Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Japanese School Lunch

For school lunches in the UK, I remember there being a cafeteria where you could pick your own meals. So much freedom, but at what cost? Most kids don't have the kind of restraint necessary to go for healthy over delicious. Of course there was salad, but what 15 year old CHOOSES salad? I'm pretty sure my friends and I had pasta, cheese, and beans every day for two years straight. Bliss.*

While the same cannot be said about English education, the Japanese take kyuushoku (school lunch) very seriously.There is one set meal a day, and everyone (barring allergies) has to eat it. Each middle school has a Jamie-Oliver-esque employee, whose only job it seems is to make the menu for the month and collect the lunch money.

My fellow ALTs and I have a passionate love-hate relationship with kyuushoku. When it's bad, its almost inedible. A good 70% of the time there's questionable fish, natto is pretty regular, and oh my god, the salads. Seaweed, Cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and miniature dried fish is not a salad. It's torture.

When it's good though, it's the best. I could be having the shittest week imaginable, but when I turn the corner towards the lunch room and can smell curry, everything turns to sunshine. Curry day is best day. Fact.

How to Not Lose Weight in Japan

Before I came to Japan, everyone was always telling me that Japanese food is super healthy. And in the beginning it seemed to be that way. So much so that I was in danger of losing weight. Or even worse, becoming slim and attractive. The horror.

Now if you find yourself in this predicament, never fear. I have spent the last 3 years researching in secret. Let Licha-do sensei tell you one weird trick to keep your arms flabby and muffin tops protruding.

Rice. White rice. Every day. Loads of it.

It started off innocent enough. 'Mottainai' is the Japanese cultural tradition of "waste not, want not". It comes from the Shinto belief that even the smallest objects have souls. Every grain of rice, every sesame seed, every weird little dried fish thing in my salad. As a result, kids are generally forced to eat all of their school lunch, especially in Elementary school (Even if they are absolutely stuffed, or don't like the food).

After everyone receives their nutritionally allotted amount, there is always left over soup, salad, and rice. It is the responsibility of the class to eat these too. Teachers wander around, cajoling the kids to take just a little bit more, desperate to get rid of that ethical weight hanging round everyone's neck.

One day I was feeling a little hungry, so I took some extra rice to help out. Suddenly I have a reputation for being a big rice-eater. I'm getting seconds every day, and there's no stopping it. More rice at the end? Why not give Ri-Chan thirds? He loves rice. Can't get enough. Thank you so much Richa-do.

Now it feels rude to say no. They are so happy to be rid of it that I just let it happen. What started as a carefully balanced meal has become a daily, non-stop, empty-carb, endurance challenge. The worst part is, I've gotten used to it. If I haven't eaten two or three bowls of rice in a day, my stomach starts grumbling.

2nd Dessert

Last week I hit the Jackpot. Its lunch time, and everything is fantastic. The salad looks edible, gyoza instead of fish, and for a special treat, strawberry tart.

One kid is out ill, so their meal is to be divvied up amongst the other students. I am inevitably given double rice. Dessert though is different. Its a highly prized commodity. Like Jackals circling for the kill, almost every boy (and myself) get up to Janken for 2nd dessert.**

15 becomes 10, then 5, then 1.
Ive done it.

After almost 3 years of losing every lunchtime, I finally win. With glee I clutch my prize to my chest. A small part of me feels guilty for stealing dessert from my own students mouths. A much larger part thinks that after all the mushy potatoes and bony fish Ive put up with, Ive earned this.

I sit back down with the kids. Everyone is clearly envious, which makes it all the better. After tackling my mountain of fluffy whites, Its time to savor my victory. As the awe-filled children look on in disbelief, I slowly unwrap my second strawberry tart, and jam the whole thing into my mouth all in one go.

Victory is sweet. So sweet in fact that Ive basically written the last 800 words purely so I could brag about it.

*If you swap out pasta and beans for rice and beer, you've basically described my current diet outside of school. Not much changes. Old dogs, new tricks, all that jazz.

**Janken is the most ancient Japanese art of conflict resolution. Whenever anything in Japan must be decided fairly, opponents are pitted in the ultimate game of wits. Whether its choosing teams, deciding who goes first, or who gets the extra milk, Janken is the all-powerful arbiter. In the west it is more commonly know by another name: "Rock-Paper-Scissors."

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