Friday, March 19, 2010

A Beautiful Lunch in Japan

By Daniel Ferguson

Hi everyone, my name is Daniel, or Daniel sensei as I'm called at school. Every day, I eat lunch with my little students at 3 nursery schools near Hiroshima, Japan, where I teach English.

Earlier this month, we had a special lunch in celebration of hina matsuri, a holiday where an ancient story of a Japanese prince and princess is remembered through displaying ornamental dolls and preparing traditional food.

Our menu (from the left): white fish, aemono (cold vegetable dish) with carrots, cabbage, broccoli and sesame seeds, and strawberries, sushi rice with carrots, broccoli, and shitake mushrooms, wrapped in egg or seaweed, representing the princess and prince, soup made from konbu dashi (broth from seaweed) green onions, enoki mushrooms and colored rice dumplings.

I spoke with one of the cook teachers, as they are respectfully called in Japan, who came back from maternity leave to help with the cooking. She explained how the aesthetic for Japanese holiday foods is "komakai" meaning detailed and carefully made. It's designed to be colorful, use several kinds of foods, and is all prepared by hand. For me, however, this meal was only to a greater degree more detailed than lunches usually are at school, which are always handmade and served by the children to other children, with real plates on tablecloths.

At lunch, we waited until all children, about 60 total, had been served soup, fish, and sushi before saying "itadakimasu", a kind of secular grace said before eating in Japan, meaning thanks to those who prepared the food. The cook teachers also joined us and everyone thanked them for the meal they had been preparing all morning. Then they walked around the room responding to children saying "oishii" meaning delicious. And as they always do, the children ate everything, stacked their dishes, and put their chopsticks and cup away to be used again tomorrow.

As I watched children enjoy lunch, I thought about all the love being shared in the room that day, with nothing to compare it to in my experiences of school lunch in America. The most love I think I showed children at my previous school during lunch time was opening their packets of ketchup or dressing they got everyday to cover their meat or quarter cup serving of salad. I opened them because they weren't made for 5-year old hands to open. In fact, little of those lunches were made with children in mind, I thought. Everyday, children threw away their tray, carton, napkin, fork, and their unwanted food into trashcans as tall as them. Everyday a lost opportunity to nourish, educate, and show our love to children.

So when I started working in Japan, I immediately noticed the difference in how children and the food they are given is valued, in and out of the lunchroom. At the nursery schools, I have picked sweet potatoes and strawberries with children. I've seen several cooking lessons, including soups, curries, traditional foods, hot cakes and cookies. A few days after hinamatsuri, parents were invited to the school to make sushi rice with their children, just like what they ate for lunch.

Throughout the year, teachers turn recipes into big books that are read as part of their literacy instruction. Cause and effects of mixing batter and milk are discussed like science experiments. Every year, the 5-year olds of one school plant rice in a nearby field, cut it in the fall, then that rice is cooked in the winter and used to make mochi during an annual festival. All the while they are writing and reading about the experience as part of the curriculum. These nursery schools are not representative of all Japanese schools, but for me, it is reassuring just to know that this way of taking care and educating children does exist. I hope it is for you too.

This essay originally appeared on the Fed Up with School Lunch blog. Daniel Ferguson writes the Mr. Ferguson's Classroom blog. Reposted with permission of the author.

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