the yogurt on the side was not raita; it was pina colada flavored yogurt that was leftover from breakfast. It served the purpose in cooling the palate, however, because that mango pickle was spicy!

The ghugni was an total shortcut version to its authentic, and more tasty, long simmering traditional preparation. I made this a few nights ago in a pinch when I wanted something hot and comforting and quick using what I had in my pantry. It fit the bill nicely.

Ghugni on the Go

2 tsp oil

2 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp onion powder or 2 tsp dried onion flakes - do not use onion salt!

2 tsp garlic powder
1 15-oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed
2 tbs tomato paste or 1/4 cup tomato sauce

2 tsp ground coriander

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tbs garam masala (available at Indian grocery stores)*

1 tsp cayenne pepper (adjust to taste)

1 chicken bouillion cube

8 oz water (or skip the bouillion cube and water and use chicken broth if you have it)

salt to taste

Lightly coat the bottom of a hot skillet with a small amount of oil. Put in ground ginger, onion powder, and garlic powder. Stir and cook 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium. Add chickpeas, tomato paste or sauce, and garam masala, stir thoroughly. Add garam masala, cayenne pepper, bouillion cube and water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 10 minutes until water has reduced and a sauce remains. Add salt to your taste as needed. Serve with hot rice or pitas.

Notes: As mentioned, this is a very quick version of a very traditional vegetarian Indian dish. I made this up on the fly because I didn't have time, or the foresight for that matter, to soak the chick peas over night and I always have a can or two of chick peas in the pantry. The addition of chicken broth at the end is another departure from tradition, but I like the slow cooked flavor that it adds. Or maybe it doesn't and I have been watching too much food network. Anyway, to make this dish vegan, you can use vegetable broth. Another option would be to use one of those tomato based vegetable juices in place of the tomato sauce/paste/and broth if you have that. I bet that would be good too.

This dish is wonderful for bentos because it is very good at room temperature. I'll post a more traditional recipe for ghugni one of these days too.

Review: I had access to a microwave, so the whole thing went in for 30 seconds and was great. The ghugni was tasty and the combination of the sweet and spicy mango pickle with the ghugni balanced with the rice. The roasted tomatoes were a sweet and juicy addition that I will have to suggest to my mom to bring to parties. So easy and so good. My daughter ate most of the pita wedges, so the one that I had was a good replacement for a traditional flatbreads (paratha, roti, or naan) that would be served with a meal. No waste generated, all containers were brought home and sent straight to the dishwasher.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

So what is a bento anyway?

The question has been posed: "So what the he** is a bento anyway?" While I am at it I might as well answer the next question, "Ok, so what the he** is a tiffin and how is it different from a bento?" (Additional commentary from this friend included that I have way too much time on my hands and that I am completely mental. In all fairness both are completely true statements.)

So what is a bento really? It's essentially a Japanese style lunchbox that predates drive throughs and lunchables by at least 800 years. In true Japanese fashion, a culture that thrives on order, neatness, rigor, and rules, bento traditions have evolved from simply prepared, but compact and portable meals to go to the more elaborate and ornately decorated meals that are de riguer at the moment. You can read more about bento history in the Wikipedia entry here. The premise of the bento is that it is a single serving meal that is well balanced and appetizing to be consumed outside the home. It's the original takeout container. The Japanese were way ahead of their time even then.

Specifically, there is a strong cultural tradition of bento preparation, known as obento in Japan that is directly proportional to a mother and a wife's self worth. Mothers apparently get very competitive in preparing cute and appetizing bentos for their tots. Bentos for school age children must follow strict dietary guidelines for the proper proportions of grains, proteins, vegetables, etc. Furthermore, mothers are encouraged to prepare and decorate the contents in fanciful ways so they appeal to pipsqueaks who must eat them. This link to a PBS article has some very cute bentos.

