What Korean School Lunch is like
The food is easily my favorite thing about Korea.
This will be shocking to hear for anyone who knows me at all. I’m the kind of person who eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mac and cheese, and chicken nuggets on a regular basis. My friends used to joke that my sexual fantasies included swimming pools of chicken nuggets (no comment). Basically, I have the diet of a picky kindergartener.
But I decided that when I came to Korea, whenever anyone asked me if I wanted to try some food, I would say yes (with the exception of insects and dog meat. No shade to anyone who eats these, but I just can’t). Now, I can order pretty much anything on the menu of a traditional Korean restaurant and I’ll probably like it. Picky eaters understand how life-changing this is.
A huge part of discovering Korean food has come from the school lunches that I eat at work. Every day, almost nine months into this job, I am still amazed at just how good Korean school lunches are, compared to American school lunches. I took a (very mediocre) picture of my lunch every day one week to share with you.
Some background info on Korean school lunches (compared to American school lunches):
In Korea, everyone eats school lunch. This includes teachers. Students receive lunch for free and somehow the country doesn’t spiral into communism. Imagine that.
You eat with a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. There are no cups, because apparently hydration is not a thing in Korea. You do have the option of sticking your face under a fountain on your way out of the cafeteria, though. I am too tall for this to be feasible.
Spoons, chopsticks, and trays are made of metal and are washed and re-used. This is because Korea is a tiny country and unlike in the states, there is no space for giant garbage mountains, so people do their best to minimize trash.
And also two disclaimers:
I did not take attractive pictures of food at perfect angles with filters that make it look super colorful and appetizing. You know those drool-worthy instagram foodie accounts? Yeah, this is the opposite. I took these pictures as quickly and subtly as possible because I didn’t want anyone to get offended and think I was taking pictures of the food because I thought it was weird or gross.
Kimchi is also served with every meal, so you can imagine a pile of kimchi in the middle compartment of my tray every day. I just don’t like plain kimchi, so I don’t take it. Occasionally, an older teacher points to my tray and says in Korean “KIMCHI IS GOOD FOR YOU!!!” I tell him “I KNOW BUT I DON’T LIKE IT, I’M SORRY!” and he laughs. He gave me a tiny Korean wooden mask, so I think that means we’re best friends.
Rice with purple things (some kind of bean, probably)
미역국 (miyeoggug) : seaweed soup. This soup contains seaweed (shocking) with a bit of beef. I never seem to get very much meat, but that might be because I come to lunch a little late and most of the good stuff has been scooped out already. Or maybe they’re just stingy with the meat.
A blend of bean sprouts, spring onions, and carrots. It’s very salty and the onion flavor is strong, but I like it a lot even though it makes my breath terrible.
An unidentified (but tasty) white fish with a sweet and mildly spicy sauce. When I say spicy, I mean that it may make your tongue tingle if you’re someone who thinks water is spicy (I know people like this), but nothing in the cafeteria is THAT spicy because it’s being served to five-year-olds. I only got one piece because there wasn’t a lot left and I was too awkward to go ask someone to refill the fish plate at the teachers’ table. You’re meant to eat twice as much as I took.
A kiwi that I somehow photographed to look like a sad potato.
9/10 day for me. -1 point because kiwis are annoying to eat and the juice got all over my hands and in my eye.
흥미밥 / Heungmi bap / Purple rice. It tastes like regular rice but it’s purple. There is probably significance to this besides just making the rice really exciting, but I’m not aware of it.
A soup with tofu, zucchini, radish, and pepper
More zucchini served cold in a salty, garlic-y dressing that tastes fantastic. Idk what it is with Korea and salty garlic but I am here for it.
Meatballs that are more like meat patties? They tasted like meatballs and definitely had some sneaky carrots in there. A strong soy-saucy taste.
Possibly the best pineapple I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot because I love pineapple and eat it far too often. Don’t be too excited, because sometimes the school fruit tastes like styrofoam.
