Although I expressed doubt about kids-specific menu in the previous post, the NY Times article on kids' menu also reminded me of a restaurant staple--one that's designed specifically for kids--in Japan. Called "okosama lunch" (okosama rather politely refers to kids), this staple is available in many restaurants. Just like chicken fingers can be on the menu in Chinese or Italian restaurants, okosama lunch can be found on the menus of any kind of restaurnats that cater to families. Just thinking about okosama lunch, I'm starting to drool... forget what I said about kids-specific menus; this thing is fun!
The makeup of okosama lunch is pretty consistent. It's usually served on a special, often plastic, plate with kids-friendly patterns (like animals, cars, etc.) Sometimes, the plates can be shaped like a space shuttle or train. The usual suspects include ketchup-flavored rice (sometimes wrapped in a super-thin omlette), breadded-and-fried shrimps, a mini hamburger patty with demi glace sauce, ketchup-flavored spaghetti (somehow called Neapolitan in Japan), maybe an octopus-shaped sausage, a few fruits and a small salad. Many restaurants lure kids with such sweet extras as custard pudding or orange jelly, and some even go as far as accompanying their version of okosama lunch with a cheap plastic toy that's sure to be abandoned after ten minutes. (The image is an example of okosama lunch, served at Komeya Ryokan in Okayam prefecture.)
Though okosama lunches are nutritionaly questionable with a lot of fat and a lot of carbohydrates, it's kind of fun to get one every once in a while. (Yes, you could get one even if you're an adult--some restaurants do have age limit, but others don't. All it takes is some balls...) To attract kids, the chefs tend to be creative with presentation: the ketchup rice often boasts a miniature flag, while the color scheme of red ketchup, yellow eggs and green cucumber is decidedly festive. Best of all, since each food item is very small in amount, and an average plate holds about six or seven different items plus dessert, you get to try a little bit of everything. What not to like?
Now, if you're familiar with the "yoshoku" (Western food) tradition in Japan, you'll notice that most of the items on a given okosama lunch come from that tradition. In the late 19th century, when Japan finally opened its doors to the rest of the world, there was an influx of Western cuisine. Restaurants serving Western-style food sprouted up in large cities, especially in Tokyo, and were regarded as the hip place to dine. By the early 20th century, the chefs had modified traidtional French and other European cuisines to suit the Japanese palate and customs, and a few standard "yoshoku" items had been born. The ketchup-flavored rice wrapped in a thin omelette (called "om-rice," photographed below), hamburger patty served solo with demi glace sauce, and breadded-and-fried shrimps are some examples. These are items that invoke the sense of nostalgia in many a Japanese mind, despite their origin in alien cultures.
The concensus seems to be that okosama lunch was invented by a Taro Ando, a then-manager of the restaurant department of Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi. Anecdote has it that he came up with the idea of serving tiny portions of the popular menu items of his restaurant to children, when a supplier of ceramics showed up to his office with a bunch of plates with kids-orientated design. This was in 1930. Despite the exorbitant price (it went for 1/3 of a yen, when a month of newspaper subscription cost a yen), and despite the economic hardship faced by most, it became an instant hit. Soon other restaurants followed suit. The original okosama lunch sported ketchup rice with green peas, spaghetti "Neapolitan," potato croquettes, a sausage, ham sandwiches, and a few pieces of tiny sugary candy as a dessert. Though the selection might seem like a nutritional disaster in the eyes of a modern eater, this veggieless dish could very well have appeared "nutritious" in the eyes of the early Showa-era Japanese, whose protein and fat intake was much lower. (The photo is a slightly higher-end version of okosama lunch, served to the guests of the Shodoshima International Hotel in Kagawa prefecture.)
Quite a few Japanese adults are still hooked to their sweet memory of eating okosama lunch in department store restaurants (one of the most likely places to find okosama lunch; not a surprise, given its origin). To appeal to these nostalgic diners, there are now some restaurants that serve adult versions of the okosama lunch. Each item may be a bit higher in quality (i.e., cooked from scratch, rather than dunking a plastic pouch into boiling water), and it may be modified to suit "adult" taste, but the adult version preserves the festive presentation and the fun of "little bit of everything." The nice thing about the adult version is that the quality tends to be much higher. With some notable exceptions, the quality of food involved in okosama lunch could be infuriatingly low, with many items made from frozen or canned stuff. But when you get the adult version, you know they can't cheat as easily, thus you're getting better stuff. Note to myself: next time we go to Japan, we have to do this...