For adults there are also dietary guidelines for proper bento preparation. They, too, should follow specific dietary guidelines, presumably following the Japanese government issued food guide, the spinning top, which looks like an inverted version of the American food pyramid. For adults, the premise is that if the bento is properly prepared, then the caloric content should be the same as the size of its container, which is calculated in mL. So for an adult who is using an 800mL bento container, the meal, if prepared according to the proper proportions, should be roughly 800 calories. This blog has some terrific information and guidelines about size, proportions of bentos. The benefit of bento is not only portion control, but nutritional balance as well, which is something everyone could use more of.

Bento containers, called bento boxes, like the tradition of obento, have also changed dramatically over time. Once simple bamboo containers that were small and portable, modern bento boxes are made of plastic or aluminum. Elaborate and decorative bentos are often made of highly polished lacquered wood. They are typically two or three tiers of containers, one of which might be sectioned, to hold the food inside. They most often stack or snap together for easy transport.

A tiffin is an Indian (subcontinent) version of a lunch box to go. Like a bento, it is a means of transporting a single serving meal for consumption outside the home. Also, similar to a bento, traditionally Indian mothers, or more likely, servants, prepare tiffins for the children and parents who work outside of the home. A less compulsive version of the lunch to go, tiffins normally contain a bread, rice, dal, and perhaps a potato or egg side dish. There are no governmentally issued dietary guidelines, but any kid's tiffin is probably exactly like two dozen or so of his classmates on any given day. Indian children often complain about the lack of creativity in their tiffins.

Tiffins prepared for adults usually contain the same or similar items to children's tiffins. However, in certain parts of India, most notably Mumbai, there has been a longstanding traditional system of tiffin delivery and pickup by designated couriers called dabbawallas or tiffinwallas. Their processes are low-tech and old school, but masterfully efficient, so much so that books have been written about the process and tradition. The fact that these delivery systems still thrive in today's modern Indian society is a remarkable juxtaposition and reflection of what India has become: a contrast of old and new.

A typical old school tiffin consists of small aluminum or metal containers with lids that stack and snap together with a carrying strap or latch mechanism. Modern tiffins can be found made of melamine or plastic, but the style is reminiscent of the traditional round metal ones that many Indians remember from their own childhoods. There are very decorative tiffin boxes out there, some with stamped designs or carved textures on the outside, others with utensils that attach to the outside.

The main difference that I see between bentos and tiffins are the rules and order, which one can attribute entirely to cultural traditions. Japanese are culturally very ordered and regimented which is a hallmark throughout their history, so it is only fitting that these sensibilities are applied to food preparation. Indians tiffins, on the other hand, are all about simple comfort foods that remind us of home, which is the same for everyone, regardless of caste, education, work position, or social status. Tiffin food by definition should not be elaborate or fancy. However, in theory, the same meal that would feed villagers or peasants is welcomed in the executive offices of titans of industry.

Whether you are packing a bento, a tiffin, or just a good old American lunch, doing it yourself is going to be more economical and nutritious in the long run and way better than the drive through.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Peanut Butter Dumplings

Almost All-American Bento: PB on wheat dumpling sandwiches, mini apple wedges with lemon, grapes, animal crackers, baby carrots. Not pictured is soy milk in a reusable drink container.

I wish the dumpling idea was mine, but let's face it - I am not that creative. I have completely plaigiarized and copied this idea from Lunch Bucket Bento, where she credits a Flickr user for the idea of dumpling sandwiches. I nearly jumped out of my seat because I have one of those little dumpling makers! Peanut butter sandwiches in the shape of dumplings? Brilliant!

I have had this little dumpling/ravioli/mini turnover gadget for as long as I have known my husband (which if you know me is LOOOOONNG time). I have wanted to toss this thing out for as long as I have known him. I don't make raviolis (I don't even like them) and I certainly don't make dumplings because they would never be better than the frozen ones. I tried to make mini apple turnovers, but the filling kept squeezing out and I lost my patience. Yet, my husband has insisted that we keep it the damn gadget. Why not? We have so much other useless clutter in our house, one little ravioli gadget isn't going to make a difference.

Well you can imagine the smug grin on his face when I told him I finally used it and made these adorable peanut butter dumpling sandwiches. He muttered something about spending as much time finding a full-time, high-paying job, but I tuned him out before he could finish....

