On Sunday, the Hindu newspaper, the only newspaper in India I have any respect for, held a cooking competition in our very own Vishakapatnam. Why did I, secure in my cooking skills, validated daily by my husband and family, have to participate? Well, I’m still trying to figure that out. I entered along with 350 women who had taken time away from their families on a Sunday morning. Before you get all excited – no, I didn’t win squat – bubkus, nada, didly. Here’s how it went down…
I couldn’t sleep all of Saturday night because I felt so guilty for entering this cooking competition which was on the last day of my husband’s “at home holiday” and one of two days I had to finish a report. Being a freelancer, one can’t screw up on a single report because word spreads. And I had planned to pamper my dear husband on his last day of holiday (till the end of the year). You’d think that all that guilt would have kept me at home. But some crazy desire in me to do something for myself, something that I love i.e cooking, forced me to wake up at 6 am to prepare what I was sure was going to be a pretty left-field a.k.a unique to the Vizag audience. But unique does not equal winning and I guess I had no presumptions about that. In a culinary and culturally conservative town like Vizag, Western cuisine does not win. I have to admit that at one level I wanted to participate to tell you all about it and then b!tch about it if I didn’t win!
My husband was equally wracked with guilt as deep down he didn’t really want to drive the 30kms in to town and hang around waiting for a cooking competition to end on his last day of holiday BUT he knew he’d get hell from me later (it would come back to bite him in the behind) for not supporting his wife. I made it easy on him and begged him not to come. Who knew how long the judging would take and going by Indian standards, nothing would start on time.
I dragged my exhausted self (don’t forget I had woken up to cook at 6 am and been working all night on the report), now slightly nervous seeing all the older experienced ladies from a variety of regional backgrounds in their silk sarees, march in to the Four Points Sheraton, dishes in hand, pesky grandchildren and husbands in tow. Who knew that Vizag had such a diverse population – I thought it was just the Navy but clearly there are people from all over the country who have been
forced, chosen, to live here. It seemed to me that all the women looked a combination of embarrassed and excited to be there. The men looked pretty shell shocked at the sight of all that food and all those women – neither of which they could lay their hands on. There were some quite”involved” husbands who were directing their wives in the presentation of the dish, arranging and re-arranging. There was no cooking allowed on site. You had to prepare the dish at home.
We were ushered in to a conference room, wearing aprons and badges, now only to be identified by our registration numbers and I took a spot at the end of the room. There were 3 categories of dishes, vegetarian, non-vegetarian and dessert and the hall was divided up according to our categories with the non-vegetarian section at one end. You could only bring one dish in one category. The place was all abuzz with Big FM radio and MAA TV and MAA TV Gold sponsoring and covering the event on radio and TV. The ladies began assembling dishes and boy oh boy were there some pretty funky presentations. Keep in mind this is Vizag, so the level of kitsch is high. Simple = boring. Elegant = just plain not trying hard enough. There were entire puja scenes recreated with terracotta gods, flowers, incense. Hawaiian tropical themes with carrots as trees and upturned carved capsicums as the tree tops; teddy bears made of sweet limes, with long thin brinjals (local aubergines) for arms. Chickens and ducks carved out of beetroots and some yellow vegetable/fruit I couldn’t identify. One lady even recreated an entire dhaba scene, she’d brought sand, vegetables carved in to tractors and farmers and had been growing ragi and sprouts for days. Another just brought all the exotic curios in her house and placed her dishes on top of it. She’d served up a traditional Andhra chicken curry on top of an Ethiopian woman’s head. How good the food was, is anybody’s guess. I just had to taste the “Chocolate Chicken” which had a huge bar of milky chocolate on top. Sorry lady, there’s no nice of saying this, but burn the recipe, it tasted like sick. Don’t do that to chocolate.
