Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Gutsfull of Lunch - Day One

At public schools in Korea all the students and staff are provided with lunch. I think the students get it for free, but we get charged about two bucks a day, which is deducted from our paychecks each month. Unfortunately this means choosing between having school food everyday and having it never. There are days when the never option looks mighty tempting, but at the end of the day I'm just too lazy to bring lunch. This week I'm going to write about my lunch every day, so you can get an idea of what we eat. Because that might be interesting. Or something.

Lunch always includes rice and some kind of soup. The rice will sometimes have some grains mixed in, but often it's just plain white rice. It's tasty enough, but it's not exactly super-healthy to have a big plate of empty carbs in the middle of a full day of sitting around on the internet working really hard. There are a few varieties of soup, but it's usually a salty seaweedy broth, salty seafood broth, or salty chicken stock containing some mixture of seafood, tofu, and radish. There's generally some unidentified chunks in there too, which are about as delicious as they sound.

Sometimes the soup is replaced by a stew, which is always revolting. And always salty. That's not hyperbole either, it has literally never been good. It's usually meat or fish in a gross red sauce with assorted shapes of chewy rice cake. Blergh. Rounding out the meal is some kind of pickled vege, or if we are very lucky some raw cucumber in red pepper paste with sesame seeds. There's also some sort of protein, quite often fish since we live near the coast. It can be really good, but more often than not it isn't.

Last but most certainly not least is our mandatory serving of Korea's national food, kimchi. Standard kimchi is cabbage leaves preserved (read: allowed to slowly rot) in red pepper paste. It's good when it's fresh, but most Koreans prefer the aged stuff, which is what we have at school every day. We also have other kinds of kimchi (made from radish or other vegetables) as our vegetable item some days, but the cabbage one is always there. The one time we didn't have cabbage kimchi as one of the main side dishes there was a secret stash of it for anyone who needed a fix between their breakfast (yes, breakfast) and dinner servings.

As you might've guessed, I tend to avoid the soup/stew and the protein, but this week, dear readers,  I'll be eating all of it so you don't have to. Because that's how much you guys mean to me.

Here's today's menu at my main school, a middle school with about four hundred students.

Sorry about the low quality photo, I took it with my (shitty Korean) phone camera.
As you can see, today's lunch was white rice, something that looks like a salad, kimchi, blurry mystery protein, and soup with unidentified chunks. The rice had some grains mixed in - maybe barley? - I don't know my grains. It was tasty; I think the rice is better here than back home. I try to keep my portion sensible, since it's only lunch. Most of the teachers and lots of the middle school students will fill that rectangular compartment that it's in. It might be hard to get an idea of scale, but if you pile that thing up (and plenty of them do) it holds about as much rice as I would cook for dinner for my whole family.

Here's a close up of today's soup. 

If that looks to you like an unappetising broth with some mysterious chunks of something hideous in it, then congratulations. You know as much about this soup as I do, and I've eaten it on several occasions. The only thing you don't know is what it tastes like. I've struggled with how best to explain its unique flavour, and come to the conclusion that it tastes like farts. I can't really say any more, except that the things floating in it are chewy, and they also taste like farts.

On the top right is today's mystery protein. It's actually small sausages in something resembling sweet and sour sauce. It's not awful, but I won't be finishing my small portion. The tiny sausages are a recurring theme in bad Korean food; they seem fine at first, but they have a weird aftertaste that I for one can't stand.

Next we have kimchi. My school seems to have found a barrel of extra mature, extra spicy stuff that's been sitting in someone's basement for a few years. It's incredibly sour tasting, to the point that it's sometimes a bit fizzy with fermentation. This is not wonderful news since it's often the only vegetable on offer, so I feel obliged to eat decent amount. 

At the top left is a mixture of lettuce and cucumber covered in red pepper paste and sesame seeds. I think it's illegal to serve veges in Korea without cooking them to death or smothering them in way too much flavouring. This stuff is normally okay, which by Korean school food standards makes it the greatest thing ever, but today's version has some kind of strange brown jelly mixed in. It doesn't really have a taste, but the texture is not appealing.

I hope you don't get the impression reading this that I hate Korean food, I actually like most of it. But I hate school food. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Spoiler alert, since it's now Tuesday night:: it was!

Presented without comment, here's today's Bonus Korean Insanity, from a poster in one of my elementary schools:

Stay tuned for day two.

1 comment:

  1. The students do get lunch for free now, or they will soon! That's why lots of our jobs are being cut, apparently...

    p.s. These hips DO lie.