Can you eat Japanese food? What's in school lunches in Japan? (pix!)
Why do they ask "Is Japanese food okay?"
You may have encountered this odd question here and there while studying abroad or even living abroad in Japan. Can you eat Japanese food? Is Japanese food okay? For those of us on the JET program or coming over as ALTs to middle schools, we have kyushoku or Japanese school lunch to deal with. You will get this question, and the answer deserves more thought than you may at first think.
Ha! Little do they know, you've eaten sushi hundreds of times! You even know the names of TWO (count em) TWO types of seaweed!
This was my attitude when I came to Japan the 2nd time. I had already done study abroad, and sure there were some things I didn't like, but that's no big deal. Fish with heads, bones that you eat, cold soba. Whatever. No big. I can handle this.
There are three problems you may face with school lunches in Japan.
1. To westerners, they're sometimes barely recognizeable as food.
2. The flavors and dishes are super-repetitive, so if you get something you don't like, count on having it at least once a month from then on.
3. They take the clean plate club to an extreme - you will never see a Japanese person fail to eat anything on the plate. It is a rule for the children, and a social pressure for the adults. And if you know anything about Japan, you know that a social pressure is, in fact, a rule.
The barely recognizeable
Note: this is only my own experience. Different cities, even in the same prefecture, have different styles of school lunch. This is meant purely as a cautionary tale and not as an "average" assessment.
Do you know how many types of seaweed the Japanese use in cooking? Because I have had about 5 so far and there doesn't seem to be a limit. Many times, seaweed is the "salad" base ("salad" forming about 1/3rd of the lunch). So 1/3rd of your lunch is seaweed covered in vinegar and sugar, with some shredded carrot and ginko nuts thrown in.
So you like fish eh? Love sushi? How about deep-fried pregnant fish, with bones (you eat the bones). If you're okay with eating eggs out of a fish's stomach while it stares balefully at you, you are a god among ALTs.
The bones-in-fish thing is really the most annoying, because even if you think you know how to use chopsticks, you are going to have trouble the first time you try to get meat off of bones with them.
Additionally, the flavor pallette is very foreign. There is no dry spice added to anything. So all flavor is either miso, vinegar, soy sauce, or sugar. I have had meat covered in sugar sauce at least once a week since I got here.
Another pitfall is natto, but I won't go into that here. Some people get it, some don't. I'm only drawing from my own experience.
Finally there are the look-alikes. Many vegetables are misleadingly similar to western ones. For example, the potato variant which turns to slime in your mouth. I still don't know what this is called, but it is small and rounded, and a bit blue-ish if you look closely. I have learned to recognize it and steer clear.
The second annoyance is repetition. I have heard that my prefecture is especially "ricey," so take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt.
Every single day at my school produces a school lunch of this type:
Bowl of white rice
piece of meat or meat-like object
bowl of weak soup
cold vegetables in vinegar
Actually, usually everything is stone cold. I have no idea why or how they manage it, but there you are. Heating food doesn't seem to be a concern here in general, so I guess it makes sense.
Things I hate eating cold: anything deep-fried
Things we have three times a week: deep fried meat
% of meals which are cold: 75%
As you can see, this is not an ideal situation. We do, however, have a variation about once a week, in the form of some sort of pasta dish. In the past 3 months we have had bread only once, but I am told that other places have it more often. (Japanese dishes use the starch as "base" and descriptor, which is why I use it here)
Anyway, sometimes the pasta dishes are nice, but other times they aren't. This is the most common one. I call it "various shit in a bowl. Add your own noodles."
I used to really enjoy miso soup, but now that I have it nearly every day I begin to detest it.
In fact, most of these dishes were decent or even pretty darn good the first time, but over the months the pattern wears on you. You start thinking "Why don't they add just a spoonful of cream? Or butter? Why is it always vinegar? Do they really enjoy vinegar this much? Is this what they eat at home? Cold vegetables with vinegar? No wonder they're all so skinny..."
On the other hand, if you enjoy something a lot, school lunch is a cheap way to get it. I love salmon, which is usually served about once a week at my school. Score!
They also cook things in mysterious Japanese ways that I wouldn't attempt at home, so school lunch is a good intro to Japanese foods that aren't served in restaurants.
3. The clean plate club
This is the most annoying thing. If it were possible to simply say "No soup today thanks, can I get another spoonful of rice instead?" I would have absolutely zero problems with the school lunches.
However, skipping part of the lunch is an ordeal and can only be undertaken in dire circumstances (usually involving eating some sort of cold pregnant fried animal).
Lunches are plated out about 20 minutes before anyone starts to eat in the teacher's room (this contributes to why it's cold). Thus, you would have to catch the person plating and convey your request to them 20 minutes before the end of 4th period. If you are teaching 4th period, you're out of luck. Once it's plated, there's no obvious way to toss it out. You have to put it back into the serving containers after everyone is finished eating, and I assume they then throw it out in the kitchen. (You will be the only staff to ever do this, but it's expected of foreigners, so don't feel so bad) (And there will be comments and questions every time)
The exception is rice, which many women wrap in plastic wrap and take home. I have often snuck some other things into the plastic wrap to throw out at home when I didn't feel like explaining for the 10th time that I'm not eating anything's face.
If you eat with the students, you cannot refuse anything as you must set an example. If you refuse an item, the students will all gasp and talk about how cool and foreign you are. It's a good way to not integrate with the community. Additionally they won't know what to do with the food you refuse, as they are often not allowed to send anything back to the kitchen. Each class is sent a certain amount of food (they eat in the classroom) and students must take seconds if it is not finished on the first go. So if you put something back, either a student must take it, or they have to explain to the lunch ladies that it's just the silly foreigner sending things back. Both embarrassing.
(In general, refusing any of the food is a good way to not integrate, but as there is really no reason for teachers in the staff room to eat things they hate, it's not as big of a deal there. Almost like they just eat everything from habit formed in their school years.)
What can you do?
If you have even the slightest aversion to broth-soups, strange meats, fish, cold veggies, or cabbage & vinegar..... I suggest pretending to be a vegetarian (or actually becoming one). That way you can just set the standard on the first day, that you will not be participating in school lunch. This avoids a lot of unpleasantness down the road when you are staring at the woman who fried the pregnant fish herself, trying to explain your actions.
If you do that, however, things are going to be hard at Enkais and parties. So think carefully.
(for some reason it's always suggested that you go to the hospital if you say your stomach is upset. I don't suggest using this excuse. I only used it once and such a fuss was made.)
I still eat school lunch. I carry around plastic wrap and dump things in my bag to put in the trash at home. I face the awkward situations with the lunch ladies when I literally can't force myself to eat lunch that day. But most times, I just eat. I don't really enjoy it, I don't really hate it. Yeah it's cold and objectively nasty, but who really cares? I wish that we didn't have to eat school lunch, but I don't care enough to do anything about it. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have said "No, I'm sorry but I can't eat Japanese food. Is it okay if I bring my lunch?"
If you've told a Japanese person that you can't eat Japanese food, I'd love to hear how it went! (No registration required for comments!)