AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Can you imagine calling up the cafeteria of one of your local public schools and asking for a recipe? Now, we understand this does happen sometimes in Japan. We read this week in the Washington Post that Japanese school lunches are a point of national pride. Students eat locally grown food - almost never frozen - usually made from scratch. These are meals so good kids want to have them at home. To learn more, we turn to chef and author Debra Samuels, who lived in Japan and sent her son through the public school system. She's also author of "My Japanese Table." Debra, welcome to the program.
DEBRA SAMUELS: Thank you, Audie. Nice to be here.
CORNISH: So start by telling us what happened when you first sent your son to school in Japan. What lunch did you lovingly pack for him that day? And what did he encounter at school?
SAMUELS: Well, like a good American mom, I got out a brown paper bag, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrot sticks, a whole apple, cookies, grapes. And I packed it in the bag and said good-bye. And he came home that day crying that his lunch wasn't cute. At that point, I realized that I had to learn what Japanese moms were sending their kids to school with. And it was the obento or the bento box, which are these very well-balanced nutritional meals in a box, a cute box. I went out and got a book, 101 ways to make obento, and we went through it for the rest of the year.
CORNISH: So what are the rules for making these lunches? Because when you talked about your American lunch, you know, it had carrot sticks and an apple and things that sounded fairly healthy. What makes these different?
SAMUELS: They look like you want to eat them. I just cut my carrots into the shape of a flower or I made the sandwich, you know, with baloney bangs. I mean, there are many numbers that - instead of one...
CORNISH: Did you say baloney bangs?
SAMUELS: That's what I said.
CORNISH: What does that mean?
SAMUELS: Instead of the baloney inside the sandwich - this little round face and the bangs on the face were made of baloney. But it was still a sandwich, but it looked good. He wanted to eat it. You can present anything, sort of a bento style. And the Japanese kids are not just eating Japanese foods. These are Western foods that are incorporated into their diet, school and home and everywhere.
CORNISH: So, Debra, that's an occasion when you sent your son to school with lunch. But we hear that, you know, the Japanese cafeteria, the lunches they serve in schools is a completely different affair. Tell us what it's like.
SAMUELS: Well, it's actually not a cafeteria because the children tend to eat in their classrooms. They have carts that are brought into the classroom by kids, and they will pass out the lunch, and they all eat the exact same thing.
CORNISH: And this is a freshly cooked meal, correct?
SAMUELS: This is very often - yes, it's a freshly cooked meal. Foods that they would find at home. They all, you know, rather tasty. My son remembers particularly these things that are called korokke. And they're like a potato croquette that might have been filled with minced meat, and they've got the panko bread crumbs on top of them. So they're kind of crispy and covered with a sauce, and then there would be a salad, and then there would be a miso soup and some kind of fruit. And then there would usually be milk.
CORNISH: Of course, Debra, here in the U.S., there has been so much talk lately about childhood obesity and also about improving nutrition in school lunch programs. And Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Do you think that's because of school lunches?
SAMUELS: I don't think it's just because of school lunches. I think it's because their portions of food that they are served at home and in school are much smaller than ours. They also eat a variety of foods, usually at least five different kinds at a meal. So they're eating a larger variety but a smaller portion size.
CORNISH: And, Debra, every once in a while, do you miss carving carrots into flowers?
SAMUELS: I don't miss it. I still do it.
SAMUELS: I do it for myself. And that whole apple, it turns into the ubiquitous apple bunny in the bento. That's one of the things that goes into every little child's bento box.
CORNISH: Debra Samuels, she's the author of "My Japanese Table." We spoke to her about public school lunches in Japan. Debra, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SAMUELS: Thank you very much, Audie. It was really enjoyable.
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