As I near the end of my third week teaching, I thought I’d share with you some anecdotes about eating school lunch in Japan. It is mandatory, usually quite tasty, and as a Westerner, always thought-provoking. When I was in elementary school, I generally packed my own lunch, but as I was not the enthusiastic cook I am today, I occasionally got tired of eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I made for myself every day. Caleb Greenwood gave the students a calendar with each day’s lunch menu, so I usually tried to plan my school-bought lunches for the days with fried chicken and mashed potatoes. A huge determining factor was also whether they would be serving chocolate milk that day. This schedule was great, as it allowed me to avoid sloppy-joe and meatloaf days, saving my dollar for Astro Pops or those gigantic cookies they sold every once in a while.
That was the extent of my school lunch experience, and since high school I can’t say that I have even eaten lunch consistently. Being served lunch every day has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, mainly, eating lunch every day. I don’t own a scale, so I cannot say whether my body will be able to handle all this additional substance, but the Japanese assure me their diet is very low-calorie. We will see about that, but it’s nice to be on a regular schedule with the traditional three meals a day. I know, Shana eating breakfast?! It’s crazy!
Also on the plus side, I am experiencing the authentic type of Japanese home-cooking that would be unlikely to see in any restaurant in America. Each day is a learning experience, as I warily watch the other teachers before I start eating to see what they do. Not all of the meals are self-explanatory, and as I have noticed in my experiments at the Japanese markets, not everything is filled with what you might expect. Or vice versa; an unassuming bread loaf turns out to be filled like dessert, which I did not know they served with lunch! Here’s some examples of the interesting items I’ve had so far:
Cabbage soup– One of my schools serves some version of cabbage soup every day. The fillings vary slightly, but the main substance is cabbage and cabbage-flavored broth, which is not the most flavorful of the broth family. I assume that cabbage is plentiful and inexpensive here, making it a cost-effective dish to feed 400 people. I cannot help but think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the dirt-poor family with four grandparents must subsist solely on cabbage soup. Some interesting additions so far include clams, shrimp, ground beef or all of the above. Carrots and potatoes are a must, as well as a generous portion of bean sprouts. We were told not to bring any food to school, but I might have to sneak in some contraband chili pepper to make this staple a little less bland
Corn chowder– Before coming to Japan, I had no idea their cuisine included so much corn. They put corn on everything: pizza, sushi, ramen, curry, and apparently they enjoy corn chowder which is eerily similar to the kind my dad loved to make and I hated to eat. Watery-milk infused broth with pieces of under-cooked bacon, onion, the occasional potato and of course copious kernels of corn. Since I cannot throw a tantrum in the teachers’ room, which was my usual reaction to being served this soup at age 10, I diligently ate it all and then promptly called my father to yell at him for giving Japan his terrible corn chowder recipe
French onion inspired miso soup– By this I mean miso soup containing large croutons. Well, okay Japan, I’ll take any kind of miso over the soups mentioned above
Make-your-own nori roll– This was a fun lunch because you got to roll up your own sushi-style rolls with sheets of nori and assorted fillings. I definitely had to watch the other teachers for this one! Fillings included cucumbers, bamboo shoots (I think), Krab with a k, and a hot dog which I was reluctant to use. It tasted like Tex Wasabi’s gone wrong. Like the corn, Japanese cuisine is peppered with a proliferation of hot dogs and hamburger where it doesn’t seem to belong, atop pizza and sushi mainly. And they don’t sell hot dog buns in the intuitive hot dog-shaped size. Instead you buy one long bun that masquerades itself as a French baguette until further inspection proves otherwise. I assume you must cut this loaf into appropriate hot dog-sized pieces, but as I have seen no French’s mustard or pickle relish, I have no interest in attempting to make hot dogs
Breaded deep-fried anything- If lunch shows up with a piece of kotzu, it is a good day! It doesn’t matter what’s inside, anything breaded with panko and deep fried will be delicious. Various fillings have included fish, ham cutlets, chicken, salmon and sweet potato. Luckily no hot dogs yet
Crepes– Sometimes lunch includes dessert, which once was a little folded-over crepe that I first believed to be a very small omelet. It was filled with strawberry jam and some kind of cream, and it was amazing
Rice, rice, rice– The ever-present staple of Japanese cuisine is almost always a part of lunch. Sometimes they jazz up the rice by adding bamboo or a mystery flavoring that turns the rice pink. Once they gave me a packet of seasoning with sesame and what they said was salt. However, after the first bite I am certain that it was in fact pure iodine in crystal form. As a rule, rice is generally eaten last, once you are totally stuffed because lunch is always very large. For some reason, rice is eaten plain and it is considered poor etiquette to pour soy sauce all over it, the way I usually enjoy my rice. Why is this so? You give me the blandest of food stuffs, the “water” of the starch world, and then forbid me to make it palatable. While I am often thankful that Japanese cuisine is not fiery spicy, I do enjoy spice at times and am in general a proponent of food with flavor. This is a hard one, I might have to pull the ‘foreigner’ card and risk offending everyone’s sensibilities with my soy sauce use. Why do they make soy sauce so delicious if they don’t want you to use it?
Canned tuna– I like canned tuna as well as the next guy, but it never occured to me to mix it in with my pickled vegetables
Milk- every lunch is served with a personal-sized milk carton, which I never drink for two reasons. First, becacuse I have a hard time finishing my lunch as it is, and I think adding a whole cup of milk to the equation would do me in. My smaller school’s bathroom is only afixed with the traditional Japanese ‘squatter’ toilets, so I try to avoid as little excess liquid as possible. Secondly, once you drink your milk in Japan you must thoroughly wash the carton and cut it down the sides so it opens up flat. No thanks, I do that once a week at home and I’m still not sure how many cartons I need to collect before I can take them to the garbage. On cardboard trash day I observed the neighbors’ milk collections which were 100 cartons deep! Do they collect all year and turn their milk cartons in once, or does Japan just love milk that much? One lunch I was surprised to see something other than a milk carton. It was a small plastic bottle with a picture of green grapes on it, so I naturally assumed it was some kind of grape juice and opened it. Silly me, of course no packaging in Japan would be that rational. It was grape-flavored milk. I had to take two sips just to believe my tastebuds, and it definitely was not like the green grapes pictured. It was artificial grape flavoring. I can only assume the experience is identical to eating a grape Jolly Rancher and then swigging some whole milk, because I would never do such a terrible thing. I can’t imagine this product exists because people enjoy it. Perhaps some manufacturer of artificial grape flavoring is in bed with the milk company beause they know they have a captive market of Japanese schools forced to purchase milk from said monopoly. Who knows? Either way, I will now be wary of every school lunch beverage for fear of some new flavored-milk devil-ry