ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
What was I doing awake at 6:30 AM on a Saturday morning?
I was wolfing down my usual tamago kake gohan breakfast while I hurriedly brushed and braided my hair. (Out of habit, I wear my hair in braids, but pin them to the back of my head when I’m at school—we need to keep our hair covered during culinary arts classes, and this keeps them out of the way.) However, on a day like today, I let them hang freely—I was heading off on a day trip back home.
On the day we graduated from junior high, my best friend Emi Kawai and I made a promise: we’d meet each other once a month to share a meal and wander around the city together, to let each other know about the progress we were making towards our lifelong goals. She’s got a more mundane goal than I do: being a top model.
Emi and I first met when we were assigned to the same homeroom for the first year of junior high school. We complimented each other on our pencil cases, but that was pretty much it for us until the middle of my first year, when my father’s plane was lost. I had to take several days off from school, and Emi—as class representative—was tasked with bringing me the week’s assignments, along with the usual juicy gossip. When I came back to school, the questions followed—and so did the teasing.
“Your dad died because he couldn’t stand you,” one of my snooty classmates said to me one particularly awful day. When Emi found me crying in the bathroom, she bent over and told me that it would be OK, then told me an important secret about her that I should never, ever talk about to anyone else. The next day, when that snooty bitch asked me how my father was doing, I loudly asked her about how much money the fine her father had to pay for taking upskirt photos on the subway was. She never bothered me again. In fact, I think she transferred…I don’t really remember, but she never did bother me again, which was the point.
Since then, Emi’s been my biggest cheerleader. Even though it would have meant me being separated from her for our high school career, she encouraged me to take the entrance exam for Umami Gakuen. Our junior high school was part of Shiritsu Seishin Jogakuen, Sacred Heart Women’s Academy, a fairly prestigious all-girls private Catholic school in our city that was a combined junior high and high school. It was my mother’s alma mater, too, so the pressure was on me to stay. We got into a lot of fights about it—my mother didn’t want me to throw away a chance at getting a good education, and I could always start my culinary education after I graduated from high school. Emi and I gathered all the material we could on Umami Gakuen, and she even knew a graduate that helped convince my mother to let me take the entrance exam. It was my first big victory, and the only downside was that I wished my father were here to see it.
As for Emi, she’d always been interested in makeup and fashion ever since she was a little girl. When she came to visit, she’d notice my mother’s fashion magazines and leaf through them, telling me about how she thought I would look wearing certain big trends. Her mother, Kikuko, was the kind of mother that I wished I had—encouraging without being too pushy. Too often I read stories of young women falling victim to eating disorders because they needed to remain skinny to be considered beautiful. Kikuko kept close tabs on her daughter’s schedule and made sure not to schedule auditions or photoshoots around the time for major exams—academics came first.
Emi had sent me a message last night talking about how she was excited to show me something, and I thought about it as I closed and locked the door. Ebifry was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, washing his paws.
“Morning, Ebifry,” I said, reaching my hand out. He stopped his wash long enough to sniff my outstretched hand, then pushed his head into it. I stroked it as his eyes squinted in happiness.
“I’m going to visit Emi-chan back home. Will you mind the house?”
Ebifry gave a purry meow before walking off and continuing his morning bath.
After a short ride from my local station, I arrived at Ikebukuro Station. If I were going here to entertain myself, I’d be looking around the shops and the import mart, but instead I bought myself a cup of coffee, the latest issue of my favorite food magazine, the latest issue of my favorite cat photo magazine, and settled into my seat on the upper level of the train’s double decker car. It’d take me a little over an hour to get to my hometown of Chichibu from here.
I took my phone out of my pocket and started playing a game to pass the time, but got a message notification. Emi was trying to contact me.
To: Vanilla From: Emi
Good morning Vanilla-chan!
To: Emi From: Vanilla
Good morning. Just got on the train @ Ikebukuro.
To: Vanilla From: Emi
Yay! What do you feel like for lunch?
To: Emi From: Vanilla
To: Vanilla From: Emi
Hmm, we will have 2 find a place! I will research!
I put my phone back into my handbag and opened up one of my magazines to read on the journey—the cat photo magazine. Every issue contained reader submitted photos of cats, and every month I sent them a photo of Ebifry for their “Kitties In Your Neighborhood” pages, but he was never chosen. I always thought his markings were very distinctive.
Eventually, I put down the magazine and gazed out the window, as I usually do. We passed through tunnels and past buildings. Concrete began to give way to trees and greenery, and mountains poked up from the landscape. Pretty soon there were just lonely stretches of highway passing by and we were surrounded by greenery and rice fields. It was the kind of contrast I always enjoyed watching go past.
