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Hannari Tofu is a character who shows up on a range of plush merchandise. (Satorare/Flickr)

In Japan, Food Can Be Almost Too Cute To Eat

by Audrey Carlsen
Jan 29, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Food imitates art imitating food: a pancake shaped to resemble Anpanman's sweet roll head. Two of the heroes from the anime series Go! Anpanman. The head of Shokupanman (left) is made out of white bread. Anpanman (right) is named after a Japanese sweet roll stuffed with red bean paste. To-fu Oyako is a soybean-curd-inspired line of products, including bags, planners and pillows. A kyaraben, or character bento, inspired by characters from the anime Yondemasuyo, Azazel-san.

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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 many 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 a sweet roll 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 Hannari Tofu — the cutest chunk of soybean curd you're likely to encounter. The character pops up on a range of plush merchandise, from stuffed animals to key holders.

Debra Samuels, a chef and author of My Japanese Table, used to live in Japan with her family. She says 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 embraced 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. "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 re-create the meals at home. And they're healthful, 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 slide show from our friends at Shots. Eat your eyes out, folks!

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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