8/10 day for me because I was ambivalent about the soup, but the exciting rice and pineapple made up for it, mostly.
Wednesdays, for some reason, always have the tastiest food. This is true not just in my school, but in many (most?) Korean schools. I’ve heard that this is the day that school cooks let themselves serve the “least” traditional Korean food (aka fewer vegetables).
A huge glob of kimchi fried rice. This rice tastes strongly of kimchi and contains carrots, corn, potatoes, kimchi chunks (obviously), and spam. This is one of my favorite foods in Korea. This was also way too much rice for me. Do not take this big of a serving.
Unidentified soup in a strong fishy broth with tofu and 오뎅 /odeng/ fish cakes
Orange slices. Note: in Korea, you do not eat these soccer-game style by sinking your teeth into them and ripping the peel away while chewing on the fleshy part like a monster. You carefully separate the orange from the peel with your hands before putting it in your mouth. I learned this the hard way.
Fried chicken with shredded spring onions. If I could fill my entire tray with just this, I would.
10/10 day. Kimchi fried rice is an automatic 10 in my book, but kimchi rice with fried chicken is actually the best lunch ever.
Rice. White and unremarkable (like me).
A type of 만둣국 / mandu-guk/ dumpling and rice soup. The jelly-like things are dumplings in a meaty, eggy broth.
Apples, which I was too full to eat after eating everything else
little zucchinis/cucumbers (?) with chili / kimchi paste. While I don’t like kimchi, I love when cucumbers are prepared like kimchi (instead of cabbage, which is what kimchi is typically made of).
“Spicy” tofu (it’s only a little spicy)
10/10. No complaints, other than being too full to walk after eating because the dumplings expand in your stomach.
Just like Wednesdays are the good lunch days, Fridays always seem to be the bad lunch days.
White rice. If you couldn’t tell by the last 4 days, I am pretty much 50% rice at any given point in time.
Some soup with squid. I know this looks pitiful. I deliberately didn’t take much because I know I don’t like this particular kind of squid (the kind where you can see the suction cups and it’s horribly chewy). There was also some radish in there.
Orange slices. Pro tip: Never try to peel these oranges over your soup. You will drop them in your soup and splash the teacher sitting next to you, who is wearing white. She will then scream and you will seriously contemplate faking your own death so you never have to show your face in school again.
Lotus root. Kind of like a soft, sweet vegetable.
Chicken with sweet potatoes, carrots, and little rice balls. This was a little sweet and actually delicious, but I came to lunch late and this was the biggest serving I could take while still leaving a reasonable portion for the teacher behind me.
6/10 day for me. Would have been 8/10 I’d gotten more chicken. -1 point for squid soup. -1 point for fried lotus, which I’ll eat but I’m not crazy about.
Korean school lunches are magical. If I had to pack my own lunch (which I do over winter and summer break) it would be an apple and two very sad, hard-boiled eggs because I am LAZY. This is by far my favorite and healthiest meal of the day, and only $1 or so is deducted from my paycheck for each meal.
If you ever teach in Korea, unless you have a serious dietary concern (like a deadly food allergy or gluten intolerance), eat the school lunch. In my experience, Korean people seem to really appreciate it when you try their food. After all, it shows that you’re willing to accept an important part of their culture, even though they’re very aware of how foreign it is to you. Some evidence I’ve collected to support this theory:
“Kylie is so good. She eats Korean food very well” – a head teacher to another head teacher
“Everyone likes you because you are polite and always try our food” – my co-teacher to me
“The last foreign teacher didn’t eat our lunch. He ate oatmeal alone at his desk every day. It was really weird” – my co-teacher to me.
While I’m still a pickier eater than many people and I can’t control what I like and don’t like to eat, I’m always striving to be the kind of person who says “yes” to new experiences, especially when they’re as harmless, cheap, and delicious as Korean food.
P.S. Sometimes I also just eat straight up American garbage food and I’m not ashamed.