I had oysters for the first time in the school cafeteria. Anyone else creeped out by that sentence? Seriously, imagine a grade school hot lunch line--limp fish stix, soggy french fries, butterscotch pudding from a can, all served by bulky women in green hairnets and damp plastic gloves.
Now add oysters.
There are two problems with the above setup. One, I'm asking you to imagine an American lunch line. Actually, that's a stereotype of an American lunch line. Supposedly, since new regulations went into effect last September, US schools are now required to serve actual food.* Two, the oysters are in soup, which is served somewhere past boiling, to better make the foreign teacher leap off her stool and shriek.
Yeah, it doesn't really make things better, does it?
Actually, my larger point (beyond the creepiness of certain bivalves) is that South Korean school lunches are astonishing. Generally, they are astonishingly good.
In Korea, it's not a meal if you haven't had rice, soup, and kimchi. This means that box of fried chicken in garlic sauce you had last night was technically a snack. It also means that every school lunch is built around a hearty portion of these staple components.
We are not talking cans of Campbells here. It's generally homemade, and contains massive amounts of vegetables or seaweed, and either tofu or some creature that once belonged to the sea. Sure, it's disconcerting the first time you pull a tentacle from your soup. But how often is American lunch meat even identifiable?
Each lunch has at least two side dishes. One usually contains some form of protien combined with vegetables. Sometimes it's quail eggs or walnuts and mushrooms in sauce. Sometimes clumps of tiny candied fish.
The second side is always vegetables. Often I don't know what vegetables they are. Sometimes, I just didn't know they were edible (burdock and acorns fall in that category).
Lunch always includes dessert. In a Korean context, this means fruit, cherry tomatos, or drinkable yoghurt. We had chocolate cake once, but I'm still confused as to why. It was pretty weird.
Sometimes the food looks a little intimidating. The most important thing I've learned is that unfamiliar is not the same as scary.** It's a trite sentiment right up until you're putting someone else's culture in your mouth.
The only truly gross-out lunch I had was fish entrail soup. I use 'had' loosely here. It was served to me. I poked at it with a spoon. It was actually a huge relief when my co-teacher identified it as entrails. I'd thought it was brains.
*And some of them are doing a great job of it too, as chef Jamie Oliver points out.
**Yes, Mom, you told me so.