Hello Uncle Foreigner

Dec 24, 2012

School lunch … and dinner

Digging into Chinese cafeteria food

A bird's eye view of the cafeteria

One of the easiest mealtime options when we’re at the new campus is the school cafeteria. Now, while school food in America is not the greatest, Chinese cafeteria food is actually pretty good. A meal here comprises steamed rice and two entrees — with plenty of vegetables — and a bowl of soup (which is the “drink” of the meal). We see the produce dropped off daily, and everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. Jamie Oliver, your advocacy is not needed here. We also see the food waste collected in giant vats after each meal and driven off somewhere — possibly for compost!

The cafeteria occupies an important position at the center of the campus and serves three meals a day. The student hall is three floors that center around a large spiral staircase. One wall of each floor is a bank of serving windows where an army of cafeteria workers dole out food from large steam trays. The kitchens are right behind these, and if you’re nosy, you can poke your head in and see mad chopping, stir frying and steaming going on. The teachers have a separate room in the back of the building — furnished with round tables and chairs rather than the fast food joint-style benches that the kids sit at.

The student food is quite basic; a chopped vegetable sometimes paired with a small amount chopped meat. Cauliflower and peppers, say, or pork and celery, or steamed winter melon, or carrots and mushy fish. Most of the students say that the food cooked for them at home is much better. But, at 4.70RMB [.75USD], it’s a tasty enough meal.

There’s also a meatless option which runs 2.70RMB, or, .43USD. For most of the kids, eating this way is just about saving money. There are a few students who actively follow a vegetarian diet, but vegetarianism as a concept is largely not understood in China. (Peter is often met with puzzlement and concern when he says that he doesn’t eat meat. “How will you stay strong and healthy?”) Choices can include zucchini, bok choi, pumpkin or shredded potatoes, but sometimes you’ll just end up with two servings of steamed cabbage.

This place serves a lot of kids

The teachers’ cafeteria steps it up quite a bit. First of, there’s more meat in each dish, and slightly better cuts. Also, the dishes are actual dishes, assembled with care and spices — Sichuan peppercorn features heavily — and there’s a piece of fruit for dessert. The meal is served on real plates and bowls, rather than cafeteria trays. Price tag: 6RMB [.96USD]

For all that, I only eat in the teachers’ caf if Peter takes a nap through lunch. Early on, we realized that the teachers aren’t really interested in making friends, but the students are. And lunch and dinner seemed like the perfect time to put ourselves out there for those kids who wanted to practice their English, learn about America, teach about China, etc. And, while the food is not as exciting, the atmosphere is much more friendly and boisterous. So, while many helpful adults have tried to point us in the “right” direction, most of the time we’re right there with the students, waiting on line for our plastic trays and parking it at a welded-to-the-table metal chair. It’s much more fun that way.

Meal oneMeal twoMeal three
Spicy pork with peppers, celery and cucumber, peppery cabbage, and egg and tomato soup
Pork with scallions and smoky tofu, zucchini, and a dishwater chicken soup
Savory pork and onions, with zucchini, spinach and pumpkin soup
Meal fourMeal fiveMeal six
Left: Zucchini, pasta, and cucumbers; Right: Winter melon and chicken, and cucumbers
Left: Onions, peppers, carrots and potato with pork slivers, and cabbage; Right: Carrots, and potatoes and chicken
Left: Cauliflower, and turnips (or some sort of root) and red peppers; Right: Pork and onions, and cauliflower