Friday, March 4, 2011

Get ready for the lunch

There's nothing exceptional going on here, though I am pleased to say that after a dry and somewhat mild February, the snow is back in effect for March. It seems that snow in Yamagata in the months of 2011 is following the inverse pattern to good Star Trek movies.

So, let's talk school lunches. People often don't bother giving me memos, newsletters, and the like because of the whole language issue, which is fair enough. But I got my hands on a copy of the lunch menus for the month, which means that I could a) sharpen up my food vocabulary and b) actually know what I was eating for once.

When I was at the receiving end of the education biz, I never had school dinners. Thus I am ill-equipped to comment on British lunches, though of course I know that if lazy, hackneyed comedy routines are to be believed, they (along with British Rail sandwiches) were pretty dodgy.

So, although I have no real frame of reference, I have been very impressed with the fair on offer at Japanese public middle schools. I pay 290yen (£2.18) a day - I guess that must be subsidised - for which I get a tasty, healthy, filling meal. I want to be clear that I have no complaints whatsoever about Nanyo's school lunch services. Got that? Ok. Nevertheless, I thought that it might be interesting and/or amusing to give a detailed analysis and critique of a week's worth of lunches. Here we go:

Note: All lunches come with a 200ml carton of milk.

Main: Chicken and vegetable stew
Soup: Miso
Carbs: Rice (with furikake)
Bonus item: Quarter-orange

Before coming to Japan, I occasionally worried that I didn't actually like sushi, but rather I just liked the idea of it because it's so exotic and sexy (though it has become markedly less so over the course of the 00s, as every British supermarket started selling it beside the hummus wraps and Innocent Smoothies in the 'cosmopolitan ponce' section). I am pleasantly surprised to find that after over a year and a half, far from the novelty wearing off, my love for seafood on vinegared rice has only deepened. Miso soup, however, is another story. I used to love a bit of miso, but you encounter it so often here that it is difficult to muster any excitement at all for the cloudy yellow broth. I don't dislike it, it's just become about as remarkable to me as air or water.

I always appreciate when something is added to the rice to give it a bit more pizazz - to my Western palate, a bowl of plain white rice still seems a little austere. A 2.5g sachet of furikake - finely chopped dried vegetables - goes a surprisingly long way to liven things up.

Verdict: A workaday number to start the week. Nothing objectionable here, but its not going to make anyone stand up and take notice. B-

Main: Yakinikudon - grilled pork and vegetables
Soup: Kimchi (Korean spicy cabbage) and daikon (Japanese radish)
Carbs: Rice
Bonus item: A frozen fruit jelly dessert of some kind.

So this was basically gyuudon, your standard beef-and-rice combo as served by the likes of Sukiya and Yoshinoya, but with the cheaper alternative of pork. Fairly tasty, but it did pose the conundrum of whether to attempt to combine the meat and rice in one bowl, where there wasn't really enough room. The soup was the biggest talking point of this meal though - while daikon is a profoundly boring and inoffensive vegetable, kimchi packs quite a punch. I was surprised that they were serving it to 12-year-olds, some of whom seemed to struggle with it. It probably would have put Danny into a coma. Personally, I enjoyed the soup, though it was a little on the watery side.

Verdict: While there were no true standout items, a strong showing nonetheless. A-

Main: Pork with fine rice noodles
Soup: 'Chinese style' - Egg, bacon, and various vegetables
Carbs: Croissants!

Here's how it usually works: Mon, Tue, Thu is rice, Wed and Fri is bread. Occasionally you might get a mini-baguette instead of the standard sliced white, but in my 19 months of service this is the first croissant I've encountered. And we got not one but two each!

The soup was also excellent; nice and salty, and much heartier than yesterday's offering. I've come to believe that egg, beaten and thrown into the broth, enhances virtually any soup. My very favourite school lunch soup is chicken-and-egg, and not just because of the paradoxical name. This combo is called oyako in Japanese, literally 'parent and child', which is a little off-putting.

Verdict: The main was perhaps the weak link here, but even that was an enjoyable dish. And there were croissants! A

Thursday (Hinamatsuri, "Doll festival" / "Girls' Day")
Main: Chicken karaage with boiled vegetables
Soup: Tofu and mushroom
Carbs: Rice with salmon and seaweed
Bonus item: Strawberry mousse

Let's start with the positives. A light but tasty soup, making heavy use of the long, stringy mushrooms I have never seen outside of Japan. They look almost like noodles, but with little hemispherical boutons on one end. Just like noodles, Japanese has a lot more vocabulary for edible fungi than English, where everything is just some kind of 'mushroom'. It makes me feel like some kind of uncultured boor at times.

On monday I sang the praises of rice sprinkles, but today they blew that out of the water by having flakes of salmon and bits of seaweed through the rice, rather like someone had fed a salmon riceball into a shredder. Very good, and the dessert was an added festive treat.

But there's no getting away from the main. Karaage, or battered fried chicken, is a ubiquitous snack food here, and it ranges in quality from delicious to disgustingly greasy and gristly, so it's always a bit of a gamble. Today's offering came out right in the middle of that quality distribution - so, not great. And the vegetable accompaniment did nothing to help: a soggy plateful of limp boiled greens.

Verdict: If Japanese school lunches were movies, today's would be Avatar. By that I mean that it was, at it's core (the plot / main course in this tortured metaphor), uninspired and disappointing, but it had enough enjoyable ancillary stuff going on to keep the punters happy. B

Main: Seafood spaghetti
Side: 'French salad'
Carbs: Brioche (2)
Bonus item: Strawberries (3)

Watch out, it's European day! As a consequence, my main/soup system has broken down, with the spaghetti being served in the soup bowl.

The seafood spaghetti was very good, with prawns and what my dictionary tells me are 'Manila clams' in a creamy white sauce. This kind of thing is often confusingly referred to as shichuu, from the English 'stew'. It usually comes with some sort of roll to dip into it, and I could scarcely believe my eyes when the second novelty bread in the space of three days was brought out. Historic scenes, people.

The salad was pretty average, notable only for the difficulty of eating its sweetcorn and grated carrot constituents using chopsticks. Sweetcorn is probably number two on my list of annoying things to eat with chopsticks, the top spot taken by the little 3mm cubes of cheese that often show up in school salads. Why would you cut them so small?

Verdict: The tastiest main of the week; a bread item which, though unable to match Wednesday's croissant, was still a crowd-pleaser; and a premium fruit to round things out. A high note on which to end the week. A

Closing remarks: All in all, a strong week for school lunches, with no unwelcome natto appearances. The unusual frequency and high standard of bonus items warrants a mention - perhaps we are seeing some end-of-year budget surplus blowing?


  1. Being a fussy eater, I am so glad I have never had to eat a school lunch in all my time here!

  2. I had to laugh, the word verification just now was 'exjet'. :D

  3. Hope you're safe after the earthquake.

    Love Laura x

  4. Hi all, in case Finlay doesn't get a chance to be in touch, he's safe and well. Nanyo has no power or phones at the moment and they are still experiencing aftershocks, but he has e-mailed us to say he is fine and safe. Finlay's Dad

  5. Interesting and important information. It is really beneficial for us. Thanks