An entire post about your Korean school lunch? One month in Korea, and you are out of ideas, you, the non-existent interlocutor, remark. However! Lunch at my Korean elementary school is, hilariously, a time when I expend nearly as much effort as I do lesson-planning and teaching. It is one of the few places I interact with a large group of Korean adults. It is one of the few times I am required to use Korean utensils and eat Korean food right beside actual Koreans. There are arcane, arbitrary, and sometimes hilarious practices which I must mimic and master if I want to gain greater acceptance. I am watched much of the time. And thus: a post about lunch.
The structure of the lunch room depends on your school and your grade level, and many of the elementary schools I’ve heard of have a central teacher’s table, with students’ tables bracketing it on either side. The room is cavernous and long, and is made to get 1000 students in and out through several rotations of serving in an efficient, militaristic pace. Students march the perimeter, approach the stern, face-masked women in the kitchen, and are served their usually impeccable meal, before filing away to the enormous tables around the teachers.
The first few times I went to lunch, I timed myself (and sometimes still do) to follow right behind a co-teacher, so that I could just exactly parrot whatever they did. The teachers serve themselves from a series of piping hot trays, and the careful, precise placement of items is the first test. You get a tray with five empty dishes, three shallow ones, and two large, deep bowls. Kimchi, if it is being served, will almost certainly go in the top-right (due to sky-rocketing kimchi prices of late, our school is no longer serving kimchi with lunch. This is an atrocity). Rice will go on the bottom left, and soup will go on the bottom right. The other two side-dishes can switch between the other top food cubbies.
This assemblage is less complicated once you do it every day, but sometimes I’m still thrown for a loop. If there are five hot trays out, three of them side-dishes, then I know what to do, and I can get through the serving with suaveness and a look of cultural understanding. When another tray emerges, bringing the number up to six, or even worse when there is less, that means there is mixing afoot, and I am paralyzed. What goes with what? Do I put the noodles here? Does this gravyish stuff go over the meat thing, or the rice?
If it were Western food, I would at least have a leg-up, understanding, traditionally, what flavours get paired together, what foods can reasonably be crammed next to one another in a single dish. But with Korean food, I have no idea. Generally, I can recognize about 40-50% of the food items being offered to me, and the rest is just a delicious mystery (usually consisting of spicy things, boiling hot things, tangy fermented things, and surprise sweet things). With only a dilettante’s knowledge of Korean cuisine, I must stare covertly at the trays already assembled by the teachers already sitting down for a guide (oh, the turnip pieces go there, and the meat and vegetables are jammed with the rice). The other problem, of course, is that since I don’t know what I’m eating, I never have any idea if I like the thing I am taking a hefty portion of, and might need to choke down later.
Once I get my chopsticks and my spoon, I shuffle down to the table, never sitting on the hallowed seats quietly, and inexplicitly reserved for the principal, VP, and head administrator. I sit, rest my spoon in the soup, and if I’m not using them, leave the chopsticks astride the rice tray (though never in it, because that’s its own faux pas, with a different cultural reason in practically every Asian country). I nod and greet everyone around me, as well as anyone approaching the table. Then I begin to eat.
Metal chopsticks, Korea’s favoured utensil, are difficult to use. They are thinner, the ends are flatter, and they are generally more slippery to operate than wooden and plastic chopsticks. When you watch a Korean use them, it appears as though they have just grown extended, silvery digits, as they operate them with such finesse and dexterity, it seems impossible that they were not born with these appendages. I can get my side-dishes to my face efficiently enough, but some of the advanced techniques (if you get a larger rectangular prism of tofu or meat, you have to sort of scissor apart morsels to eat) require delicacy and concentration. Even for foods where I would customarily use my hands, I am left to attempt it with chopsticks (bone-end soups are especially difficult, though one day we had chicken legs, which we were to hoist with the chopsticks, and then fellate until we could get meat from the bone).
Koreans generally eat little bits of everything during a meal, which is good, as it filters into one of the intermediary lunch techniques I’ve learned. Where at home you could simply not take the food or take a minimum to not look rude, the mysterious nature of the food here requires that you should probably take everything. A better strategy, so you always look like you like the food (paramount to your success with Koreans) is to take tentative bites, and if you find something you hate (thankfully this is rarer for me, though I hate quail eggs and crab, I’ve discovered, and the kimchi and tomato paste soup is abominable), you then quickly grab something delicious or strongly flavoured (kimchi fits in both of these) so that the grossness gets overwhelmed by other foods.
You never know when something odd or unpleasant is going to hit you: Korean food can surprise you with its tastes. When in doubt, it’s probably spicy, but every now and then, you’ll get a flavour you didn’t expect. This meaty thing looks savoury and salty? Surprise! It’s actually slathered in invisible sweet sauce. This thing looks sort of spicy and tangy? Surprise, you’ve never tasted anything more bland and flavourless. This thing looks like a chalky sort of nut? Surprise, on the inside, it actually has the fruit and flavour of a pear. The food is a constant fun-house, what’s-behind-door-number-three of eating, and I rarely know what I’m going to get. If something particularly offensive crawls across my palate, I can usually get it back to my tray via spoons or chopsticks, often by pretending I am prying fishbones or stone fruit from my maw. But if it’s something spicy that attacks my mouth, I am often out of luck: almost everything there is only one degree less spicy, and is usually still scalding hot. Plus, no one but the principal and VP get to drink anything during lunch (you can only get water afterwards, from a giant array of water fountains), so you have to sort of sit and feel your mouth writhe in a peppery flame.
Foods that require your hands always come last, after you have finished with the rest of your dishes: large fruits, little vitamin drinks, enormous nuts. If, again, it’s confusing looking, I’ll watch someone else eat it and imitate their actions, deshelling, shucking, spitting, and scooping where my cohorts do the same. I am constantly worried that to these people I appear to be a giant, lumbering neanderthall, besmirching their delicate Korean foods and gazes by smashing food about with my paws and face, and thus my care in mimicry, especially for foods requiring my hands, has become impeccable.
When the meal is over, I rise from the table, say goodbye to everyone around me, and head to the dish area. Here I scrape my tray clean, sort my utensils and garbage, access the water (and possibly cool my singed throat). There is a certain zen I achieve there: the process is always the same, the bins are always in the same place, and students rush my tray away from my hands to be cleaned and prepared for another eater. And then I walk out the door, proud of myself once more that I didn’t manage to completely bungle eating food. I have achieved lunch.