One of the perks of working as a teacher in China is that every day I get free lunch in the school cafeteria. Thinking back on my time in elementary school my mom would usually pack a lunch for me, but I have some memories of pizza days and chicken nuggets and little cartons of chocolate milk. I thought it would be interesting to look at a weeks worth of school lunches at a Chinese elementary school and see how they compare.
Our cafeteria has a buffet at the front. Every day they have three meat dishes (usually one is fish), from which you can pick two, and two vegetable dishes that the lunch ladies slop onto your tray. After that they have self serve soup and rice.
We’re starting off the week with something appropriately exotic. In the top right corner of the tray we have spicy pig feet. They’re rather large and slippery, so it can be difficult to hold them in your chopsticks while you gnaw the skin off from around the bones. My first year here I wouldn’t have touched them, but they’ve since grown on me.
Just to the left we have a fried fish. The fish are often served whole with all of the bones still inside. It takes quite a lot of practice to get good at eating around the bones. Some fish are more easily pulled apart than others, but there’s usually a good bit of spitting out loose bones.
Further to the left we have the soup of the day. This one was a pork based broth with some veggies mixed in.
Below the soup we have our two veggies. On the right in the foreground you can see the ubiquitous 蔬菜 or 青菜. These are both generic terms used for leafy green vegetables like spinach, lettuce, or cabbage. They make up one of the vegetable dishes every day. In the back left you can see the green beans, the other vegetable of the day (one of my personal favorites).
And in the bottom left corner you can see a puddle of oily sauce that the vegetables are cooked in. For some reason vegetables are never served raw, but are always doused in oil and cooked until you could gum them.
Last but certainly not least we have the rice, a staple of most Chinese meals.
Tuesday begins with spicy fish pieces. This is one of the tastiest fish dishes in my opinion, but also one of the most difficult to eat (see above caption).
Next to that we have chicken and water chestnuts, cooked in a copious amount of oil. China is also less particular about cuts of meat than we are back home so it’s common to find feet and necks and other odd bits in dishes like this. It often feels like you’ve gotten more bone than you have chicken.
Then we have seaweed and egg soup, followed by our two veggies : 蔬菜 that looks suspiciously similar to the kind we had yesterday, and zucchini. And of course a small mountain of rice to fill us up.
Whoa what’s that thing where the soup should be, you ask? Wednesday is a very special day in the otherwise monotonous weekly cafeteria scene. Every Wednesday we get a piece of fruit with lunch.
Along with the apple we also have stewed beef and radish. The beef tends to be quite gamey and fatty, but it’s otherwise very good. Fatty meat is much more popular here than in the US, and I’ve had dishes that are nothing more than cubes of pork fat.
Next to that we have stir fried pork with carrots, onions, and mushrooms. The mushrooms, called 木耳 (literally wood ear) are black and frilly. It’s been my experience that China employs a much larger variety of mushrooms in cooking than we do back home. This dish has lean meat, no bones, and tastes pretty good, so it’s a bit of a treasure in our cafeteria.
Our two veggies are 蔬菜 of a slightly different variety than the past two days and cauliflower. The cauliflower is one of the less oily and mushy vegetables we get, so it’s really pretty good.
Our soup for the day is my personal favorite: carrot, corn, and pork. You may have begun to notice the prevalence of pork in a lot of these meals. Pork is often the go to meat in China. So much so that the word for meat 肉, when used by itself, is synonymous with pork (猪肉). In comparison to 鸡肉 (chicken meat), or 牛肉 (cow meat), which are always preceded by their respective animals of origin.
Some days at the cafeteria are better than others. Today was not one of those days. We had liver with bell peppers and onions. The peppers and onions were great. When I was growing up my parents always talked about how they hated eating liver growing up and we never had any so I think I convinced myself at a young age that I simply wouldn’t like it. Or it’s just that weird sandy texture.
We also have a fish, the same kind as Monday, but broiled with ginger instead of fried. We usually have a wider variety of fish throughout the week.
Our two veggies for the day were slightly sour radish strips and cabbage in oil. They’re pretty well in the middle of my personal ranking of lunch time veggies.
The soup of the day was another variety of seaweed. This one was thicker rectangular pieces with an almost rubber-like texture and appearance. Is your mouth watering yet?
We made it! Our last day of school lunch begins with a squid, wood ear mushroom, and celery stir fry. Friday is usually something of a treat in the cafeteria.
Next up we have big chunks of pork on a bone. Based on the shape I’m tempted to say it’s the spine, but I would only be guessing. It is fairly dry and has a lightly salty flavor.
Our two veggies for the day are another variety of 蔬菜 and pumpkin slices! When we eat pumpkin back home I mostly think of pies and other baked goods, but in China pumpkin is often just cooked in oil to the desired mushyness and eaten as a vegetable.
Our soup is once again some kind of pork based affair. By pork I don’t mean that the soup has a lot of meat in it, but rather that the broth is cooked with pork bones and things (things being the only appropriate word I can find to describe the other pork bits in the vat of soup).
So there you have it, one week of Chinese school lunches. Were they as exotic or normal as you were expecting? The food may be mediocre cafeteria quality, but I think I’m going to miss the reliability of these lunches once I leave.