They were a hit at both the preschool snack table and the "I'm too cool for that" set at the second grade lunch table. My weird kids won't eat jelly, jam, preserves, or any of their fruity, spreadable cousins or counterparts, so pb on wheat bread it was. Boring, but cute. I used a round cookie cutter and then my fancy Pampered Chef Baker's Roller to flatten the bread a little before pressing, which was a preventative measure to avert unnecessary peanut butter hemorrhaging. It worked and all four dumplings remained intact.

The older one insisted that they have the same lunch, so they both got two dumplings, some grapes, some mini apple wedges, baby carrots, and some animal crackers in their little containers. To drink they both got soy milk in reusable drink containers.

Review: 4 thumbs up on the sandwiches, 1 thumb on the rest of the lunch. The small one pointed out that she doesn't like apples until I pointed out that I sprinkled some lemon juice on them, at which point she ran back to her lunchbox and ate them for her snack. Waste: zero!

Malpua anyone?

When the going gets tough, the tough make malpuas.

We had a snow storm last night and the kids had a snow day today from school, so I made malpuas for a post sledding and snowboarding treat.

Malpuas are fritters that are doughnut like treats that are oh so good.... They can range in shape from flattened pancakes to rounded little orbs of golden brown goodness. In doing my due diligence and conducting some informal and very unscientific research for this post, I found that there are many, many regional varieties of malpuas, including a savory style from the state of Gujarat. I am Bengali so I believe these are the Bihari style made with bananas and anise flavoring. Instead of serving them with the traditional sugar syrup, I added my own twist and sprinkled them with powdered sugar and cinnamon sugar. Enjoy!


1 cup maida (all purpose flour)
1/2 cup suji (cream of wheat - not the quick cooking kind)
3/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp anise seed, crushed into a powder*
1 to 1-1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed
milk - about 1 cup
oil for frying
powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar

Makes about 24 malpuas

1. Mix the all purpose flour, cream of wheat, sugar, and anise seed.
2. Add banana and then add milk very slowly in 1/4 cup increments until a thick batter forms. It should be like a thick cake batter. Allow batter to rest for 20 minutes to half an hour. If the texture is more like a dough than a batter, then add small amount of milk and stir in until it is a thick batter.
3. Heat oil for deep frying in a deep fryer, wok, or saucepan. If you are using a saucepan, do not fill it more than half full. Test the heat of the oil by dropping in a bit of batter. If it browns righ away, it's ready.
4. Drop by full tablespoons into hot oil, turn to brown both sides, remove immediately and drain on paper towels.
5. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar.

Tips: Each malpua should be about the size of a golf ball. If they are any bigger then the middles might be undercooked. Also, this batter can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator. If it has thickened, stir in a bit of milk and stir until the texture is right.

Note: For those malpua purists out there, replace the anise with cardamom for an alternative flavor. The traditional way of serving these is with a sugar syrup (made of equal parts sugar and water dissolved over medium heat) sometimes flavored with a few saffron threads and some slivered almonds or pistachios. I used powdered sugar because I like it better. I used 2% milk because that's what we had.

I didn't have anise and wasn't in the mood for cardamom, so I poured a shot of sambuca. Then I poured another shot of sambuca into the batter. Ok, just kidding about the first part. I'm not a fan of sambuca shots. Anyway, the sambuca lent a very delicate anise flavor so they were tasty without being overwhelming. And, no, mom, the kids weren't buzzed afterward. The alcohol evaporates right away upon cooking.

For gluten-free readers, my mom said that there is a version of this treat made after the harvest entirely out of rice flour and rice cereal. If anyone tries, this variation, please post and let me know how they turn out!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentime's lunch

No, that's not a typo. That's how my 4-1/2 year old says "Valentine's" and it's just too cute to correct. It turns out that a lot of children still say it this way in first grade, as I found out firsthand while volunteering at the tall one's school this afternoon. Yes, it's still cute when they are 6.