I finished the last page of my cooking magazine after having torn a notch into every page featuring a recipe I thought I could recreate or a food offering that I needed to seek out, rolled up both of my magazines and stuffed them into my handbag. We had arrived at the station in Chichibu proper, and I got up from my seat and exited into my hometown.
It had only really been a couple months since I moved to my apartment to go to Umami Gakuen, but it already felt more like home to me than Chichibu did. If you’re ever going to Japan, you should check out Chichibu as it’s got a lot of natural beauty. You can take a boat tour down the Asakusa river, and there was a famous animated series that was set here about a group of kids that grew apart when one of them tragically died. It’s kind of sad.
I started walking towards our usual meeting place when suddenly my eyes were covered from behind.
“Guess who!” squeaked a voice behind me.
“That one politician who has an oily forehead.”
Emi uncovered my eyes and I swiveled around to see her. She’s fairly short for her age, which is probably why she gets a lot of attention from talent scouts, and has beautiful long, straight hair that she claims she spends half an hour on every day just to make sure it was straight. She was wearing her usual weekend going out outfit: a red top and skirt set, along with matching red barrettes in her hair and red shoes, with a fluffy white faux fur coat. Me, I was perfectly content in a baggy rose pink hooded sweatshirt over a ratty Super Banana Man t-shirt and my best pair of blue jeans with canvas sneakers, but it wasn’t as if it mattered to her.
“You look great, Vanilla-chan!” Emi said. “I love the way the colors all look together. And did you do something with your hair?”
“It’s still kinda damp,” I said. “I woke up a little late and had to hurry to get to Ikebukuro on time.”
“Oh! I found a place we can have Chinese,” Emi said. “But right now, let’s go get choco bananas!”
I smiled. “All right!” I said. It was early in the morning, but bananas were fruit, right? And fruit counts as breakfast, right?
Our usual haunt for chocolate bananas was right outside a major supermarket complex, Chichibu World Food Market. It was part of the national chain that not only featured regular groceries for the general public, but floors set aside for chefs that had four or even five-star rankings. Before my father disappeared, we used to go there once every few months to visit the five-star floor to shop for the ingredients my father needed. I should explain: even groceries are rated from one to five stars. However, it’s not as restrictive as you think. There’s one-star rice and five-star rice, with the one-star rice being what a typical family uses in their kitchen every day, while five-star rice is considered the cream of the crop—heirloom strains, grown using traditional methods, such like that. In fact, a lot of foods have versions from one-star all the way up to five-star, like butter, eggs and milk. There are exceptions: the traditionally luxurious ingredients, like foie gras, caviar, and truffles are usually “reserved” for the higher star rankings, and are rarer (and a little harder to afford) for regular consumers and anyone three-star and below. Anyway, to give you an idea of what shopping on the five-star floor was like, you needed to have proper identification to even get in. (Since I was under the age to register for competitive cooking, I was allowed to accompany my father.) Seeing everything packed like delicate china and displayed behind locked cabinets in some cases was like looking around in Tiffany’s or another famous jewelry store.
The choco banana cart was in its usual place, and I ordered my usual favorite: a banana dipped in bittersweet chocolate and decorated with tiny sugar nonpareils. Emi liked hers with chocolate and chopped peanuts. We sat at a bench and watched the people entering and exiting the building as we ate, and Emi took out her phone.
“You know how I said I wanted to show you something?” she asked. “Well…let me pull it up and…here it is!” She turned the phone around in her hand so that I was seeing the screen.
“Wow, you look amazing!” I said.
Emi did look amazing. She was in a promotional photo, wearing a beautiful purple yukata with a pink obi, and a beautiful kanzashi adorning her hair—a cloth ornament shaped like a blooming chrysanthemum with trails of silk wisteria flowers.
“It’s a company that makes those easy-wear two piece yukatas,” Emi said. “They were looking for a model, and my agency recommended me. I’m in their catalog and they’re posting it on online sales sites! Isn’t that great!”
“Wow, now you’re nationwide!” I said.
“And get this, I might be in a magazine soon, too! They had a Street Snaps person going around the park when I was visiting with some of my friends, and he took pictures of all of us. I was wearing that dress I got from the secondhand store and he said it was really stylish!”
“You’re making big leaps, Emi-chan,” I said. “Well, I had a gourmet battle earlier this week, and…it went okay, I guess.”
“What happened? Did you lose?” Emi asked.
“I won, but…” I told her about the situation with Frosted Tips Boy, and how someone had reported him to the school separate from my report and gotten him expelled. Emi loved gossip and loved passing juicy bits on, and I was pretty sure she’d do the same for this.
“Meet anyone cool yet?” Emi asked. “Who do you have your eye on?”
