In Japan, most public elementary schools and junior high schools have lunch provided. School lunch menus are carefully designed by the nutritionists, who when deciding the lunch menus, tend to prioritize nutritional values and budgets before taste. The items then run on an approximately two-month rotation. As a result, kids have lunches that they really look forward to and ones that they straight up despise.
From my experiences of working in Japanese schools and having tasted various school menus from three different prefectures, I realized that some items are commonly available at all the school districts that I have worked in. Out of those common lunches, there are a few food items that are widely beloved by all the students. These three menus below tend to receive the most cheers from the students as well as my personal seal of approval.
3. Soft noodles
Soft-men (haha), or soft-noodles are the best noodles you would get in school. It is a hot package of noodles served with a thick dipping soup. Unlike school lunch udon or ramen which are always overcooked and come out way too soft, these ironically named “soft-noodles” are cooked then drained, maintaining the chewiness good noodles should have.
Several kinds of soup can be served with these noodles, and they are often these thick soups rich in flavours and filled with ingredients. Chinese ankake sauce (similar to the sauce on tenshinhan 天津飯), Chinese seafood soup, meat sauce, miso sauce, tomato seafood soup, curry soup, and more. Slurping the noodles up is both delicious and satisfying.
Interestingly, there are also a few ways to eat the noodles. Most students would open up the plastic package and dump all the noodles into the soup, but that causes the bowl to overflow as well as an imbalance of the sauce to noodles ratio because you can’t mix it well enough. My method, with the smarter students, is to use my fingers to divide the noodles into 4 portions and drop in the noodles one part at a time. The last method makes absolutely no sense to me, but some students would consume the soup separately, then open the package and bite into the plain noodles. Regardless of the eating method, these noodles are a very popular choice among students.
Age-pan, or “fried bread” is basically an awesome donut that comes around two or three times a year. The soft long bread is deep fried then covered with sugar all over. The nutritional value is down the drain, but the kids can justify that once in a while after the months of healthy food throughout the year. The regular style is to use standard cinnamon sugar, but I have had alternative versions such as kinako (soy bean powder), brown sugar, cocoa-sugar, and green tea. If you are lucky enough to find shops selling the symbolic item, they are often advertised as a nostalgic flavour that reminds people of school lunches. I even know a retired teacher who told me that she became a teacher because she wanted to eat age-pan.
One issue with age-pan is that it guarantees that the student will make a mess. The sugar gets all over their hands and face, sticking to whatever else they touch, and occasionally flying all over the place when a kid inevitably drops the plate. I have had a teacher who prepared one-use plastic gloves for students whenever it is age-pan day. To be honest, for such a delicious treat, it is worth making a mess for. My pro-tip is that if the school provides a metal spoon, use it to slice up the bread into smaller pieces to avoid sugar-explosions on the desk.
1. Curry and rice
Here it is. The king of school lunches. The menu that kids would fight over (with janken). The item that comes in large quantity but never has left overs. Japanese Curry and Rice!
This common Japanese household dish is special in the hearts of most Japanese people. It is a warm simple recipe that anyone can make. In fact, elementary 5th graders and junior high school 1st year students make it together on their camping trips to learn the importance of team effort. As school a lunch, curry is cheap, easy to make, and extremely satisfying. It is difficult to make a pot of curry that doesn’t come out delicious.
It is also the best way to have the students eat their vegetables. The common ingredients are potatoes, carrots, onion, chicken and occasionally beans, mushroom, or pork. To match the preferences of all the students, curry in school is never spicy. Rice and cabbage salad is served with this meal, as well as fukujinzuke (福神漬), a type of mixed pickled vegetables that goes extremely well with Japanese curry.
If you look at the recipe, there isn’t really anything particularly unique to this curry. What makes it special is that it is simply the most delicious meal out of all the school lunches.
There we have it, the three most popular menus in school lunches. As my friend put it “they seem boring”. It might not be as exciting as ordering pizzas and katsudon from shops, or opening a bento made by your lovely mother or wife every day. However, the purpose of school lunches isn’t necessarily its taste, but the teamwork that goes into preparing and serving the meals to your classmates, the understanding of a healthy and balanced meal, and the proper eating manners. Of course, when delicious foods like these come around, we still highly appreciate it as we ask for seconds.