Archive for the ‘Japanese’ category

Suki Kirai wa Damae desu yo. Or, To Like or Dislike is Not Allowed

October 10, 2007

How I wish that I had photocopied, or otherwise gathered evidence of, the sign with the above motto that I saw plastered up around a Japanese elementary school.  Underneath the motto was a cartoon of two children eating their school dinners.  One of them was visibly baulking at a food item included in the dinner, or kyushoku; the offending piece of food hovering mid-way from tray to mouth; a sour look playing on the child’s face.  The other child was happily eating up all of their own food, and reminding the picky child that to like or dislike is not allowed!  With friends like that… 

My point is that this demonstrates something very important about the Japanese psyche, which clashes with our Western outlook entirely.  In the West, people now define themselves by their likes and dislikes.  ‘Allergies’ and intolerances abound – proven and unproven.  In Japan, these are virtually non-existent.  All students and teachers eat exactly the same kyushoku – which is dished out in classrooms by the children who take it in turns to don the protective white pinafores and face-masks to ladle the food onto their classmates’ plastic trays, and distribute the milk.  There are no lunch staff – the teachers eat with their classes.  The kids are hungry by lunch-time, properly so, as they are not allowed to bring any money of snacks to school – so they are very ready for lunch when it finally comes around.   

I visited fifteen elementary schools and seven middle schools over a period of three years, and only once did I see a teacher eating something other than the school dinner.  I never saw a student decline to eat it, as of course that was not allowed.  I enjoyed the school lunch myself, most of all when it was something traditionally Japanese.  It often was: things like hijiki seaweed salad, fried salmon, miso soup, kare-risu (rice with curry), nikujaga meat with potatoes, etc.  It was lovely.  I could see why the children were healthy, with shining eyes, bushy tails… and why there is a very low incidence of obesity.   

The students in Japan do genuinely love the school lunch.  As I sat on a tiny chair next to a tiny girl in 1st grade one day for lunch, I asked her if she was enjoying the natto (a hideous fermented bean dish that deserves its own entry) that she was delicately devouring with her tiny chopsticks. “Hai” (yes) she declared, not missing a beat.  “Really?” I further queried, “I don’t like natto myself.  Is it delicious?”  At this she cocked her head and pursed her lips and made a thinking noise.  “Amari,” she admitted (not so) “demo, karada ni ii yo” (but, it’s good for you). 

Unfortunately, kyushoku is not always karada ni ii.  When the hard-pressed kitchen staff tried to produce a Western-style dinner, things often went awry.  Sometimes we were served a large pile of white or pink artificial cream with pieces of canned pineapple, madarin and peach in, plus some white bread to make a sandwich with it!  I tried to stop school lunches after being served one day: a bowl of creamy seafood stew, a large white bread roll deep-fried and rolled in sugar and cocoa, some boiled spinach with bonito fish flakes, jam, and milk with a sugary flavouring powder to stir in.  I asked the Board of Education for which I worked if I could take my own lunch in the future, as the kyushoku frequently had too many empty calories for a grown woman and it was making me fat. No, they said.  Eating school lunch with the children is part of your responsibility as a teacher.   

If the kyushoku were indeed always totally healthy, I’d be tempted to infer that in the West we are actually doing our children a grave injustice by allowing them to feast on whatever fried, fatty, sugary foods they wish, and we should impose kyushoku universally right away.  Indeed, more and more, we do try to limit their access to said health-damaging foods.  Yet, Japanese-style school dinners could never be enforced here, they are against our love of the freedom of choice.  However, I believe that all of society (government, schools, parents) is responsible for providing a choice of healthy lunch options for children, and to assist children in losing their attachment to continually consuming foods that they particularly like and always avoiding foods they think that they dislike, thus widening both their palate and their possible sources of nutrition. 

Yumiko’s Oden

October 4, 2007

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In a Japanese autumn, I recall well, the steamy scent of oden permeates the flourescent-lit atmosphere of 7-11s.  The pieces of oden are kept hot floating in a large metal vat of murky liquid.  If you dare to approach the vat, and peer through the thick steam for a better look you will mostly see brown, shrivelled, wrinkly objects suspended in the pool, jostling for space with the occasional identifiable egg.  Not overly inviting, it must be said, and I was put off oden for many years due in part to this, and to my only other encounter with it… as a kyushoku (school dinner). 

Yet, as I arrived at a Japanese student’s house last night, the familiar smell wafted through from the kitchen not uninvitingly.  Home-cooked oden is something entirely different, you see.  I was thus delighted when Yumiko presented me with a portion to take home.   Oden can contain many different things, but Yumiko’s contained daikon (white radish), naruto (fish paste roll with pink swirl), chikuwa (fish paste rolls with hole in the middle), satsuma-age (deep-fried fish paste), boiled eggs, American-style sausages, ganmodoki (deep-fried tofu) and mochi (pounded rice cake).  As you can see, it’s heavy on the fish paste!  These ingredients are boiled in dashi (fish stock), soy sauce, mirin (cooking sake) with a pinch of salt.  Oden is always served with a generous dollop of karashi (Japanese mustard).  All of these ingredients are available at a good Japanese supermarket – like Atariya in West Acton. 

Tito and I decided amongst much slurping that oden is the perfect dish for a chilly evening. It’s low fat and low-calorie – and unarguably oishii.  Just don’t buy it from a 7-11.