By the time I got in to the hall and had set up I only had a few minutes to walk around and take some pictures. This lady with the carrot palm trees and teddy bears had a rather large woman sitting next to her who would reach across the isle, stretching over the table to get some sort of prop from her friend. She’d land back down and all the palm trees would come crashing down. And she kept doing it! I couldn’t help but think sabotage was at play…
And for my dish, The Manwich: Home made Italian focaccia bread topped with Greek style tzatziki yogurt and sauted prawns in a chilli garlic jam. Readers of this blog should be familiar with this dish.
It was announced that there would be 5 judges: Mr. Praveen Kumar Head Chef from the Four Points Sheraton and 4 of his executive chefs. I quickly scrambled to make another portion of my dish so they’d each have one to taste. But I was really surprised to see that only the Head Chef came round tasting and scoring the Non-vegetarian section and the other four went round the dessert and vegetarian sections. For the sake of fairness I expected more than one person’s opinion of my dish. It turned out, that the sous chefs were far more liberal with their scores than the Head Chef. Anyhow, anything I say will make me sound like a sour loser and a crabby participant, so I said nothing at the time.
But before they could get to the judging, they had to indulge in the classic Indian love for “dignitaries” as we call them. In India, the chief guest invariably loves to hear the sound of his/her own voice. No thought is given to the relationship between the speech and the nature of the event, or that participants are politely waiting for you to finish up so that we could get to the good part -the judging. The Vishaka Valley School principal droned on and on and said some pretty controversial and contradictory things. First she admired all us women for providing nutritious meals to our families with love, while also juggling careers. Then she berated us for serving up left overs to our families. She had a seriously archaic view of fresh food and basically said that refrigerators and microwaves were the devils work. At one point she even blamed non-vegetarians for the demise of our Indian culture. There was a specific non-vegetarian food category there – women proudly displaying chicken, mutton and fish dishes loved by their families. Not that anyone was listening to her at that point as she’d been speaking for over 30 minutes. Finally, someone nudged her off the stage. By this time, the food had gone cold, garnishes were wilting, teddy bears were dropping arms and legs as toothpicks gave way, most people were chatting on their mobile phones and I had lost the will to live; I opened up my laptop and decided to work on my report to get something productive out of this day.
At long last, the judging began. The scoring was divvied up between 10 points for colour, 10 for texture, 10 for presentation, 20 for innovation and 50 for taste. Although he tasted but the tiniest of portions of each dish, Mr. Praveen Kumar was clearly a man who liked his food. He was LARGE – his pants could barely fit round his waist and he had to do that awful fat man thing where the pants can only stay on if worn below the large food storage area. He looked pretty grumpy as well. When he finally came round to my dish, I thought I was pretty crafty in explaining how each element of my dish fit in with the scoring categories. A soft home made open faced sandwich of Italian chilli garlic focaccia bread, topped with a creamy Greek style tzatziki with garlic, a crunchy salsa verde and prawns sauteed in a chilli garlic jam. I heard him tell his assistant (who carried his cutlery and water bottles) to put down marks for innovation.
The best part was when everyone’s dishes had been tasted and it had been 3 hours since we had got there. Everybody just got up, armed with spoons and plates and went round tasting each other’s dishes. It was lunch time and there was a wonderful spontaneous sharing of food between strangers. It reminded me of those school pot-lucks we used to have. Everyone would bring enough for themselves and for one more person, open up their lunch boxes and eat each others’ food. Some participants had brought so much food they went round serving it up to everybody. And as you taste people’s food, partly because you are ravenous and partly to check out the competition, your mind starts playing tricks on you and you start to get desperate. Maybe I can win something, perhaps a consolation prize. I’m the only one that’s made a Western non-veg dish; I’m the only one who made my own bread; I did get marks for innovation; my husband loves this dish; My lucky number is 7 (I don’t really believe in lucky numbers but what the hell) and my registration number is 250, 2+5+0; and it’s about time I won a competition…
The truth is that when I was about 9 I won a competition by Disney magazine. It was to create a story using disconnected comic strips that the magazine would publish every month for six months which you had to piece together to form your own story. So I made, “Goofy’s Goof Up Day” and won the second prize – 3 nights 4 days at the 5 star Fort Aguada Resort in Goa for me and family. I’d never stayed at a 5 star beach resort before. For the first time I saw a buffet of Western breakfast… by a swimming pool! Breakfast, then swim, breakfast, then swim – then probably throw up. Awesome when you’re 9. And if you crept along the pool, behind the palm trees was a beautiful secluded beach. On the way back from seeing some ruins and old churches, I was too tired to walk and out of nowhere a golf buggee from the hotel appeared. I’d never seen or ridden in one of those. I hopped on to the back and felt like I should wave to passersby, like the Queen. The first prize was a trip to Disney Land USA – good thing we didn’t win that, I didn’t have a passport!
