The Yomiuri ShimbunIn mid-June, students at Shimogyo-Miyabi Elementary School in Kyoto enjoyed a traditional Japanese-style lunch: stir-fried pork and manganji togarashi peppers, a traditional vegetable produced in Kyoto Prefecture; daikon radish leaves sauteed with sesame seeds; miso soup with mozuku seaweed; and rice.
“I like the crisp daikon leaves,” said one student. Almost all children ate everything they were served.
Starting four years ago, students at public elementary and junior high schools in Kyoto have been served a special washoku-based menu once a month.
“They have rice at lunch four times a week,” an official at the city’s board of education said. “This special menu often features traditional ingredients and festive dishes for seasonal events, thus further emphasizing the characteristics of Japanese cuisine.”
The special program was launched after washoku was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. At a time when washoku is less frequently eaten in usual households, the board of education focused on school lunches as a means of passing on the food culture to the next generation. The city sought advice from experts such as Isao Kumakura, a professor emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology.
The board of education reviewed not just the menus for school lunches.
To serve grilled fish, an essential element of washoku, the city has procured ovens that cook ingredients using hot air and steam, which have enabled the special lunch program to feature dishes such as grilled sawara Spanish mackerel marinated in a yuan-style sauce, a soy sauce-based mixture with slices of citrus.
“The children now bring up topics like washoku dishes and traditional Kyoto vegetables on their own,” said Shimogyo-Miyabi Principal Yoriko Kamikawa.
At the same time, however, the city’s school lunches sometimes serve bread with an aim to encourage children to eat a variety of dishes and appreciate the differences.
According to a survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, all elementary and junior high schools served rice for their lunches in 2018, with an average frequency of 3.5 times per week.
In the postwar years, school lunches in Japan were based on bread. Schools began to provide rice for lunch following instructions from the then Education, Science, Sports and Culture Ministry in 1976, which were issued partly because of overproduction of the staple. The ministry promoted rice-based school lunches by defining rice as “the foundation of Japan’s traditional food culture.” By 2007, schools served rice an average of three times per week.
However, school lunches are significantly different depending on the region, as the menus are decided in accordance with the views of municipal governments and schools. Some school lunches do not offer a complete washoku meal because they serve rice but no soup.
School lunch menus are created and supervised mainly by teachers and other officials who hold certifications as nutritionists, but they face many challenges in creating washoku menus.
“There are many restrictions on school lunches, such as meeting the [education ministry-set] nutritional standards and budgets, and having to cook large amounts of dishes on time,” said Mihoko Nagashima, chair of the Japanese Association for Dietetic Research and Education. For instance, the nutritional standards were revised last year, reducing the level of salt intake.
“This change requires more ideas in creating menus for school lunches, such as making dashi broth more flavorful because soups tend to be heavy in salt,” she said.
Hiroko Nakazawa, professor at the University of Nagano, pointed out that today, even students who aim to become dietitians have little experience eating or preparing washoku dishes at home.
Moreover, she said, training programs offered at universities and elsewhere for prospective dietitians tend to focus on nutritional science and other subjects to help them pass the national exam. These students get few opportunities to study local traditional dishes or festive meals for seasonal events, which will be necessary when they promote food education through school lunches.
There are some initiatives to promote washoku-based school lunches aimed at dietitians. A study group in Nagano Prefecture, which is made up of former school dietitians, has been hosting workshops on Japanese cuisine for nutrition teachers since 2014. One workshop offered during fiscal 2018, for example, featured ways to prepare dishes using local ingredients, such as deep-fried wakasagi lake smelt, simmered beans and egg soup. Some participants later featured these dishes at their schools, and received positive feedback from their students.