Wednesday, January 25, 2006

the horror of milk tofu refuse

The most horrifying food experience in my life, thus far, came right after my family moved back to Japan from Bangkok, where we’d lived for five years. Among other changes, I was to be introduced to the wilderness of school lunch, out of the cozy protection of home-cooked lunches. My mother, never a big fan of cooking, was giving a sigh of relief, but I wasn’t very excited.

After the first day of the new school, I studiously went over the month’s school lunch menu. My eyes got fixated at one item among other, more safe-sounding ones: milk tofu refuse. It was scheduled to be served somewhere in the second week of school. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was going to be bad. I hated milk. I went to my mother and asked what the “tofu refuse” was. Instantly, her facial expression changed into that of agony. Obviously, it evoked some painful memories within her. “It’s a byproduct of tofu making. After you squeeze the soymilk out of the beans, you get the refuse. My grandma used to cook those all the time. I never liked them,” she said. I pictured a bowl of lukewarm milk with fibery bits of soy residue floating in it. It seemed to be the worst food possibly ever imaginable. “But it’s nutritious,” my mother added like an afterthought.

For the next ten or so days, the horrible image lingered in the back of my mind. When the day came, I seriously considered playing hooky, but couldn’t summon up the guts to do so and headed out for school in defeat. At 12:30, I was looking down at my plastic plate. Instead of a bowl of milk with tofu refuse floating in it, there was a pale brown, moist blob of some fibery stuff with bits of carrots mixed in. I wondered where the milk was, and thought the moistness had to be the milk. I looked at other kids’ plates. They seemed to have gotten much less of the refuse than I did. I picked at it, and fled to the task of eating other things. When there was nothing else left on my plate, however, I had to face the milk tofu residue reality again. In Japanese schools, not finishing what you have been served isn’t an option. It’s impolite, unhealthy, and wasteful. I poked at the brown blob a few more times, trying to keep the tears welling up in my eyes, in vain. I had no proof, but I was convinced it was the yuckiest thing in the world. The mere thought of putting the substance into my mouth was more than enough. By this time, most of my second-grade classmates had finished their lunch and gone out to play in the schoolyard. The teacher noticed my torment and came over to me. Probably because I was still new in school, she decided that I could “take home” the milk tofu refuse just this one time. She gave me a plastic bag from her desk, and I put my archenemy in it, knowing very well that no one would eat it back home.

In a few weeks, I realized that the school lunch was a great system. I liked most of the food, and the variety was fantastic. But I never got over my ingrained fear of milk tofu refuse. I didn’t have to suffer much, though, for I quickly developed a skill to sneakily give it off to some of my hungrier friends whenever it was served. As a result—I still don’t know what it tastes like.

keywords: school, childhood, food, lunch, school lunch, horror, Japan, tofu, tofu refuse, okara, culture shock, culture


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