By Dev Stolz
‘’Japanese food is super healthy!’’ I excitedly exclaim as I shove a third fried shrimp into the endless black abyss that is my mouth. ‘’Its simplicity combined with complicated flavor palettes create such a vivid and cultured epicurean landscape.’’ At this point I am trying to make myself sound intelligent and informed while simultaneously balancing spoonfuls of curry and omurice in right and left hands. The result is the confused and blubbering rant of someone who is both unintelligent and uninformed. My Japanese friend stares blankly at this western monstrosity across the table. ‘’I mean back home we serve our children pizza and cake as school lunch! Can you imagine that happening in Japan? Yesterday, my school lunch included peach slices, and my students acted like they had won the lottery. They did chants and backflips! It was amazing.’’ I’m out of breath and reaching for the pint of beer at the end of the table. It is beyond my reach and I forfeit the fight. Rather, I lock my sights on a cheese fried mochi which deserves to be to ravaged. I do the honours….
This conversation is not unusual for me. I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about food and the cultural differences between my western construct of tabemono and the Japanese perspective. Living in Japan has made these differences glaringly obvious. Masters theses and PhD research explore this topic in a way that I could never do justice- so I will rather leave that conversation at this fleeting mention. However, I would love to take this opportunity to explore why you should be eating all of your Kyuushoku. For those of you who work in High Schools and do not enjoy the splendor/horror of Japanese public school lunches, I extend my apology. However, this article is still relevant! The foods of kyuushoku are found in other places of Japan and deserve your attention and respect.
Japanese school lunch began shortly after the Second World War when the country was left in broken, near-famine conditions. Slowly evolving into the modern lunch that 99% of elementary students in Japan and 85% of junior high school students enjoy each day. This means that many ALT’s are also enjoying the always locally grown, rarely frozen and prepared daily cuisine. In many ways Japan is doing school lunches right. The menu is crafted by a team of nutritionists that follows a government mandated nutritional/caloric guideline. The result is food that is usually relatively healthy and nutritious.
‘’Kyuushoku was a big part of the initial culture shock,’’ says my neighbour, coworker and fellow ALT Olivia D. I have to agree with her. Moving to Japan involves sacrificing control and understanding of what is happening in your daily life. With Kyuushoku we are handed a tray of often unfamiliar or mysterious foods and told ‘’you will eat this… all of it.’’ Every day is a new surprise that I usually enjoy. The level of uncertainty has resulted in one of my new favourite things when spending time with ALTs from other cities: ‘’Kyuushoku Horror Stories.’’ I’ll share a favourite of mine. ‘’I was handed a tray with two whole, cold squids on a plate. Just lying there- looking back at me’’.
Kyuushoku has provided an opportunity for me to experience Japanese foods and flavours that I would otherwise not choose to encounter. And this is why kyuushoku is saving your life. It’s no surprise that Japan has the longest life expectancy of any country on earth. Streets are lined with the elderly doing radio taiso, riding bikes into oncoming traffic and generally living fruitful lives well into the octogenarica. Much of the Japanese longevity can be attributed to traditional Japanese foods and diet. While the cultural cuisine of Japan is not without high salt, high fat, fried and refined carbohydrates- this is balanced with moderation and superfoods like the ones that often appear in our daily lunches. Allow me to explain some of the mysterious benefits and foods that we encounter in the classroom.
Japan is one of the few countries that actively engages in relationships with vegetables of the sea variety. Wakame, konbu, hijiki and nori are all helping you live longer. Packed with minerals, high in fiber while staying low in calories are the benefits of the weed of the sea. Hijiki can be found in Kyuushoku in the form of little packages with an illustration of seaweed holding oversized dumbbells in the air. It’s a health food. Embrace it. But be careful lifting weights above your head.
You knew this was coming. This is the part of the article where I try to convince you that eating natto is a practical life choice. The primary function of fermentation is aiding our bodies in digestion and regulation. I cannot even begin to list the benefits that these foods bring to the table. Just know that they are healthy. Think of them as being a special treat from Mother Nature and Father Time.
Fish fish fish
Japan’s population accounts for 2% of the global population. This 2% is consuming 10% of the world’s fish. This means that the Japanese are eating more fish and less red meat. We know that red meat eaten in excess can result in heart disease, obesity and clogged arteries. Fish provides the body with omega-3 fatty acids and DHA which results in a shiny coat, mane and a trimmer figure.
Portions in Japan are smaller and lean away from excess. While back home it’s common for a meal to be served on a singular round plate. Japanese presentation involves compartmentalized sections, separate dishes all resulting in less food. The Japanese relationship with food is practical and appreciative. This means healthier eating and better choices.
Next time you eat kyuushoku take a moment and appreciate how this food found its way to you. And embrace the differences! After all, these meals in Japan may be extending your lifespan moments, days, years?