“I’m not…particularly interested in dating right now,” I said. This was true—my quest was to be the best, like no one ever was. “Although there was this girl in another division of the school that I’m kind of friends with now. Her name’s Yomogi-chan.”
“That’s a pretty weird name,” Emi said. “She from the country or something?”
“She told me her family owns a traditional inn and they’re off the beaten path. She’s in the Western Confectionary Division. Interesting, huh? You’d think she’d be into wagashi, with a name and a family like that.”
“I guess you can say that,” Emi said. The sticks of our chocolate bananas had emerged, and neither of them were marked with the message that you won another one, so we threw them into a nearby garbage can and started to stroll around the city.
The shopping mall had just opened, so I decided to engage in one of my favorite activities with Emi: trying on clothing that I had no chances of ever affording on my budget so that Emi could critique my signature look. That was followed by our plans for lunch. Emi had found a small Chinese restaurant down the street from the mall—a small eatery that was even smaller than Michiru was. The food was fairly authentic and flavorful, but sometimes a little too spicy for our palates, as Emi and I discovered when we each tried the mapo tofu.
“So how’s your record doing after that challenge?” Emi asked.
“I’m still holding on to my three star rating,” I said, as I drank a little bit of oolong tea to help cool my mouth. “I want to find an opponent worthy of battling, so before that one last week I hadn’t done one in a month or so.”
Emi leaned in close to me. “Vanilla-chan. Do you want to challenge the chef here?” she whispered. “I wanna see you cook again. You’re always so showy!”
Showy? Well, I did like to talk while I was cooking—having an audience meant teaching them, whether it was about a technique I used or an ingredient that wasn’t common in an everyday kitchen. But doing a challenge here when we were paying customers? That felt almost rude.
“I don’t really have the time or energy for it today,” I said, reaching for another scallion pancake. “Besides, the chances might be good that I’ll be making a Chinese inspired recipe, and that’s outside of my comfort zone a little.”
Emi pouted. “I want to see you cook again,” she said.
“Tell you what. I can put on a private cooking show for you next time I’m down here. Let me know what you want to have for lunch and I’ll make it for you at your place. Deal?”
“But I want to see you in a challenge! You’re so showy and sparkly when you’re in a challenge!”
Sparkly? That’s probably one of the last words you’d associate with me. I don’t exactly have a monopoly in the looks department that Emi does—my expression is usually very stoic, and I’m not prone to smiling very big and wide smiles. (Losing my dad took a lot of the fun out of my life.)
“How about this: I’ll have someone take video of me the next time I’m in a challenge. Streaming two-way video, so you can cheer me on.”
“Hmm…” Emi thought for a second, but then brightened up. “That does sound like a good idea. Just make sure it’s compatible with my schedule, OK?”
After we finished our meal at the Chinese restaurant, we took a walk towards the center of town, and looked in to our old school building, which seemed to be buzzing with activity. “I think there’s a game today,” Emi said, seeing a stream of students wearing a couple different school uniforms milling about outside.
“Is anyone asking about me?” I asked Emi, out of curiosity.
“Well, there are a few people who are following your career,” Emi replied, “but other than a few teachers, not many.”
Such is the life of a school child—when you transfer out of your group of friends, it’s like you’ve faded away. I’m glad that I have my friendship with Emi—she’s my link back home, even more so than my mother.
We decided to head back to the center of town and visit the video arcade for a trip inside the print club machine. Emi and I had gotten a ton of stickers with the two of us during our middle school days, and they adorned the inside cover of one of my middle school notebooks. As we browsed the machines, I spied a UFO catcher with a familiar looking plush toy inside. I rushed over, and noticed to my dismay that the plush was of a monkey holding onto a banana.
“What’s wrong? You like bananas, right?” Emi asked.
“I like bananas, but I hate monkeys,” I said.
“Why? They’re cute, especially the ones that go into the hot springs. Did you ever see them?”
“I don’t like monkeys, period,” I said. “They freak me out.”
“Yeah, sorry I asked,” Emi said, sighing. I could go on for hours about how much I despised monkeys, but Emi was my best friend so I couldn’t subject her to that kind of treatment. We did try to win a few prizes out of the UFO catchers—there was a neat cosmetic bag set in one that Emi spent several hundred yen for, and I managed to win a little stuffed cat that had plastic beans in it to make it look like it was lying lazily across your shoulder. It was a white cat with black patches and I thought about introducing it to Ebifry later to see what he thought about it.
A couple hours later, we were standing in front of the train station. I was loaded down with a couple souvenirs from my hometown—after standing in front of one of the specialty food shops, Emi suggested to buy a box of local candy to give to Yomogi, and I agreed, saying it was a wonderful idea. I also bought one for Mako and her boyfriend to share as well.
