Monday, December 17, 2012

Let's Talk Lunch

1. There will always be rice.
2. It will always go on the left side.
3. There will always be soup.
4. It will always go on the right.
5. There will always be kimchi.
6. There will be fish or beef.
7. Sometimes there is a fruity treat.
8. No one brings lunch.
9.  Items are eaten quickly, with purpose, and at the same time.

Here in Korea, people go to town on all areas of the tray like a DJ spins multiple records at once. Sometimes chopsticks are in one hand and the spoon is in the other. Soup. Rice. Back to soup. Kimchi. Over to the meat. Soup. Rice again. Soup. Kimchi. Rice. Like this. It's dizzying and for a eat-one-thing-at-a-time eater, I've had to adjust. (p.s.- I live that spicy bean sprouty soup pictured above. But the leaves in the middle are fuzzy and taste like black licorice. No like.)

This is the cafeteria at my main (Mon-Wed) school. My initial thoughts about the cafeteria environment as compared to the one at my school in the US:

1. Eating lunch is no joke. You get in, get it done, and leave. Bam. 
2. The whole process from loading the tray to cleaning the tray and leaving is a well-oiled machine.
3. There is little to no wandering about the cafeteria. That would defeat the purpose.
4. Teachers eat together at one table. I usually say the same 4 Korean phrases that I know, including "Hello," "I will eat well," "I have eaten well," and "Goodbye." Other than that, I focus hardcore on eating with purpose, like my co-workers do. 

The order is the same in all three schools where I teach. Rice first, then kimchi, then the other stuff.  I usually just do what the person in front of me does. Seconds are allowed at the end.


1. Rice. 
I'm down with that. Always.
2. Soup. 
It had eggs and onions in it. Yummy. Maybe a beef broth.
3. A big ol' chunk of fish. 
I've gotten pretty good and using the chopsticks to navigate around the tiny bones. Once freaked out by fish skin and fishy chunks of this sort, I eat it with glee now. 
4. Vegetable medley.
The only thing I haven't cared for is this vegetable medley. It's a cold stringy mushroom combo that's kind of spongy. I can down it in 5 or 6 painful chomps. Otherwise, I kind of hide it in my soup before dumping the soup out. 
5. Kimchi
I eat the heck out of my kimchi. Flop a piece down on that rice pile and stick a little rice in it before using your chopsticks to make a little kimchi-rice ball. That's what I'm talkin' about.

1. Rice.
2. Tofu soup. Onion and potato chunks up in that mug. It's good.
3. Fish chunk!
4. Ddeokbokki- YES! Ok. It's like super upscale and spicy chef-boyardee. Those are big, fat, chewy rice noodles in a spicy sauce, and hot-diggity, they are GOOD!
5. Kimchi sharing a spot with some lettuce/salad action. 

 Close-up of fish chunks. Just get in there with your chopsticks and make it happen.

1. Oooh-wee! Purple rice! I'm down with that. Beans are in there.
2. Sitting atop my rice is some kind of dough thing with beans and cheese. A little mini Korean burrito, if you will. 
3. Soup with some fish chunks and some other sea-creature things in there. Clams, maybe? I don't know. They were chewy and sea-ish. 
4. Spicy beef.
5. Cucumbers and onion-ish goodies. Cold and crisp.
6. Kimchi! 

1. Japchae. YES! Japchae is a noodle dish which is tasty like nobody's business. Even school cafeteria japchae is yummy. A little bit of rice is under this japchae and a hunk of seaweed is on top. (Seaweed, by the way, is another thing I refused to eat pre-Korea. Now I chomp it down. Go figure.)
2. Soup with egg in it- like egg drop soup. 
3. Kiwis- which I've had a few times here. These were a little brown. They aren't strange Korean kiwis. They're just cafeteria brown, I think.
4. kimchi!
5. I was down with the meat parts I could find, but the grey corrugated looking things were terrifying. Fish-ish flavored jello bits. Picture the jello of the 1970s that your grandma used to hide asparagus in and take it down a notch.

1. Rice.
2. SURPRISE! Blueberry drink. 
3. Tofu soup with some bean sprouts up in there. I like that action.
4. Beef parts and potato parts- like a yummy, spicy stew.
5. Cold seaweed. I think it's supposed to be hot. It would be good hot, but is a bit on the creepy side at room temperature. I eat it anyway.
6. kimchi!
Here's my favorite part: the after-eating line up. All three of my schools are the same:

1. Scrape food into bin.
2. Stack tray.
3. Put chopsticks in one bin.
4. Put spoon in the other.
5. Get little metal cup.
6. Put a tiny bit of tea in it from a large container.
7. Stand and drink/swish the tea.
8. Stack the cup.
9. Grab some tissues from a wall dispenser and blow your nose.
10. Check yourself in the mirror.

 Step one: Scraping.
Steps 2-4: Tray stacking, spoon and chopstick 
 Steps 5-7: Get metal cup and sip of tea.

 Step 8: Stack the cup.
 Step 9: Get tissues and blow nose.

I find the lunches at all 3 schools to be pretty much the same. My Thursday and Friday schools are so small that they don't actually prepare the food on-site. Someone drives to a neighboring town and picks food up from a larger school, brings it back, and sets it up.

I've always been a pretty adventurous eater, and provided I'm not given anything here with blue cheese or olives in it, I'll give it a try. This is how I found out that I really like lotus root, pictured above in the upper left (and below).  

Yummy crunchy with the taste of pancake syrup, due to whatever sauce goes on there. 
They're warm, cooked, and delicious.

Here's another favorite. Sometimes fresh lettuce is placed on the table in bowls in order to make little lettuce wraps. Stick a little meat in there, some rice, and the special sauce that's provided, and YES, M'AAM. That is delicious.

I'm also a fan of the tofu (in the middle) with some yummy sauce on it. There's something really refreshing about (a) the healthy aspect of the lunches here and (b) the idea of choice taken away, which sounds silly, I know. Even though my family has suggested I may not want to keep saying this out loud to people, I think I would really enjoy institutionalized living. Nursing home in the future, perhaps. 

My Thursday and Friday schools are so small that during lunch I really get a sense of community. Everyone fits at a few tables and gone, in this setting, are the usual visible seating arrangements of cliques so common among this age.

Overall, I'm into the whole lunch thing here in Korea. On a day off, somewhere around lunchtime, you can find me aimlessly wandering around my house, shuffling back and forth to the fridge, opening it, eyeballing the contents, and closing the door again. I do this over and over. I've come to need the stability and consistency of my metal tray and its contents. 

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