Tuesday, August 26, 2008

School Lunch

Thais love to eat. They eat at all hours of the day and into the night. When not eating a main meal, they snack, and they love a bit of sweet treat now and then. The traditional food is flavorful and well known universally for its spiciness. Everywhere one goes in Thailand, there is food available, from small mobile carts on street corners to open air cafes, to large markets, to fine dining in elegant hotels. We are still sampling menus of restaurants within a ten minute walk of our home and are not near to having tried them all: Of course, we return often to those whose fare we have found to be particularly delicious, or whose environment is inviting, or best of all, both.

The school’s three canteens (Elementary, Middle School and High School) reflect the country’s penchant for food. The cafeterias are open air, and next to one another, stretching for nearly the length of a city block. Not really three separate cafeterias, but at slightly different levels to designate where each age group is to eat—but it isn’t required that they do. I counted no less than twenty food stalls, not counting the large beverage stall that sits strategically in the middle directly across the room from the food offerings. No carbonated drinks are sold, but students have whispered that if you ask the right people, they will discretely pour some into a cup for you.

In order for the students to be able to follow their stomachs in the Thai tradition, there is a 20-minute mid-morning “milk break.” Originally for elementary children, it is now a full-fledged gastronomic smorgasbord opportunity for all students K-12.

I spend too much of my 40 minute lunch break trying to decide what to eat. Sometimes I have a craving for one dish or another and head directly there, but usually I simply wander along, unable to make up my mind, as the cholces are simply overwhelming. I was stunned to find that the school menu is several pages long. Not only are there many stalls, but within each are several options. There is a Japanese food stall offering sushi, salmon, pork or beef steak, and sashimi; A vendor selling Korean food; Several stalls of Thai dishes: Noodle soups, fried noodle and shrimp or chicken (pad thai), vegetarian dishes, fried rice dishes, grilled chicken, sweet curried chicken or pork; or one might wish to have western fare such as hot dogs or burgers and fries, or move on to the stall with quick snacks or the one with a variety of sandwiches. Not only is the food delicious, it is also inexpensive: I generally eat for less than $1.50, which will easily buy a good-sized dish and a bottle of water (cold bottled water goes for the equivalent of 21 cents). Occasionally I will treat myself to fresh fruit or a chocolate dessert, or as I did yesterday, to an iced cappuccino. I have not heard anyone complain about the cafeteria food; in fact it is just the opposite. This is by far the finest school cafeteria menu I have had the pleasure to sample. The secret? Rent out the stall spaces to independent vendors. Happily, there is not one fast food icon to be seen amongst them.

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