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.