An event that unfolded in chaos, injury, camaraderie, a surprise entrance, and attempted food.
You come to Japan for the cherry blossoms and the anime, but you stay for the conbinis. These shrines to convenience are an endless source of fascination – they have virtually everything and are available round the clock.
Think of an item that you need to buy. A conbini probably has it. They even have shirts and socks, pantyhose, phone chargers, dietary supplements, and over-the-counter medicine. You can pay your utility bills, buy tickets for concerts and museums, pay for online shopping, and even arrange for your online shopping to be delivered to a conbini! And above all, conbini food is gobsmackingly good.
I can call myself a conbini connoisseur to a degree, so when I was challenged by #TokyoChallenge to take part in a conbini food cooking contest I said YES without even knowing the details. Used to grabbing something tasty on the go, I grew less confident when I realized I had to cook using ONLY conbini ingredients. It got trickier:
- Shopping budget limited to 2,000 yen
- Shopping time is only 20 minutes
- Cooking time is only 30 minutes (you need to make both a savoury dish and a dessert)
- You need to share staples like flour, oil, salt, and sugar
- Absolutely no equipment or spices from home
Somehow, thanks to my Michelin-level picky palate and my need to control what I eat, I have become quite the chef for foods I like. However, that is provided I have all the time in the world and all the ingredients I want. On top of that, I had to compete with three other fierce cooking enthusiasts and frequent conbini patrons.
Gizem is a food expert, having her own food tours company, Katie is a fearless foodie who writes a lot about food (and even eating bugs), and Mina is a pure badass who entered the competition unprepared less than an hour before it started, on account of someone else dropping out.
Mina loves cooking in general, so she had no second thoughts about jumping in the challenge. Both Katie and Gizem cited watching cooking shows as their main spark; but Gizem was the culprit who originally suggested this challenge. And I have seen all the episodes of the Shokugeki no Souma anime, so this opportunity to battle via cooking was too good to pass on.
Now, whether or not the judges were going to get their clothes blown away by the power of ‘oishiiiiiiii’ was yet to be seen, but don’t expect any fan service please.
A clip from the anime:
The spick and span kitchen at the Toshima Civic Center got us all hopeful that this challenge was going to go great. It’s hard cooking out of your comfort zone, but at least it’s in a kitchen that’s way better than any place I’ve lived in. I started piling up things at my station with no rhyme or reason — just pure hoarding mentality.
I slowly started realizing that deciding to wing it might not have been so smart after all. Katie says that at least she thought about what ingredients are available in a conbini, and Gizem was smart to realize that planning would fail anyway since no conbini is the same.
Ready or not, it was time to go shopping.
I’ve never spent 20 minutes in a conbini, so the time limit looked comfy. Then again, I’ve never shopped in a combini for the purpose of cooking, so I’ve never so desperately scoured the shelves for vegetables.
First strategy: Buy everything!
Just swipe everything from the shelves. Eggs, bacon, chocolate, bananas… Wait. That’s more than 2000 yen.
Second strategy: buy small portions, cheaper things, think if you will actually use them.
However, it was still daunting to find fresh ingredients. That is where our third strategy comes in.
Third strategy: love your enemy.
Without much negotiation, all four of us naturally started collaborating. If the world is ever to come to an end, I will remember this moment to keep my hopes up that we can rebuild it. Gizem and I decided to share a pack of 12 eggs while Katie and I decided to share bread and mayo.
Yes, we were playing to win, but not by tearing each other down. At shopping half-time Katie discovered that the conbini opposite had better ingredients, so she told us to go there. Does it really matter who won this challenge? For me, it stopped mattering right then. But I guess you will read until the end, because it’s still fun to know.
Discussing our purchases, we all agreed that conbinis lack fresh fruits and vegetables, a variety of spices, and cooking basics. Normally you would not notice this, as the conbini are there for you when you’re hungry for ready-made food.
All four of us agreed we wished we went to the better-stocked conbini right away, because we spent time and money in the first one. Katie and my panicked self bought too much and complicated things at the checkout counter, and Mina also agreed that 2,000 yen was not too little, but not enough to really get creative.
Back in the kitchen, I had to face my shopping decisions and make things work. Tragically, what I thought were boiled quail eggs were weird yama-imo potatoes. I also realized I had boring things like eggs, bacon, smoked chicken and cabbage.
The clock was ticking, so I just started scrambling eggs, on autopilot. And then it hit me – I can make frittata! After dropping 1 egg and 1 slice of bacon on the floor, and clumping the flour, I managed to whisk up a decent frittata and set it to bake in the oven.
I mostly heard various shrieks from my co-contestants, cries for help and a few swears. Not a peep from me – I must have looked like I knew exactly what I was doing. I assure you I did not.
I was mostly coming to terms that it’ll turn out all I can cook is eggs. But riding that wave of confidence that I was actually baking something, I decided to fry up a combo I myself learned rather recently – bacon and banana. Yup, you read that right. This pairing is unbelievably tasty, so if I had learned anything from cooking anime is that you wow with shockers like this one.
While things were cooking, I threw all caution to the wind and flattened out an onigiri on a bamboo mat, attempting to turn it into sushi!
