World | Food | Entertainment

In Japan, Food Can Be Almost Too Cute To Eat

NPR | March 11, 2013 8:49 a.m.

Contributed By:

Daniel Turner

From an early age, Japanese kids are taught to “eat with your eyes,” and this emphasis on the visual delights of food can be found in all aspects of Japan’s vaunted culture of cute.

Take children’s television, for example. Some of the most beloved cartoon characters in Japan are based on food items.

One favorite is Anpanman, or “Bread Man” – a superhero whose head is made out of bread filled with red bean paste (yeah, we’re a bit baffled, too). Anpanman spends most of his time running, around saving starving children by letting them take bites out of his oh-so-delicious head. His friends include Shokupanman, whose head is made from a piece of sliced white bread, and Currypanman, whose head is made from a piece of – you guessed it – curry-filled bread.

This obsession with cute food manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Take, for example, Hannari Tofu — a food product line whose mascot is the cutest chunk of soybean curd you’re likely to encounter. (He pops up on everything from stuffed animals to key holders.)

Debra Samuels, a chef and author of My Japanese Table, used to live in Japan with her family. It didn’t take her long to realize how tightly everyday life revolved around visuals, especially when it came to food.

After her young son started complaining that the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches she was packing for him weren’t “cute enough” for kindergarten, Samuels started embracing the Japanese food aesthetic.

She began carving apple wedges into the shapes of bunnies. She added “baloney bangs” to sandwiches with faces.

“The first thing you do when you look at something is to see whether you want to eat it or not. It’s very important in Japanese culture,” she tells All Things Considered host Audie Cornish, adding, “Kids learn this from a very early age.”

And from an early age, Japanese kids also get some pretty excellent school lunches, called kyushoku. Served to all first through sixth graders, these standardized meals serve a similar purpose as school uniforms. As Samuels explains, “Everybody gets the same lunch. There are kids that are traumatized because their lunches are not as cute as their neighbors’.”

These school lunches are locally grown and usually made from scratch. They’re so yummy that, as The Washington Post reported earlier this week, some kids ask their parents to recreate the meals at home. And they’re healthy, too, which has encouraged some parents to ring up schools for the recipes. It’s hard to imagine the same thing happening in the U.S.

By the way, if you’re curious about how school lunches compare around the world, check out this slideshow from our friends at Shots. Eat your eyes out, folks!

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