The Best Part of My Day

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What I’ve most looked forward to about returning to school after five weeks of ‘vacation’ is school lunch. Don’t frown. I know it’s odd-for at least three reasons. First, who in the history of the world has ever liked school lunches? Second, I remember there being only one menu item that I loved in elementary school; it was called a ‘Fiestada‘ (party in your mouth!) and it was some bastardized form of frozen “Mexican” pizza (square bread with yellow cheese instead of white and maybe some refried beans?, yum). American elementary schools just aren’t known for their gourmet meal choices.

And the third reason it’s probably strange that I seriously love on my Korean lunches is  that there are A LOT of English teachers here who really detest the food in the school cafeteria. So much so that in refusing to eat it, they damage their relationships with their Korean coworkers by avoiding lunchtime altogether (everyone eats at the cafeteria in Korean schools). I pass only a little judgment on these people because if I still felt about lunch now the way I did when I first arrived, I might be myself in a similar position.

That is to say I HATED lunch at first because everything tasted like gnarly fish guts, especially stuff that didn’t appear to be fishy at all (kimchi, soup, salads). It was depressing and frustrating and I ate mostly rice for the first few weeks. But soon my body decided that after teaching little children all morning, it was damn hungry. And in being damn hungry, I was forced to adapt to the food situation. Two months later I realized how happily I was anticipating lunch everyday.

It’s exciting not to know what lunch might be, but to be sure that if nothing else, there will always be rice and kimchi. By 11:00 I start making bets with myself about what the cafeteria ajummas might serve and I’m rarely disappointed (save for Eel and Sesame Leaf Soup, which tastes like a fucking dirty tree, and Boney Fish Stew, because nobody needs that).

Some notable dishes are as follows:

Duck with Spicy Sauce: I had no idea duck could smell and taste like bacon. But evidently it can. And it does when served at my school. Then they add this super spicy, vaguely sweet, hot pepper sauce. It is probably my favorite thing to eat at school and I get visibly excited when it’s on the menu (which perplexes my coworkers but too bad).

Enoki Mushroom Soup: There’s something awesome about the consistency of enoki mushrooms. I’ve been underexposed most of my life, but they are everywhere in Korea. If you can’t tell from the pictures, they are the super skinny, string-like mushrooms often found in Korean soups. The texture when you bite on a little clump of them is so unique and pleasing that even if the flavor of the soup isn’t all that mind-blowing, it’s still delicious.

Dried Anchovies and Almonds: So this ‘salad’ is a little startling because it’s teeny tiny dried fish, all silvery with their eyes buggin out. But you don’t even notice what it really is until you get up close. Usually it’s tossed with some sort of vinaigrette and toasted almonds, lending the salty, chewy fish a bit of sweetness. I generally enjoy this sidedish, but if I wait until I’ve eaten most of my meal, the flavors are often too intense for me to finish the amount that I took. I’m learning to be less greedy.

Red Bean and Rice Noodle Soup: Quite a novelty to me, if only because it is so purple. Then again, Koreans eat more purple food than I knew existed. Also, this is usually served at my schools with brown sugar, which is kind of weird because it’s already sweet. I like this soup but always end up taking more than I can eat because I forget how profoundly freakin heavy it is. Liquid Bean + Rice Dough = a Fullness You Immediately Regret.

Spaghetti: There’s nothing really notable about the spaghetti (tastes like a sloppy joe, actually), but I wanted to point out how it is ALWAYS served along with rice. Which is just too bizarre for my Westernself to handle. TWO STARCHES?! What are you trying to do me Korea? But Koreans load up on the noodles and the rice and don’t bat an eye. How these people are toothpick-sized will remain a mystery.

So at the risk of sounding really bloggerish, I’m super curious about what other people think of their school lunches. Y’all should post lots of comments and tell me what you love and what you hate. I just have a really big food boner and need to discuss it.


14 responses to “The Best Part of My Day

  1. Are you guys sick of me commenting slavishly on every post yet? Yes? A shame that you then asked for people to discuss their school lunches, because hells yeah.

    Firstly: it is really impressive you remember what most of the things on your tray are (and that you snap regular pictures). When my co-teachers ask me my favourite Korean foods, I literally don’t even remember, because I stopped bothering to ask what things were unless something was particularly gross or weird tastin’ so I could avoid it forever.

    School lunches are wicked. Salads, rices, curries, soups, basted and fried and sauteed and sauced and boiled and braised and other cooking methods meats all the time. One day, our school had “open lunch” where parents could come in and inspect the menu. This was during the kimchi shortage, and they refilled the kimchi tray to near overflow, and served with two different salads, pear and apple slices, smoked duck, a curry, and bone-end soup.

    Favourites: kalbi tang with vermicelli noodles, kimchi jiggae, those kimchi pancake things. Oh, one time, my school served these flat, sweet pancakes which looked really good, served next to a deep, unfathomable canteen of dark, strawberry-grape sugar syrup. I saw the lady teachers taking mounds of it, and I didn’t know what to do. My school, nay, Korea, doesn’t serve dessert often, and I was torn. I ended up piling high on a whim, trusting it would be delicious, and went to my table. I had to eat a few off the top because it looked ridiculous, and also like I was a foreign glutton. But man, that was tasty.

    Grossest foods: boney fish stew. No food should take this much work to ingest, and I hate using chopsticks like sewing needles. Also, one time our soup was kimchi and tomato flavoured, and it was the worst taste my tongue had ever met.

