A Month of Korean School Food: Days 1-5

Born and raised on a traditional American diet, I was thrown into culture shock just from the change in diet the moment I arrived in South Korea.  Now, I’ve had my fair share of Chinese cuisine, and before I left U.S. soil to teach in the far east, I just assumed that all Asian food was similar to Panda Express.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Korean food is incredibly unique to the Asian continent.

It’s a bit late in the game to post something like this (after two years of eating Korean school lunches), but my wife and I have recently been making changes to our lifestyles in an effort to be more healthy.  We’ve taken on the habit of exercising five to six days a week, and we’ve begun to really examine what, and how much we eat.

With the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S. among youth, I thought it would be interesting to share what Korean students (and teachers) eat regularly to highlight the drastic differences.  This last month, I put on my anthropologist hat and began recording every lunch I ate Monday through Friday.  I’ll share five posts of five lunches each, then draw some conclusions with my final post in this series.  So without further ado, welcome to the world of Korean school food!

Day 1: Beginning at the top, from left to right: 1. Kimchi: This is a staple to the Korean diet, as they’ve been eating it for thousands of years.  It can be made with different kinds of vegetables that are fermented in large clay pots.  After the Japanese invasions of the sixteenth century, red pepper paste began to be a key ingredient in most kimchi dishes.  You can learn more about this spicy dish here.  This particular kimchi is made from fermented cabbage. 2. Steamed Pork Dish: Pork with dokk (rice cakes) and potatoes.  3. Mushroom Dish: Mushrooms with pepper and vinegar.  3. White Rice: It should be noted that this is white sticky rice that is easy to eat with chopsticks as opposed to the loose Tex-Mexican rice many Americans are accustomed to.  4. Spinach and soybean soup.

Day 2: Beginning at the top, from left to right: 1. Cabbage Kimchi.  2. Pineapple.  3. Sweet & Sour Fried Fish: Most fish served in Korean school lunches still has the skin and bones intact.  I was lucky today to have the bones left out.  This made me especially happy considering how difficult it is to dig tiny fish bones out with chopsticks.  4. Bibimbap: This is one of my favorite Korean dishes.  Its key substance is always rice, but thrown in and mixed up with it are fresh vegetables and mushrooms,  finely cut pieces of beef, pork, or egg, and complimented with a salty soy sauce and sesame oil (you only need a spoonful of this potent sauce as too much ruins the dish).  For more info on Bibimbap, click here5. Bean Sprout Soup: This is a personal favorite because it’s light, but delicious.

Day 3: Beginning at the top, from left to right: 1. Cabbage Kimchi.  2. Pork with Soybean & Garlic Sauce.  3.  Lettuce with Pepper Paste:  If I had one complaint about Korean methods of vegetable preparation, it would be that they use TOO MUCH PEPPER PASTE.  I love many types of vegetables, raw or steamed, with no seasoning whatsoever…but here in Korea, vegetables rarely come without some sort of spicy sauce caked on to the point that all you taste is the sauce itself.  On the other side, Koreans often think American food too bland.  I would argue that Koreans have some of the highest spicy food tolerance in the world.  4.  White Rice with Red Beans.  5. Seaweed Soup: Not a personal favorite of mine, but seaweed has grown on me during my time here.  It also has great nutritional value.

Day 4: Beginning at the top, from left to right: 1. Cubed Radish Kimchi.  2.  Fried Squid with Rice Cake & Vegetables: If you’ve never had rice cake (dokk) before, it’s a very chewy substance made from compressed rice into a single object.  Learn more here.  There are many different types, and it does not resemble the traditional American/European cake.  This particular kind is my favorite though–It’s stuffed with mozzarella!  Cheese is almost absent from the Korean diet, and the only times I get it at school are in these little rice cakes.  Mixed in with the rice cakes are fried squid tentacles.  A meat that is very tough and fishy tasting.  It’s something that I’ve never been able to enjoy.  3. Salad: Cherry tomatoes with lettuce and a creamy almost yogurty-tasting dressing (My favorite part of this particular meal).  4: White Rice: I asked my fellow teachers what the little seed-looking things are that are mixed in and they couldn’t figure out the English word for it.  They don’t have a taste, and I haven’t experienced any adverse effects, so I enjoy it either way.  5. Beef, Tofu, and Vegetable Soup.

Day 5: Beginning at the top, from left to right: 1. Cabbage Kimchi.  2. Japchae with Chicken: Japchae is delicious.  It’s a noodle dish made from sweet potatoes and stir-fried in sesame oil.  Learn more here.  Lunch schedules are never known by anyone except the lunch staff, so I never know what I’m going to get when I come to lunch after my fourth period.  When I see japchae, I know it’s going to be a good day.  3. Bean Sprout Salad: Steamed sprouts with shredded crab meat and mushrooms.  4. White Rice with Black Beans.  5. Cheong Guk Jang Soup: Anyone who ever eats this will immediately notice one thing about it.  It smells terrible.  When they prepare it for lunch at my school, the entire cafeteria smells like a contest for the world’s worst smelling feet.  BUT, it’s one of those rare foods that actually doesn’t taste like it smells.  It’s one of my more favorite soups because it’s thick, hearty and a bit spicy.  It’s a fermented soybean-based broth with vegetables, tofu, and often beef or pork.  Learn more here and here.

“A Month of Korean School Food: Days 6 – 10” coming soon!

18 thoughts on “A Month of Korean School Food: Days 1-5

  1. Everything seems so much smaller than how it would be served here in the U.S. I’m pretty sure the smallest bowls or plates in my cabinet could serve each of those meals in their entirety with space to spare… Says something for American eating, huh?

    All of it looks pretty good to me though, I must admit. I might have to see if we can prepare kimchi sometime…

  2. Gosh – so varied day by day yet so balanced! Not too much meat or carbs and plenty of vegetables. School lunches appear to be a massive problem in the states and in the UK. Even at private schools in the respective countries it as abysmal. So unhealthy!

  3. I love Korean food because of all the tiny sides that come along with the main dish. Some of the sides are just vegetables that look like they are steamed with salt, but it can be surprising how much flavor is packed in something that looks quite simple.

  4. Looks very healthy… in China we also have less deep fried, processed and white flour based dishes for school lunches. Although they add a few attempts at Western since it is an international school.
    I have taken a few cooking classes here and I am surprised how much OIL they use with cooking. That explains why I see locals with a shopping cart FULL of bottles of oil at the checkout and here I thought they were buying it for a restaurant and not personal consumption!

  5. Pingback: A Month of Korean School Food: Days 6-15 « Till We Have Faces…………………………

  6. Pingback: A Month of Korean School Food: Days 16-25: Finale! « Till We Have Faces…………………………

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