I took this picture at an eatery/tiny restaurant right outside the gate of Kyodai (Kyoto Daigaku – Kyoto University). I barely remember what we had. Something curry. And something else, grilled pork maybe. And a lot of white, puffy, steamy rice. A huge plate of rice, in fact, with the meat centered on top. We were full and sedated (by the carb), without having to pay much at all.
The secret to campus eateries in Japan is rice. Rice in Japan is considered the main dish, and it’s so good that it can be eaten alone unseasoned, unaccompanied by side dishes. Rice also fills you up quick, and makes for a fulfilling, cheap meal. One time we were starving, walking from Doshisha towards KyoDai, and found a tiny place with a one-page menu. With only about 300 yen on hand – I was still not used to carrying cash – the only thing I could order was the cheapest one on the menu. It was called something along the line of “Cilantro Rice”, and it really was just plain fried rice (no eggs) with cilantro and some garlic. It was delicious.
Cheap eateries in the US are a little bit different. Since certain kinds of meat here is as cheap as fake leather (and sometimes tastes like that), cheap food for students = cheap fast-food-like meat. Case in point: the “only eatery that was voted best eatery on campus” across from my building has a menu full of meat, mostly chicken of course. Their sandwiches don’t even have a decorative slice of tomato or some lettuce for show – just bread and meat. The taste was alright, but very dry. My best option is a decent burrito place, only because they at least have guacamole and salsa and beans in the burrito. To be fair though, too much carb = high blood sugar, and too much meat = fattening, so it’s not like Japan wins in the cheap student food department.
In Vietnam though, you can always get rice and cheap bowl of soup (with greens, not lettuce) right across the school. The portion is meager, sure, but the nutrition is guaranteed. Might be why Vietnamese students are so skinny! (But whatever health benefit they get from their cheap lunch, they destroy it within the day with a big bowl of instant noodles…)