    Weird: the first time we had tentacle soup, I thought they were playing a joke on me. “You guys know that giant floaty purple tendrils with suckers are just swimming in this tank of broth, right? You guys know that there are huge fucking tentacles curling out of your tray, right? Guys? You guys?” Also, we have had chicken wings and legs, and every time, we have to eat them using chopsticks (preferred local method: bring chicken bone to face, put entire fucking thing in your mouth, fellate until meat rends from bone).

  2. I am guilty of being a school-lunch hater! The other K-teachers apparently grumble about the lunch too, according to my co-teacher. We’re never lucky enough to get anything so delicious sounding as bacon-y duck. That dirty tree soup and mysterious cold fried meats w/ thousand island dressing are repeat offenders though. At least I can always eat the rice and kimchi, but then the teachers sitting next to me will ask why I didn’t pick up such-and-such grotesque item and put it on my tray. I do agree it is better than the American school lunches I can remember, but not by much!

  3. “Koreans eat more purple food than I knew existed.” Fact.

    I, too, love my school lunches. They don’t sound quite as good as yours, but geez I wish we were having them this week! This whole feeding myself thing is getting old.

  4. Aaaah! I love my lunches!!! 🙂 But I totally get where those who don’t come from. It seems like the lunches differ quite a bit.

    I love bulgogi, bibimbap, Ottogi Curry (I loooooove that stuff!!). I am in love with my kimchi and rice, however I can’t stand anything red beany… I also hate the whole fish and chopsticks thing – for some reason this particular fish has like 3 sets of bones – how?!?!?! I like most soups except for the seaweed soup…

    Yesterday I was super super hungry and we got… the fish, the red bean rice and the seaweed soup.. 😦

    I remember the last day last semester we ate something that was like eating undercooked rice mixed in white glue. Uhhhhhh!!!

    Also the best lunches are the ones with cucumber kimchi 🙂

  5. I also get excited about school lunchtime 🙂 It’s nice not knowing what you’re gonna get… well more like how they’ll come up with yet another fish-based dish. Best of all, I get to try new Korean dishes I otherwise wouldn’t encounter and I don’t have to cook it myself. My favourites are curry, bibimbap, jjajang rice, anything with potatoes, and that seaweed/msg sidedish. The only one dish I absolutely couldn’t enjoy was probably this one with tentacles, some unidentified organ, and little pieces of intensine, in a super spicy soup.

  6. I’ve got mixed feelings about lunches, my boyfriend hates them. We’re super duper close to the coast so everything’s kinda fish heavy. Your lunches look amazing! To my knowledge we haven’t ever been served a salad, almost everything is overcooked and gross. And we’ve never had apple or duck.

    Bibimbap day is my favourite (so far we’ve had 4 in 6 months) and I like kimchi jjigae, soft noodles with veggie broth, mung bean kimchi, the rare moments when my school serves mandarins or hotteok and once we got cake. Cake!

    I hate the whole fish with tiny bones, the sundae (gag!) and the worst thing I’ve had was some kind of sugary chicken.

    Otherwise I survive on rice and soup and kimchi. Since the school holidays have started I’ve been eating more Korean food out and at home and I’ve enjoyed it, I’m hoping this increases my enjoyment of food this semester.

  7. I hate bony fish! But usually lunches are awesome.

    On christmas eve we had Kimchi, Kimchijigae, kimchi radish and .. wait for it: Kimchi wrapped, oven-baked bony fish..

    This was the day when I was the most homesick I think.

  8. Wednesdays are the best lunch days, at least in middle school since they always seem to have the “special food” that the kids like and, obviously, me.

    My favourite: 카레라이스! My students know I like curry rice so they’ll remind me in class on Wednesday morning that it’s for lunch. Usually it will be accompanied by kimchi plus fried mandu or salad or fruit or something, and a yoghurt drink.

    Best Lunch Ever: Samgyetang. Well, maybe it’s not really samgyetang since it’s only half a chicken, but it’s one of my favourite soups and I’ve only ever had it twice as a school lunch since being in Korea and those were two happy days.

    I also really love when they have salads (with the dressing being *optional*), cucumber kimchi, gosari, fruits of all kinds, anything chicken, sour kimchi (the best kind), anything curried, tuna bibimbap, 하이라이스, and non-seafood soups. If I’m not fast enough when we have seafood soup they’ll try and put two huge whole shrimp in my bowl, which I will then have to sneak on to the lunch trays of nearby teachers or students when they’re not looking.

    Lunch items that make me sad: When everything has gochujang or is spicy, except for the rice and the cold purple tentacles (with spicy sauce on the side).
    Sweet garlic bread.
    Hotdogs on sticks covered with sweet doughnut batter and slathered in ketchup.
    Those little dried fishes (sorry)
    And lastly, sandwiches. All the teachers assume I will love them because they are “western” but I’m not sure I would classify any of the particular combinations of ingredients I’ve seen as anything commonly considered palatable.

  9. I don’t think anything stays inside long when you eat copious amounts of fermented cabbage.

  10. Lunch: crabby soup, green rice, chicken on the bone, kimchi, octopus/mushroom tasty-ass salad.

    today was a day of things Erin has trouble eating. No amount of practice is making me any better at eating meat off a bone or extracting crab meat by just shoving half a crab in my mouth and sucking.

    also, my lunch ladies are back to serving me 3 times the amount of food they serve everyone else. the teachers openly guffawed at my lunch tray today, and i don’t think anyone’s getting the point that i don’t ASK for it, it just happens.

  11. Thanks to everyone who responded! I seriously love reading about food. Hahaha. I’m glad that most people enjoy their lunches as much as I do. It’s something I wasn’t expecting before I came here, the whole eating Korean food every day, but it’s awesome.
    I think it’s funny that their is a universal hate for bony fish. File that under culture gap that will never close.

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