Making a dessert is not my thing. I toyed with the idea to serve a bar of chocolate ironically, but I was not sure I could get away with it. So, I did the next best thing – layering up a parfait.
I broke the aforementioned chocolate in pieces (it was the fancy new ruby chocolate type), crumbled a small cake, and spooned in chocolate pudding. Repeat. All in a wine glass, with grated chocolate on top. Funny how the thing I DID NOT cook ended up looking the best.
In the meantime, both Mina and Gizem struggled with the microwave function, one wanted to heat up rice, the other to boil water quickly. Mina also started whipping up cream by hand, before someone told her there was an electric mixer.
Mina figured out early on that pre-cooked ingredients were crucial with the time limit, so she mostly focused on dressing/spicing those up. Katie also had an idea of what to make right away, but not being able to find veggies for her sandwich, she was forced to get creative with seaweed.
Like a pro, she toasted the wakame seaweed to bring out crispiness. However, she struggled to make her ice cream and simultaneously keep it from turning into mush until the judging.
Both Katie and Mina BARELY made it on time, but Gizem and I were nowhere near done plating when our 30 minutes were up. Losing points by the minute, Gizem managed to finish plating her dishes before me, and I plated 4 minutes after time was up – almost burning myself on the frittata. I was officially last by points even before the judging even started.
PRESENTATION IS KEY
When the time was up, contestants were asked to present their dish and ‘tell the story’ behind it in the order everyone finished. I was glad I finished last.
Mina cooked an omurice with a twist, the theme being that she is American-Japanese, a bit like the dish itself. She also deep-fried cream puffs for dessert, on account that Americans love deep-frying things that don’t need deep frying, by her own admission – she came up with the story on the spot! Points for quick thinking.
Katie had a similar thematic approach to her tuna melt sandwich – with a twist. She called it “Mid-West meets East,” meaning an American comfort food made with Japanese accents like grilled seaweed. The lettuce she forgot to add was served as a garnish.
Guess what? She made up her whole story on the spot too!
Gizem was next, and her bamboo steaming baskets had us all giddy with excitement. This master of ceremony won in my books because of the presentation. She slowly uncovered layer upon layer of baskets, from appetizers on top, main dish in the middle, and dessert on the bottom.
The theme of her main dish was Okinawa — goya champloo without the goya. She was so good, we forgot her Pacman appetizer had nothing to do with Okinawa, and neither did her eclair dessert. It was magic! She admitted to making up the Okinawa story on the spot — see the pattern here?
Following suit, I whipped up a theme for my culinary escapades as the others were presenting. My theme was ‘International Party,’ as most of what I had were finger foods from different continents.
My friend Edith from South Africa taught me the banana bacon combo, my faux onigiri sushi with smoked chicken kinda represented Japan, and my chicken mayo served on potato chips represented the West — all on the same plate, like the cosmopolitan groups I hang out with in Tokyo.
The dessert was also a mix of things put together in a wine glass, because if we’re not mingling and drinking is it even a party?
TIME TO FACE JUDGEMENT
Our judge Yasue lives the dream — she is a professional cookbook editor and culinary consultant, and even though she had every right to spit out food like an angry Gordon Ramsey, she was truly kind to us.
She observed our cooking process, scoring us on these four criteria:
- Healthiness/balance and
At the last minute, a surprise judge appeared! Yasue was joined by Raina Huang, a competitive eater from the US, Youtuber, model, and cook, among many other things, just for the tasting. She had just flown to Tokyo to do a week-long challenge that night but was asked to check out our challenge in the tasting phase.
WINNER WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER!
As the judges and organizers convened to calculate the scores, contestants started eating their own dishes. I was tucking into the rest of my dessert, when I felt something breaking. No, it was not my heart, it was my tooth. Just my rotten luck to chomp too hard on a harder piece of chocolate. Or whoever is writing my life story is lame! Biting my tongue, I decided to not cause a ruckus just before they announce the winners.
Yasue added all of her scores and it was very very close – Mina was 4th, Zoria and Katie had the same score, and Gizem emerged as 1st!
Yasue was wowed by Zoria’s dessert and the bacon-banana combo, as well as by Katie’s seaweed magic and Mina’s deep-fried cream puffs, and she loved how everything tasted. However, she said that Gizem’s creativity while also making sure the dishes were healthy won her over.
But these were not the final results! The surprise judge Raina dramatically changed the scores in a Hollywood-worthy twist, basing her judging solely on personal taste. She gave Zoria and Gizem the fewest points, while giving Mina and then Katie the highest scores. And then, in true dramatic fashion, she disappeared.
Lastly, the Judge of Time shaved off 2 points from Gizem’s score, and 4 points from yours truly, recounting this dramatic culinary contest.
IMAGINARY DRUM ROLL FOR PRIZES, PLEASE…
As a proud 4th place finisher I got a pending visit to my dentist! Gizem and her Okinawan cuisine finished 3rd, Mina was 2nd, and Katie in 1st place won a 10,000 yen Quo Card that can be used in any conbini. And, no matter how cheesy it sounds, we were all happy to be participating in a cooking challenge, after just watching so many of them.
We were proud of ourselves for being able to cook something in that short time, while supporting each other and making zero people sick in the process.