Ten years later I was dragged against my will to a TV studio along with 20 other girls from my college, Lady Shri Ram in New Delhi, to compete with 2 other girls colleges on the show 3-2-1 hosted by quiz master legend Siddarth Basu. When I lived in London a few years later I found out from friends that this was originally a 1980s British show featuring a character called Dusty Bin, part clown, part dustbin. Definitely no dustbins in the Indian version. Anyway, the computer pulled my name out of the hat and I competed in the quiz show and WON the grand prize – a 7 days and nights trip to London for me and a friend ( I took my sister). We were jipped out of hotel stay and cost of visas by Siddarth Basu’s production company, I lost my wallet with 80 pounds in it at a dodgy casino in Leicester Square, the zip on our hand luggage broke (try getting a zip fixed in India, no problem, London different story) and one of our bags got lost by British airways on the way home Fantastic prize though! So somewhere I thought, it’s been ten years since the last win, maybe today…?
Anyway, back to the results. But no wait, in India we can’t just go straight to the results. There has to be a closing ceremony with lamps lit, bouquets given to all 5 chief guests. Then each chief guest had to present a memento to the other chief guests. Then each of the 5 chief guests had to give a speech. The Vishaka Valley Principal had the audacity to go up for round 2! This time the participants were blatantly not interested. Talking among themselves, the ladies were so loud, you couldn’t hear the speaker over the microphone. Total chaos reigned. And after 5 hours of sitting there, watching this chaos was the best entertainment I’d had all day.
The shocker came when they announced the results. All the winners were jumping up from just one side of the room. Instead of 3 consolation prizes, worth Rs.32,000, in each of the three categories as was promised, 6 prizes went to the dessert category and 3 to the vegetarians. The ladies in my section (non-vegetarian category) were livid. One of the organisers was called and complained to but he kept saying, “NO no, non-veg category also got prize.” He just refused to listen. At that point I should have just gone up to the stage and created a ruckus. But no one wants to seem like the sore loser bi(tch). At this point one half of the room with the non-veg category had lost all interest and there was a wave of a discontent murmur drifting through the tables. At least for the the three main prizes, they followed the rules and the second prize went to a non-veg category. Rs.50,000 in gifts. What struck me as odd was that all 12 people who won were lauded for the nutritious value of their dishes – they all had some form of spinach or low fat. Nutrition wasn’t even a judging criteria.
Everybody got out of the hall pretty quick and I don’t think anybody apart from the winners stuck around for the closing of the closing ceremony. Everyone I spoke to around my table said, “Next year we’ll just make dessert cos clearly that’s what wins.” (I’ve written a letter to the editor of the Hindu about what I thought was unfair judging…too little too late I guess).
Yup – should have just made brownies. I make a mean brownie. My husband’s motto has always been – don’t volunteer for anything, you’ll just have to do the work yourself. Don’t offer any ideas or suggestions, don’t compete. Lets just live our quiet lives and b!tch about people from the sidelines. I am beginning to concur… but I just can’t let go of the thought that once in ten years, there should be a win…