Here is her super cute red-themed valentine's snack for preschool today:

Sweetheart mini sandwiches - one is filled with a dab of cream cheese and the other with strawberry jam. I used my Pampered Chef Creative Cutters to make the sandwiches. I had to open the strawberry one and add bit of peanut butter after assembly at her request, so it was a little snug in the container with it's cream cheese filled buddy. Next are fresh strawberries, quick trail mix of white and milk chocolate swirled chocolate chips, dried cranberries, and some pecans, strawberry yogurt, more homemade granola, and sliced red peppers. The nesting spoon and fork and some apple juice in a resuable juice box finished it off. I added some pretzels into the trail mix after I snapped the picture in case she wants a few bites of something salty.

No picture of the tall one's lunch today because he was off to school before I got home from work. Snapping pictures of his lunch was the last thing on my mind at 4:45 Am when I put it together. Plus, his lunch today was a somewhat uninspired and was not worthy of pre-dawn photos. He got a plain bagel and some baby carrots with some cream cheese in a container. Apparently his school has this thing called a "bagel bag" and he has been asking for one, so I made one for him, albeit a lame one. Bagels were on sale and I even broke down and bought baby carrots as opposed to grown-up carrots that are usually cheaper. It's amazing how a week of him having the flu turned me into a big softie. I threw in some wheat crackers, raisins, and and some apple juice as well.

It sounds like a lot, but I pack everything in very small quantities for him because he is not a big eater, but he likes to have a lot of choices. Also, we only come directly home from school one day a week, so what I pack has to last through after school activities and dinner, which often is around 7PM, if not later. If he doesn't eat the carrots or peppers at lunchtime, it's a sure bet they will be the first thing he has right after school in the car on our way to afternoon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ladies who lunch

I am bubbling over with excitement to share my discovery of some seriously stylish lunch bags for the working girl set. I found this online retailer called eBags where they sell Elle Essentials, a line of functional bags carrying the Elle Magazine moniker, which screams style to me. They have a terrific selection of bags for the working girls, including lunch bags that are so far from the mundane black ripstop rectangle lunchbox I used to carry. Brilliant! The colors! The styles! The selection! This one is called Kate and is $27.95. The Burberry-esque plaid on this speaks to my preppy, corporate, and completely materialistic, shopaholic side. Love it!

Then I woke up and realized that I don't work in an office anymore. Way back when I did, however, I loathed to carry a very basic, but functional, very plain, unstylish black rectangular softsided zippered lunchbox. If those bags had been available then I would have bought one in every style! I still might...
Maybe I should rename this blog the Trendy Tiffin....

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Antioxidant bento

I made this very colorful and healthy bento for my daughter on Thursday for preschool.

I love this container (made by Guateplast) because of the well in the middle dip, complete with separate lid. One of my students had one like it in her lunch and I knew immediately I had to have one. I finally found it at our local Pathmark, but they only had one, so I am on a mission to find another. For now I will have to manage.... Sigh.

Inspired by the vibrant colors, I put in strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries on one side. On the other side are some animal crackers and pretzels. I put in a handful of homemade granola as filler to keep the berries from rolling around and to absorb any wayward moisture or juices from flowing. In the middle is lowfat vanilla yogurt, into which she could dip the fruit, sprinkle with granola, or eat straight up. To round it out and continue my antioxidant kick, I gave her some grape juice in a Rubbermaid reusable juice box. The spoon is from her kiddie cutlery set (which also has a fork and spoon with it's own cute little carrying case) and everything is spread out on her Tinkerbell cloth napkin which I made at the beginning of the school year.

Here is everything all packed up nicely in her the top section of her brother's Transformers lunchbox. He stayed home from school with a cold and was too sick to notice her taking it. I didn't mention it to him either...

Review: 4 stars.
She liked the granola, strawberries, animal crackers, and pretzels, although she only dipped the strawberries and animal crackers. She said she ate the yogurt with her spoon. Apparently it didn't occur to her to sprinkled the granola into the yogurt until she saw me do it when I finshed the yogurt.

I'll take a better picture of the granola and post the recipe separately - I promise!

Bento for Beginners

This was my first attempt at a bento last week for my children, ages 4-1/2 and 7. It was a good opportunity to try adding a bento to their snack since I had a meeting to attend after I was done with work and their activities. On meeting nights, which is once a month, we don't get home until after 8, at which point I focus on getting them both ready for bed.

