With my previous articles of the school lunch series, we have looked into what the meals served in Japanese schools are like, as well as a few of the students’ favourites. However, there is another side to this that most kids wouldn’t have expected: foods that are nightmares to foreigners. The only fault here is the cultural differences. There just are some ordinary Japanese foods or eating habits that aren’t consumed in other parts of the world. Today, we shall look at some school lunches that leave the foreigner teachers crying in the staffroom after the meal.
I’m sure you saw this one coming immediately. Not many people can stand the smell and taste of these fermented soybeans. Even with the little package of soysauce and seaweed it comes with, the after-taste of the beans and how it gets your mouth all slimy is gross to many people, including some Japanese.
However, the nutritional values and health benefits of natto are through the roof, and it is a soul-food to many Japanese families. Personally, not only do I find it bearable, I actually enjoy natto a lot, but I am one of the minorities within the foreigners living in Japan.
Many foreigners find the shishamo smelt disgusting due to the huge amount of eggs it carries when it is cooked. While the flavour might be fine, a lot of foreigners cannot get pass the mental image of the numerous tiny white eggs. Adding the fact how fish heads are not eaten in most Western countries, and fish are served without the bones, having several of these fried small whole fish on the plate can be a turn-off for those not accustomed to it. For me, I adore these cheap fish for both their taste and nutrition.
Animal organs are rarely consumed in Western countries. It happens more often in Europe, but close to never in North America nowadays. However, animal organs are regularly served in Japanese food, such as pork and cow organs for grilling (焼肉) or boiling (煮物), or chicken hearts and livers when having grilled chicken (やきとり). The only one commonly seen in school lunches are pork liver cooked with a sweet sauce. The taste of liver is strong, and just like shishamo, many people can’t get used to the idea of eating internal organs if they never did in their original country. I find them delicious, but not everyone would.
4. White rice
Although not never, most western recipes of rice involve adding flavours into the pot. For example, using chicken broth instead of water, or putting in chopped onions and tomato. White rice is delicious, but its lack of flavour on its own could be difficult for those not used to it. In school, the portion of rice served is quite large because it is the main food of the meal. You can lay other food on top to give it more taste, but not everything goes well with rice. While I can finish the rice, I, as well as many of my foreigner friends would prefer more side-dishes with strong flavours to go with the rice or rice cooked with flavours once in a while.
5. Bonus: boiled cabbage
The number five is a bonus because this is a personal nightmare. I like cabbage, but once in a while you would get a bowl of chopped cabbage boiled in water with no flavours added. There is absolutely no taste to it and the texture feels like rubber. It is usually paired with bread and croquette and my students suggested making a sandwich with the cabbage inside, and I counter-argued that it would make the sandwich taste terrible too. Having that said, I still try to eat the cabbage in front of the kids to be a role model.
These are five school lunch items that many foreigners despise... well, four, really. It is not necessarily that the food doesn’t taste good, but in most cases it’s the differences of food culture. I do have friends who grew to manage natto after a few years in Japan, and people who have fallen in love with liver after visiting high quality yakiniku restaurants. Perhaps you will find a liking to these foods too over time, but even if not, you should try them anyway just for the sake of the experience.