Once a picky eater, nutritionist Susumu Matsumaru racks his brains to make lunches that children will love at an elementary school in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward.
As a child, Matsumaru, now 34, was encouraged by a nutritionist at his elementary school to "try at least a bite" of meals he was reluctant to eat. Young Matsumaru would take small bites.
As he grew taller and became a fast runner, he felt he "owed these qualities to the school lunches."
The experience led him to become a nutritionist.
But when he started working at an elementary school in 2009, he saw large amounts of fish and vegetables--sometimes 30 percent to 40 percent of the lunch--were left uneaten.
He resolved to reduce the leftovers to zero.
Children in general are not fond of fish, vegetables and beans.
"As a way to incorporate soybeans in the menu, we could have jumped straight in by offering soybeans simmered with vegetables," Matsumaru says. "But the children will simply leave them uneaten. So I decided to combine the beans with what children like."
He serves "potato and beans with powdered green laver," a dish with boiled soybeans and diced potatoes that are deep fried and dusted with powdered "aonori" and salt.
He was inspired by a snack food made of potatoes and seasoned with laver and salt.
And then there is the fish.
"They (children) don’t like the bones, the smell and how the blueback fish look like in particular. So in school lunches, we start with slices of white-fleshed fish and salmon with fewer bones," Matsumaru says.
He came up with "grilled white fish with colorful vegetables." Although he used cod for the recipe this week, flounder will also work.
He topped the slices with a mixture of "hanpen" (soft, white fish "surimi" product) and finely-chopped vegetables. The red tomato, green "komatsuna" leaves, yellow bell pepper and brown "shimeji" mushroom look colorful in the surimi.
Matsumaru makes it a point to visit the classrooms when the lunches are set and chat with the children. He tries to generate interest in the lunch by telling the pupils such things as, "You know, the salad dressing has grated onion in it."
His efforts paid off, and the amount of leftovers dropped quickly.
"Children who have fewer experiences are afraid of food that they have not tried before. So the adults must tell them that the food tastes good and there is nothing to be afraid of," Matsumaru says. "Not becoming choosy about food can affect a child’s life. That’s why we cook with heart and soul."
Born in 1983 in Chiba Prefecture, Matsumaru attended the Hana College of Nutrition. After graduating, he worked at a hospital where he planned menus and provided nutritional care. He was then hired by Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward as a nutritionist and began planning menus at Aoyagi Elementary School in the ward in 2009. He won the grand prize at the eighth all-Japan school lunch competition in 2013. He started working at Kanatomi Elementary School in the same ward in 2016.
4 slices white fish
1 Tbsp sake
1 piece hanpen (120 grams)
Seasoning A (1 tsp each of sake and soy sauce, little less than 1 tsp sweet mirin sake, 1 Tbsp katakuriko starch, 1/2 beaten egg, bit of salt and grated ginger)
20 grams each of komatsuna leaves, carrot, pumpkin, yellow bell pepper (papurika) and shimeji mushroom
2 cherry tomatoes
1 egg yolk
Sprinkle sake on fish. Finely chop hanpen, place in bowl, add Seasoning A and mash with hand or ladle until it becomes paste-like.
Boil komatsuna, squeeze out water and chop finely. Cut carrot, bell pepper, tomato into small dices. Cut pumpkin into small dices, and finely chop shimeji mushroom. Wrap the two in plastic wrap and microwave at 600W for about one minute.
Mix hanpen paste and vegetables.
Pat fish dry with kitchen paper, cook in fish grill until 80 percent done.
Remove fish, lay hanpen mixture flat, brush on egg yolk and return to fish grill and cook further. Cook until nicely browned. Serve with mitsuba leaves if available.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column