It contained rice with ghee, some purple and green grapes, two slices of navel orange which were added after the picture was taken, and three slices of tamago, a tasty Japanese style omelet, which I made earlier in the day, thanks to the wonderful tutorial and recipe from Lunch In a Box. Mine was not as pretty as what you will see on her blog, but it tasted good. I packed them into a 300 ml Rubbermaid Take Alongs container, a bit smaller than preschool size bento boxes, my children are not big eaters, so I make small portions for them. As much as I wanted one of those cute decorated bento boxes, the container worked out perfectly. It fit nicely into the but it worked out perfectly and fit nicely into the bottom section of their Arctic Zone lunchboxes.

They took notice of the neat and compact packing, but did not seem to share my enthusiasm over it. They liked the rice with ghee and the tamago and nibbled on the fruit. As cute as the bento was, they would have preferred to have had the rice with ghee and the egg packed hot into a thermal container. Also since most Indian food is best served piping hot, I will have to choose items that are meant to be served at room temperature or slightly chilled for future bentos.

By the way, my other guideline, which I failed to mention in my previous post, is that I try to pack waste-free and economical lunches. The two concepts go hand-in-hand for me. I pack as much as I can into reusable containers that can be readily washed and reused. Likewise, I buy the largest size, or most economical size, of foods and then repack them into convenient, reusable containers.

Part of economizing is packing only quantities that I know my kids, and I, will consume. I'll spare everyone the lecture that my mom gave me on children starving in India ("Well then send it to them by Fed Ex because I don't want it!" is what I used to say to my mom) and comment that it's just better to give them only what they will eat than throw it away. Similarly, buying larger packages of things only makes sense if you actually eat all of it.

Another day, another blog

Note: For those of you who have subscribed to my blog at the other service, this is the same blog. My other blogs are here and I like it here. I'm not leaving and you can't make me!

This blog is about preparing tasty, healthy, and minimal waste meals for kids and families on the go. With work, activities, and busy schedules, we hours on end out of the house. Drive throughs and snack bars are largely a thing of the past since I started packing healthy and appetizing snacks. My kids still ask for french fries and chicken nuggets every now and then, but most of the time they know that there is something fun and filling waiting for them in their lunchboxes.

  1. The guidelines I follow are pretty straightforward.
    No unwanted fats. The good fats, such as those found in nuts and avocados are welcome. I avoid the nasty ones, such as saturated fat and transfats, like the plague. Their not too distant cousins, hydrogenated oils, are not welcome either
  2. Minimal added sugar. I have a sweet tooth, as do my kids, but I make an effort to minimize foods that are high in sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Candy and fruit snacks manage to find their way into our house pretty regularly, but I limit how often and how much my kids get.
  3. Waste-free and economical. I use as many reusable containers as I can. When I shop I buy the largest and most economical sizes of items and repack them into smaller containers. Time is money and I have neither to waste, so it’s well worth the few minutes it takes to take a handful of crackers and put them into a container than it does to pay more for convenience packaging. There are some things that I will buy in convenience packs, such as fruit that is shelf stable in a tin or plastic bowl, but most of the time I do it myself.
  4. Earth friendly, healthy foods are the best options, but not the only ones. I buy organics, fair-trade, pesticide-free, free-range, and eco-friendly products when I can, but not exclusively. Although I agree wholeheartedly with buying local produce, earth friendly, environmentally safe, and other green products, my budget does not allow me to buy them all the time.
  5. We are omnivores with open minds and a conscience. We are not vegetarians as many Indian families are, but I prepare a lot of veg-friendly dishes. Likewise, we are not vegan, kosher, or anything else but we like a lot of gluten-free, vegan and kosher items too.
    I hope you like my blog. I will be posting a lot of pictures, some of my favorite things to prepare for my kids, as well as reviews on my favorite products to use for meals on the go. I will also post some recipes and instructions and guidelines on how to make them fit different dietary restrictions and lifestyles.

Thanks for reading and happy eating!


what's in your lunch?