Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Exploring the Food

So much has happened in the last couple of weeks in Japan since I first posted. Today, I want to mostly focus on one of my favorite things: food and my experiences eating it. I love how food helps define our culture. It says a lot about us. 

I came here without a substantial understanding of the Japanese diet. Prior to arriving, whenever I thought of Japanese food I thought of Sushi and rice but I didn't have much understanding of what they ate other than those two things. Well, I'm here to tell you, Sushi and rice is all you need to know. Nah, of course there is a lot more.

In the morning I've been eating a lot of toast and some Japanese brand of Frosted Flakes, along with coffee. I'm looking to start eating more rice in the morning like the Japanese because it's cheaper and I think it will keep me satisfied until lunch.

Lunch is with the kids at a different class every day. It is something else and I love it! The kids often "janken" (rock, paper, scissors) to see whose assigned table I sit at. I'm convinced the most important diplomatic decisions in the country of Japan are determined by Janken. The kids all put white aprons and white masks on as they gather the food that has been prepared by the school cooks. When I walk in I am assigned a table to eat with three or four kids. Two or three of the kids stand up at the front and say a few phrases, which the other children then repeat and then they take off their masks and begin eating. Everyone eats the same healthy things and everything is done in harmony at lunch. If you were here in Japan for 45 minutes and wanted to get the best possible glimpse of the Japanese educational system I would bring you to lunch.

The food itself is usually delicious and always nutritious. American schools should take note. There is always milk and it's very rich, they don't pasteurize their milk here. There is usually a small cold salad, often times with a small piece of fish. A lot of the time there is a separate plate with white rice and also a main dish, such as a pasta or noodles or ramen (way better than the super cheap ramen we think of in America), rice with with a little bit of seaweed and chicken in it. If you're lucky there might be a dessert of some kind but that's pretty rare, if there is a dessert, often times it is mixed fruit. One day there was sweet bread with chocolate sauce. After lunch the kids all brush their teeth together. 

Prior to coming, I had thought I would be starving all day at school because I had heard the lunches are small. Thankfully, the teachers usually serve me up a bigger portion and if they don't, second helpings are usually available. I think I have lost a Kilo since arriving (a couple pounds).

I always get a kick out of eating the food a little unconventionally and the kids always notice and giggle amongst their peers. For example, when getting seconds it's fun to place the second helping of rice in the salad dish. The kids are all staring as soon as I get up for seconds at the front, so it's quite dramatic when they see me put my rice on my salad dish. This is usually followed by shouts of, "Dabito Senseeeiii" and laughter. It is equally fun to drop a chopstick and then keep eating with it. At the end of a meal, if the kid (usually a little girl) has left a good amount of food it's fun to steal a little bit while she's not looking and make sure the other kid or two on the inside of the con job, understands to smile and keep quiet. Sometimes I feel bad that these kids couldn't just get a normal American who did things by the book. Unfortunately they got me! But I think creating opportunities for laughter and letting the kids see my goofy, loving, unconventional side at the lunch table helps build relationships and connections.

Lunch Today, what I've come to expect and love!

The city of Mito is known for a very unique Asian bean called Nato. It is a very sticky bean. Even the locals would agree it has a stench. Nato smells like dirty socks (probably not as bad as my dirty socks but still...). It has been the one food served up at lunch that was difficult to eat. Anyone that rushed club with me knows I can eat most anything but Nato was too much to bear. It goes in your mouth slimy and smelly and it seemed to stay in my stomach the same way. The kids all wanted to know what I thought of Nato, and I decided to take the honest route and tell them their parents were horrible people for introducing them to Nato. Not really, but I did make fun of them for loving something so strange, and almost all of them love it. The kids enjoyed this experience a little too much I think. 
Nato and it's slimy, smelly sock trail

At the schools there is coffee and green tea. They love their green tea! The coffee is generally pretty strong.  I've become a fan of green tea, Japanese people definitely don't drink a lot of water because I think they take in so much green tea. Personally, I have to remind myself to drink more water. I asked my principal why he thought Japanese were so thin and he responded by saying he thought it was because of all the green tea they drink. Drink for thought right there...

For dinner I've been eating a lot of fish (mostly Salmon and some shrimp so far, I would venture out more at the grocery store if I knew what I was venturing into at this point), more toast, yogurt (which is really good here), rice and pasta at home. I have started to make rice in bulk and then store it in the refrigerator for quicker meal prep times. If I go out with friends to eat, there are plenty of options, such as Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Korean, and mediocre Italian and American recreations. Restaurants probably deserve a post by themselves. Japanese like Tofu, eggs on everything and they like to surprise you with sweet beans in their breads (similar to how Mom secretly inserts nuts into her recipes). I'm still not sure why Japan or Mom does this :) At least some Japanese like the surprise of beans...haha I digress, I love you mom!! and your cooking almost as much :)

In Oklahoma City there is, like, one true Japanese sushi restaurant but here it's all amazing and fresh, who would have guessed :) To answer one of Samantha's specific questions about the sushi, we don't get to eat it everyday. I wish I could honestly. It's relatively cheap (I've seen it for as low as 105 yen, or about $1.25 for a plate of two rolls). The sushi is on a conveyer belt that slowly runs by your booth and if you want to order something specific you can order it on a touchscreen monitor at each booth. I could probably eat about 20 plates at these restaurants but 7 or 8 plates is where my stomach and wallet mutually come to an agreement to stop. I love the salmon, the seaweed rolls, shrimp, most any fish and anything else that isn't excessively slimy or discretely topped with nato.

**Samantha, as for the chopsticks, I've gotten pretty used to them. Dad would say I never adequately learned how to use a fork, but the food in both cases usually finds it's target. The kids and teachers were impressed that I could use chopsticks at all, but I haven't mastered the concept yet I don't think. At home I still just have a fork so that might tell you something. 

The pizza is not very good here. It's super thin, almost like a tortilla with small amounts of cheese and even smaller amounts of mediocre sauce and then they put some strange things on it such as egg. When I asked my kids if they liked pizza, they all enthusiastically raised their hands but they're unfortunately eating the fake stuff. Poor kids. The best pizza I've had here so far has been the pizza I have made.

One thing that has surprised me, maybe more than anything here, is how good the breads are. They have bakery quality breads readily available all over the place. 

Also, McDonalds and Starbucks are scattered all over the place and they both bring a sense of home and comfort. 

The service is amazing in Japan. Customer service is expected to be excellent so when you walk up to a McDonalds the cashiers are all so nice with wide smiles and they speak in the most polite voices. Internally I think they must be thinking, "wow, another dumb American who can't even order a vanilla ice cream cone in Japanese". There is no tipping at restaurants in Japan (again the excellent service is expected) so you can eat a really good meal for the equivalent of about 10 or 11 dollars. 

Well even though I am just scratching the surface on food, I am going to stop here. If you have any specific questions on food or want to know if I have tried this or that I'd be happy to let you know. This blog is all for you. I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to answering any questions! 

One last side note though on a totally different subject, when perusing the hallways at school, even with guns against the law here, the kids are always getting out their shotguns, and uzi's and flamethrowers and machine guns and grenades, and rocket launchers (I think), pretty much any weapon known to Sylvester Stallones hands and dismantling me. If anyone has some new ways to go down let me know! 

Thanks for reading and being a part of my adventure! I will get some pictures up soon.