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Korean School Lunches

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Food and nutrition are my burgeoning hobby interests, and recently I compiled some thoughts and articles into this:

There’s something to be said for eating fermented cabbage with spicy pepper paste and vinegar. At least, that’s what they say in Korea. Sound appealing? Judging from the amount of elementary school kids who show up to class with red flecks of leftover lunch in their teeth, it must be tasty, too. Can you imagine an 8-year-old American kid listing kimchi, spaghetti, and rice as his favorite food choices?

Eric was excited to each a generous serving of sticky white rice, one chicken nugget, odeng, and a small serving of green kimchi with seaweed as well as noodles with meat sauce.

A northern Illinois native, I’ve been teaching at a private English academy in Seoul, South Korea for over a year. Although elementary/middle school children don’t attend until after their morning of public school, the preschool and kindergarten students attend full time and receive lunch at the academy. For almost my entire first year, I ate alongside the other teachers and students and learned much about typical Korean cuisine and nutrition. Since discovering Mrs. Q.’s blog last Fall, it’s been fascinating to compare food and educational experiences across cultures.

My academy has hired lunch through two different caterers and it always consists of rice and at least one type of kimchi or stewed radish, among various side dishes. Kimchi is the traditional dish of Korea, and can take on a variety of appearances and flavors. The main ingredients are cabbage, which is fermented in large pots, and spicy pepper seasoning.

Homemade kimchi, gifted to me by a student. I didn’t eat all of it, but I did enjoy servings on occasion until my ultra-cold refrigerator frosted it over!

Additional lunchtime side dishes at my academy include ddeok (squishy gluttenous rice-flour cakes covered in varying sauces), fish or meat (always a small amount, seemingly only used to flavor the sticky white rice), egg-squid mini pancakes, seaweed or another thin soup (usually fish or seaweed), spicy squid, anchovies, fruit or cherry tomatoes, and perhaps shot-sized yogurt drinks for dessert. I find it incredibly strange that they eat ddeok with rice, since it’s essentially the same. Soy-marinated hardboiled quail eggs, dried seaweed, brown roots, and mushroom concoctions are some of my personal favorites. Potatoes and bread aren’t often eaten as part of main courses. Potatoes are sometimes eaten roasted or boiled and whole as an on-the-go snack. Bead is most often served with coffee, or sometimes my kids eat small sweet buns for breakfast.

Teacher Jenny dishes up lunch for the preschoolers. This is the same meal Eric is eating in the first picture.

Picnic field trips with preschoolers are fantastic. Instead of PB&Js, they eat kimbap—a popular “fast food” which is almost like sushi roll—except you don’t always get sushi. You choose from a variety of fillings (breaded pork, kimchi, vegetables, tuna, ham and egg…) Most Korean mothers prepare this for their kids, or a roll costs between $1-$3 in a local shop. On field trip days, I roam back and forth among miniature lunchboxes, begging handouts. And the side dishes these children pack—they’re amazing: imitation crab, roasted shelled walnuts, fresh pineapple, and peaches and watermelon are all accompanied by adorable trainer chopsticks, a bottle of juice, and perhaps some cookies or a small bag of puffed snackage.

Eddie, chopsticks in hands, gets ready to chow down on some kimbap and spam patties on field trip day.

At the public elementary school, many students have a full 40-minute class period for lunch, sometimes even an hour. Each day they eat rice and kimchi and drink water or white milk. There is often but not always a meat or fish, another vegetable side dish (though it’s rare to eat fresh vegetables here), and sometimes fruit. Occasionally, depending on the school, they get chocolate milk. Today, my third grader told me he ate noodles with black bean sauce, a popular Chinese dish. My middle schoolers say their lunch now is better than before, and for late afternoon study halls they’re served small dinners of noodles and other food. Wednesdays are traditionally “special” lunch days, with rice replaced by another main course.

A recent article and blog about rising child obesity in Korea, cited late-night academies, over-packed schedules, and the prevalence of convenience stores (sodium-heavy ramen, cookies, etc) and greasy street food as culprits. I agree entirely, and point out that in the long run these sacrificial schedules I the name of educational emphasis will backfire if the unhealthy irregular diets start affecting energy and development.

Street food is delicious and convenient, but less than healthy.

However, what Korean junk food does typically have on its side is portion size, which is typically half the size of the same “serving” equivalence of a Western snack. For example, pop into the corner “Family Mart” for a can of Coke and you get a slim 250 mL containing 110 calories, instead of the chunky standard 330mL (12oz can) with 155 calories. Bottle sizes are smaller, too.

Even some of their junk-food beverages make an attempt to include nutrition value! From aloe juice to “Milkis,” a carbonated milk kids’ favorite, smaller bottles mean even sweet beverages are toned down. “Pocari Sweat,” a popular drink despite its gag-worthy name, is full of antioxidants and ions that make this vitamin water a healthier alternative. Indeed, it’s one of the most prevalent student-consumed drinks I’ve seen. Now if only they could pair the sweet drinks with fluoride in the tap water. For all the health I’m claiming I still see way too many kids here with mouths of metal, and in Korea that doesn’t mean braces—it means silver fillings!

Pocari Sweat photo by my good friend, Paula Morgan.

As South Korea moves from a devastated rural concentration to a tech-savvy, academics-oriented society, it now increasingly faces the same health and nutrition problems as the United States and other countries. So far, it’s still managing to fit its skinny jeans. But as late-night academy hours continue and “American” fastfood lunches become more the norm than the specialty at elementary schools, (and now this kimchi shortage!) will those jeans continue to fit?

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Editor : rebawray

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