Apr 17, 2018

What’s in a Chinese school lunch?

I don’t always know, but it’s free for me!

These days, about twice a week, I get food from the kindergarten cafeteria. I could take lunch every day, but two out of five is good enough for me. I like it because it’s healthy and free! I eat what the babies eat; tomorrow we’re having pork and pumpkin, with a tofu soup on the side. It’s usually decent, I think, though Peter turns his nose up at it. It’s comparable, anyway, with the Tianfu Middle School cafeteria food.

I have a two-and-a-half hour lunch break — teaching kindergarten is the best — so I bring it all home in my super-duper lunch box. Watch the video to see this engineering marvel that keep my hot food hot for my entire ten-minute commute home.

Dec 25, 2012

Eating at the cool table

The Chinese kids take us in

Helen and Tina with Peter
From left: Helen (who is NOT a turkey, she’ll have you know), Peter, Tina

Our plan to connect with the students by sitting in their dining hall bore fruit pretty much right away.

Tina, one of Peter’s students, was the first to ask to sit with us. Now, we don’t feel scary, but the kids tend to consider talking with us a terrifying prospect. There’s always a lot of apologizing for mistakes and embarrassed giggling as they try to find the words they need. Some of our students can do no more than yell out hello and run away when they see us outside of class. And, seriously, no other teachers eat with the students. So for Tina to slide her tray over to us was an incredibly bold move, and we admired her right away for it.

The next day, she brought some of her friends with her — partially to prove to them that she had had the guts to eat with us in the first place. They were suitably impressed. After lunch, we all walked back to the dorms together, and Tina bashfully asked for a hug. Once the first hug was given out, Helen — one of the new girls — wanted one too. But again, Tina blazed the trail.

As time went on, our group of admirers grew. More students attracted more students. Even from ones who don’t stay, we get a surprised and friendly greeting as they pass. One afternoon, a student who was too shy to sit even gave us a drive-by taste of this delicious spicy, fermented bean paste before running off in a fit of giggles. (We’ve since gone through two bottles of the stuff on our own. It’s really quite tasty.)

In addition to getting to better know our current students, we’ve also been able to reconnect with some of last year’s kids. It’s been such a pleasure to get in touch with them again, and it’s been interesting to see kids mix it up with others with whom they might not usually interact; for example, Senior 1s and Senior 2s. At busy meals, we see multiple shifts of students as kids join and leave the party. “You have many fans,” observed one of the boys at one such dinner.

Not surprisingly, food is a big topic of conversation. Do we like Chinese food? What is American food like? Can you cook? Other big topics include our life in America and traveling abroad.

One night XiuLing, one of my former students and such a sweet girl, told Peter, “I hope you stay in China forever!” That was immediately responded to by another student: “That’s terrible.”

Our meals with the kids are always lively and fun, more than what we hoped for when we started the experiment. Tina and her friends are the most regular attendees, and recently she revealed that they brainstorm discussion topics for when they are going to eat with us. November 28th’s agenda: the upcoming Parent’s Day, American pen pals, and “Do you feel uncomfortable when we talk a lot in Chinese to each other?”

Not in the least, I told them. We’re happy they’re there.

All the girls, eating dinner
Clockwise from top: Sky, Emily, I’m-so-sorry-I-forget-her-name!, Elaine, Tina and Jane. You can see our jar of delicious bean paste in the center of the table.

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