School Lunch China 1: Eggs and tomato, mapo dofu, cauliflower and chilies, plenty of rice
School Lunch China 2: Baby bok choy, pork and mushrooms, yuxiang pork, steamed bread, soup
This month's issue of Afar features a mosaic of photographs of school lunches from around the world. Dave contributed shots taken in China and Malaysia.
We're both several decades beyond cafeteria lunches so it was interesting to revisit the concept, especially on foreign soil. And we think about food all the time, Asian food especially, yet we've never given much thought to what school kids here eat.
Dave took his China images at a college cafeteria in Chengdu. It was school holidays and the campus was nearly deserted, but the cafeteria appeared fully operational. And we were astounded to find at least 30 items -- not including mantou (steamed bread) and rice -- on offer.
Fifteen yuan (a little over two US dollars) bought us the two meals above. With rice and mantou it was far more than we could eat. Mantou (which got hard as soon as it began to lose its heat in the unheated cafeteria) excepted the dishes were all quite good, delicious even. The stir-fried egg and tomato -- slightly sweet and very flavorful -- cauliflower (perfectly crisp-tender and touched with chili heat) and the baby bok choy (also perfectly done, tangled with tender strips of pork) were the stand-outs.
If I were in Chengdu and keeping to a very strict budget I'd be frequenting university dining halls. Think of it -- a day's worth of well-prepared and decently healthy meals for about U$3.
School Lunch Malaysia 1: roti, daal, curry, candy bar, sweet drink
School Lunch Malaysia 2: Asam laksa
To get his Malaysia photographs Dave talked his way into the cafeteria at an elementary school in Brickfields, more popularly known as one of Kuala Lumpur's Little Indias. I didn't accompany him on this adventure, and Dave didn't taste the food; he remembers each lunch costing around 2 ringgit, or about 60 US cents.
The meals look decent enough, though the roti -- which Dave notes wasn't freshly made (he did arrive close to the end of lunch hour) may be a bit tired. A bowl of asam laksa makes for a fairly well-rounded meal ... but candy bars and super-sweet pink drinks?
Both of these lunches say much about what figures large in the local cuisine. In Sichuan, as we found at humble restaurants in Chengdu, rice (or other starch) is still an important part of the meal, and is eaten in great quantities. Vegetables too -- not just because they're cheap, but because Sichuanese love them (and do wonderful things with them). Chilies are present in decent quantities in two out of four dishes, and when there's meat it's pork.
In Malaysia eating chilies from an early age is a given, and strong flavors too (but not alot of vegetables). How many American kids would opt to eat a spicy, fish-based noodle soup if they had a choice? And the Malaysian palate, viewed through these two randomly chosen school lunches at least, is truly multi-cultural -- a southern Indian bread and a noodle soup with Malay and Chinese culinary roots.