Let’s Talk Lunch

Two months have whirled by in Korea and I am finally on the up and up. My six-week-long cold ended up being a chest infection and I spent a lot of time resting and recuperating. I’m happy to report I’ve since spent more time socializing and getting to venture around my area now that I’m feeling well. I’d like to think a big part of the healing process came through both modern medicine (thanks to my English speaking doctor and pharmacist across the street!) and the scratch made meals every day at school.

Clockwise: spicy chicken with vegetables, orange slices, kimchi, potatoes with peppers and ham, cabbage soybean soup and white rice with purple forbidden rice

School lunches are always a hot topic, but especially with last year’s video of Japanese lunch culture surging again in popularity. I know there were mixed reactions from people, particularly in regards to the kids cooking, preparing, serving and cleaning up the meals. However, there are many similarities here in Korea when it comes to school lunches. For example, at both of my schools (and nearly all in Korea) all students and staff eat lunch together at the same time in the cafeteria. Everyone eats lunch from the cafeteria, as it’s the norm and seen as a good way to bond with other classmates and coworkers while eating. It’s also a great way to partake in a hearty, healthy meal that doesn’t break the bank for about $4.00 a lunch.

Clockwise: Korean pear, spicy sesame tofu, kimchi radish greens, yukgaejang (spicy beef and vegetable soup) and rice with millet

School lunches in Korea are what every parent hopes their child will be served: a variety of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and protein. They’re as balanced as possible and use a plethora of produce and ingredients sourced from within Korea. My school even has a little garden where some of the vegetables for lunch are grown! I’ve developed a love for the steel lunch trays that perfectly divide each dish and keep it from spilling over into the next compartment. It’s also the best way to taste a bit of this and that without getting overwhelmed with one item. This is especially beneficial on days when I’m fond of one banchan (side dish) over another and I haven’t committed to just one of them as a side dish, which would be more typical in a Western meal.

On average, 3-4 lunches every week have been pescatarian, highlighting all kinds of seafood, soybean sprouts or tofu. I say pescatarian because even though there may not be visible fish or shellfish in the dish, dried seafood and fermented seafood sauces are used to enhance the flavor and aroma of many dishes. Kimchi is also to be expected, whether it be the more common napa cabbage version to diced radish or even radish greens.

Clockwise: chili onions and carrots, grape frozen yogurt, smoked duck, tofu cabbage soup and white rice with purple forbidden rice

I’m allergic to tree nuts, but there’s maybe one or two days out of the whole month where there will be a dish with nuts in it. My main co-teacher, Koo, not only prints the lunch menus out for me each month, but she highlights the dishes that contain nuts. My Hangul is a work in progress, so it’s life saving that she translates the information for me! There are eighteen dietary restrictions designated on the menu, so you know there is great care that goes into making sure everyone stays safe from whichever item(s) may be a problem.

I can’t complain about the mostly favorable and hot meals I get Monday through Friday, along with the feeling of comradery with my co-teachers and students. They’re also a far cry from the lukewarm meat casserole and mushy vegetable blends I had for school lunch as a kid. Not saying this can’t hit the spot from time to time, but the lunches here are colorful and vibrant. You can also tell the cafeteria kitchen team puts pride and care into the dishes they cook and serve up with a smile and Mashikehmogoseyo, which means “Please enjoy your meal.” I look forward to every school lunch when I can taste and experience a new Korean dish!

What are some school lunches that stick out in your mind? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below! Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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