Crave School Dinners? Japanese Cookery at School

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Japanese cooking school dinners - An iimage of the monthly menu

Do you miss school dinners? Recently I was explaining to a friend over coffee, how much I missed the day-to-day food I had at school; back  in Japan. My friend looked at me as though I was mad. I mean how can you crave a school dinner, something she, was so glad she no longer endured. This really made me think about the different approaches to food between the UK and Japan and the habits formed at an early age. Perhaps it was school, as well as my mum’s food that provoked my love of Japanese cookery. We have many of the same problems with encouraging healthy eating in Japan, as here in the UK. However, the majority of people do live long healthy lives and I believe that this comes largely from the diet and food habits of the people.

In 2011, when home to see my family and friends, I began to reminisce about school dinners. One thing led to another and I arranged a visit to the” Kyushoku centre” meaning school dinner operation centre. They prepare school dinners for 7 different schools, 1500 pupils in total in the local area, every day. I was amazed by the quality of the operation, the ingredients and the passion shown by the dinner ladies. It was a great opportunity to see the whole process from planning next week’s menu through to the plates being enjoyed at lunch by the children.

Japanese cookery school dinners, a view of the inside

There is a real dedication to hygiene within the kitchens and to the freshness & provenance of all ingredients.

Like an operations room at NASA HQ, the operation is super hi-tech. The dinner ladies are completely dressed in white uniforms, including gloves, caps and long boots. Every time they go in or out of the kitchen, they must have an air shower. There are separate rooms for preparing meat, fish and vegetables, as well as one specifically for meals for children with allergies. The quality, freshness and nutrition levels of ingredients are checked at each delivery. Even the water is assessed for levels of chlorine and other chemicals. Four large cold storage delivery trucks are on hand to bring the freshly made lunch to local schools at 11:30am every day. Yes, there is a seriousness about hygiene, but it is never at the expense of taste.

This seriousness is accompanied by a passion and interest for the dishes and food generally. People in Japan love to talk about food. I remember checking the new week’s lunch menu with my classmates when it was pinned on the wall. The Menu was different every day and created a genuine interest about where the ingredients came from and their benefits. Just like here, we know spinach makes us strong like Popeye and carrots of course help you to see in the dark. At school, every ingredient was described on the menu in terms of the personal nutritional values. We often had popular signature dishes, such as katsu curry,  teriyaki salmon/chicken or gyoza. Here is the menu from the week I visited

  • Monday: Green pepper and beef with oyster sauce. Squid and fish cake with sesame sauce. Cucumber salad with ginger dressing. Steamed rice. Miso soup. Lemon and honey jelly. Milk.
  • Tuesday:  Stir fried vegetable and udon noodle. Spring roll. Daikon salad with plum dressing. Mini tofu steak. Corn soup. Apple. Milk.
  • Wednesday: Mackerel marinated with miso. Green beans with walnuts sauce. Roast pumpkin with meat sauce. Wanton soup. Whole grain bread. Soy milk panacotta. Milk
  • Thursday: Chicken Katsu Curry and rice, Spinach and ponzu salad, Tofu Coleslaw, Orange, Milk
  • Friday: Trout meunière , Niku-gyaga (slow cooked potatoes and beef). Ravioli soup. Cheese bread. Custard pudding. Milk.

Some parents are not great at cooking or perhaps don’t have time after the pressures of work.. The local councillor  told me that he was really proud that they could ensure all the kids in the area have a tasty well balanced meal at least once a day. There is a cost here, but the real surprise is the daily budget with one school dinner costing £2.20-2.50 per students. Local government support about 10% of the total cost.

School dinners are of course, a hot topic right now. From Jamie’s well documented battles, to the recent amazing stance of young food blogger Martha Payne at NeverSeconds, attention is now focused on schools to produce better dinners. Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, from the Leon Restaurants, are leading a government review into school meals and the role of food and cooking in schools. It is a good moment to question the approach to providing food for ourselves and for the next generation. We should never be embarrassed to have high standards when it comes to what we eat. Japanese students are taught to respect food themselves and to cook it with respect for others. After all why should anyone eat a dish made with no care?

The answer, I believe; lies not just in budgets, box ticking or stopping the use of processed products. It lies in encouraging a rounded approach to all aspects of the production of the dinners and from this; nurturing a passion for good, healthy food in children. Let’s all crave our school dinners!