When we went back to the U.S., one of the things that we experienced culture shock over was the food. Home, school, and institutional cooking is so very different here – it's also pretty different from the stereotypical Japanese dishes you get in Japanese restaurants in the U.S.
Here's the menu for my kids' public school lunch here in Japan over the next few days:
Vegetable fried rice, tofu and kinoko mushroom soup, spicy bean sprouts
Chilled udon with tofu, soy bean and sweet potato fritters, fruit with rice flour dumplings
Bibimbap (a Korean dish – rice with mixed vegetables and an egg), tofu and wakame soup, a plum
Somen noodles with chicken croquettes, chilled boiled komatsuna (a leafy green vegetable similar to spinach), corn, and "Tanabata" gelatin (made special for the Tanabata holiday coming up).
Yukari rice (yukari is a Japanese herb like sesame leaves or basil), whiting fish in a miso/mayo glaze, vegetables in sesame dressing, miso soup
French garlic bread, minestrone soup, cabbage and corn salad
Barley rice with yukari pickles, gingery pork saute, daikon and wakame miso soup
Rice, edamame, mackerel croquettes with grated daikon and soy sauce, clear soup, braised cabbage
Summer vegetable curry, daikon salad, and homemade peach sorbet.
Note that 1) dessert is a rarity (usually it's a small portion of fresh fruit if anything), 2) the food is heavy on grains and vegetables with only small portions of protein, such as small fish (low on the food chain) or side-dish-sized portions of meat, 3) they strive to introduce children to a variety of cuisines (though rice, and Asian flavors, do predominate, and 4) everything is made fresh. The fully-functioning kitchen is on the first floor of the school and our children personally all know the people who make their food.
Dining etiquette is a pretty big thing here too. The children take turns serving each other in their classroom and then all sit down at tables in their classroom and wait until everyone is seated to begin. I like that the children are taught to sit down to appreciate their meal instead of eating it on the run. They bring their own placemats. They're expected not to waste food, but to eat everything on their plates. Pickiness is strongly discouraged. Everyone cleans up afterwards together – clearing plates, wiping tables, bringing dishes back tthe kitchen, cleaning the floors. Despite how one might feel about some of the etiquette taught in schools – I'm not in favor of every aspect of it and some of it might be considered downright rigid – at the very least, it's been a chance for our kids to learn that foods – and not just food, but food customs and food culture – are different all around the world. And, sad to say, they've noticed a few things about food culture back home – such as the preponderance of kids' meals and the generally unhealthy offerings for school lunch. (Although I just found a great Facebook page about school lunches done right: School Meals that Rock).
We've never been able to live somewhere where we could cultivate a garden, so I've been happy that here, in most nursery and elementary schools, children grow and harvest vegetables – D brought us baby eggplant a few days in a row and proudly cut it up and served it, and when daikon was in season he brought baby daikon for us to sample.
It's not just in schools that you get freshly prepared food. When I had my fourth baby here – my first time giving birth in a hospital – I was nervous about having to rely on someone else for food but frankly, it was a lot tastier than what I could have managed for myself! Look at these photos:
No place is perfect, and certainly it's not like that here either. We got into a white bread habit that we can't seem to shake (white bread, or "shokupan," is the most commonly found bread around, and white rice and white noodles, as you can see above, are also pretty standard fare). French pastries are hugely popular, as are convenience store treats like Pocky, and of course there are still plenty of other unhealthy options. There's less acceptance of different ways of eating or things like food allergies and intolerances (though awareness of that is growing). And fast food restaurants do abound (the same food court where M ate those noodles has a McDonalds and Mister Donut too). There are some food "rules" I still don't understand, like the disdain for raw produce (considered too cooling for the body), but overall I feel like living here has helped influence us for the better in many ways when it comes to our eating habits and food awareness.
So to sum up, some key values are:
the importance of eating together, sitting down and appreciating your meal.
shopping daily or frequently for fresh ingredients, in small amounts, and less reliance on processed foods. Protein is served in small portions; vegetables predominate.
serving snacks and sweets in very small portions. Traditional sweets rely on sweetened bean paste or rice although there are modern, sugar-laden treats as well.
I'm excited that there's a food revolution brewing in the US – it's so long overdue. In addition to checking out School Meals that Rock, take a look at these two blogs – their commentary on current kid/food matters always inspires and informs: LettuceEatKale: Musings on Food, Family, Friends, and Growing Greens and SpoonFed: Raising Kids to Think About the Food They Eat.
What's the food culture like around you? If you have children who go to school, what's the school food like? What do you like and what (if anything) do you wish you could change, and what do you do to encourage your kids to eat healthfully?