Lunchtime at Asian American Cultural Center's Magic Dragon School
My recollection of eau de preschool definitely doesn't include the heavenly scent of freshly made scallion buns. But that's the dominant aroma in the kitchen of the Magic Dragon School, where Joyce Wan deftly prepares midafternoon snacks for the pre- and after-school programs at the Asian American Cultural Center. "Snack is the high point of the day," says Amy Wong Mok, founder and CEO of the center (that part, I remember).
But it's lunchtime now, and we move to the aptly named kangaroo classroom. At preschools everywhere, it's common to see exuberant 4-year-olds eating around a tiny table. Perhaps it's not so common to observe little ones sipping from cups of ginger-laced chicken consommé (between bounces) and happily chowing down on roasted salmon with lots of garlic, steamed Chinese cabbage, rice, and watermelon. Teacher Yi-Jing Tsai serves me a diminutive plate, and it's all delicious: hearty, warming, and beautifully flavorful.
Mok explains that lunchtime at the Magic Dragon is an integral part of the school's overall philosophy, which incorporates the principle of wellness, as well as those of compassion, wisdom, team-building, and beauty. She continues, "The majority of Chinese wellness is about prevention, not getting sick; food is the primary medicine. We stay tuned to our bodies' balance, the yin and yang. And we're part of the universe; our bodies adjust as seasons change. For example, in a dry autumn, we need more moisture in our food." Mok and Wan plan the meals around seasonal preventative wellness (like lots of ginger and garlic during the winter flu season), market availability, nutrition, and taste. Most but not all dishes are Asian-inspired; pasta with cheese is on the menu, and snacks range from fried rice to banana cake.
The inevitable question arises: Is it difficult to get the kids to eat what's served, what's good for them? Not from my observation, where only one of the group seemed reluctant. (I learned that he had attended Magic Dragon for only a month.)ÊMok maintains that healthy food eaten early in life becomes comfort food and tells a story of one non-Asian student who woke in the night asking for rice balls. Teachers talk about such topics as, "why onion is in our food," and students learn about vegetables growing in the schoolyard's Yin/Yang garden. Mok says that tasting new things encourages kids to explore in other areas. "When children enjoy food, they enjoy life."