“Well…until next month,” Emi said, looking out towards the street. “Safe trip home, okay?”
I nodded. “Yeah. I’ll let you know when I’ve got a free Saturday from work.”
We hugged each other goodbye and I sprinted towards the turnstiles to swipe my pass for home.
As Emi watched me leave, a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt approached her from behind. “Kawai-san, long time no see,” he said.
Emi turned around, blanching as she recognized the man, but then she smiled. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Getting information,” the man said. “I’ve been quite busy lately…Ah, yes. Do you have anything new for me?”
Emi smiled, and pulled a small USB drive from her purse, putting it into the man’s hand. “This is a database of all the message board posts from my school from the past six months,” she said. “There’s some rather interesting coded messages on here…can you guess what ‘I’ll sell you six puddings’ might be referring to?”
The man smiled, and handed Emi a similar USB drive. “The instructions to receive payment are on here,” he said. “You’ll need to pick it up fairly quickly, remember.”
“I will,” Emi said. Looking into the man’s face, she said, “May the world return to its true glory.”
“May the world return to its true glory,” the man said, as he walked away and melted into the crowd.
Ever since she saw that post on the Internet, Emi had been gathering information from the school’s message boards and passing around juicy gossip to the man, and he’d be paying her the money she needed towards all the brand name goods she needed to afford in order to keep up her profile as a model. Of course, this was all a secret from her mother, who believed Emi was buying these at secondhand shops. And it was much more reputable than going on dates with dirty old men for money and gifts. Who cares what happened after the information got delivered?
Emi looked at her phone to see a farewell text from Vanilla. “got on the train OK, c u next month!” it read.
“See you, Vanilla,” Emi said, as she put the phone back into her pocket, and walked back to her home to see where the drop was this time.
“Hey, Sakamoto-san! Can you help me answer this question?”
I looked up from my shelving work to see Eisaburo-san, one of my coworkers who worked at Kotobuki Supermarket part time while attending college. He looked puzzled.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“This lady is wondering about this new product we got in, can you tell her about it?” he said.
I went over to the next aisle over to see a woman with a box of imported macaroni and cheese mix. This was a very popular mix among Americans, and since we had a large expat community in the area, we carried a few grocery items that catered directly to them.
“I’ve heard that children love this,” the woman said, “but do you bake it or do you prepare it in a sauce pan?”
I pointed out the steps in the process to her, in that she only needed milk or butter to complete the process. “I’ve heard some moms like to sneak in bits of frozen vegetables, too,” I said. “You boil them at the same time you boil the macaroni.”
Satisfied, the woman bought a couple of boxes. I didn’t realize it, but Eisaburo had been joined by my boss, Kinoshita, who was looking at me with a stoic expression that betrayed a hint of a smile.
“Sakamoto-san, good job,” he said. Very rarely did Kinoshita praise one of his employees, and it was usually praise that was well earned.
“It’s all right, I just gave her the same advice I would give anyone,” I said, as I finished stacking cans of tomato sauce on the shelf.
I was in the middle of the morning half of my eight hour shift. Once a month I had to work one Saturday and one Sunday, and it was good money. My older coworkers would usually go out together to an izakaya after their shift, but sometimes we decided to go to a family restaurant instead because of the underage employees. We’d probably be doing that again tonight, and I was looking forward to it.
My weekend shifts have me doing several tasks around the supermarket: I’d be putting stock up onto the shelves for a couple of hours, sweeping and janitorial for a couple hours (including the bathroom,) and ringing up sales at the cashier for a couple hours, with a half hour break for lunch in the middle. Today Auntie Yumiko and I had lunch together, so I purchased a couple of rice balls from the packed lunch counter and ate them together with her.
“How’s school been for you?” she asked.
“We’ve been learning about stocks and sauces,” I said, as the crisp seaweed crackled as I wrapped it around the fresh rice ball. “We’ve made dashi, brown stock and some of what the French call ‘mother sauces’ this month alone, and soon we’ll be learning how to put them together to create a whole meal.”
“I remember home economics at my school,” Auntie Yumiko said. “It was fun, but it was a lot of work. Of course, we were only making things like cookies and curry and such, but every so often we’d all make a complicated recipe. Do you think they’ll be having you work with whole fish?”
“I’m not sure. That might be more for the Washoku Division,” I said. “Western cuisine has just a few famous fish dishes. Bouillabaisse, gumbo, meuniere, fried fish, baked fish.” I counted off all the ones I could think of on my fingers.
“Have you heard of fish chowder? It’s like cream stew, but a little thinner,” Auntie Yumiko said. “When I went to visit my relatives in America a few years ago we went to a restaurant that served it.”
“Hmm.” I made a mental note to look up chowder on my phone later. Break time was almost over. I opened my locker to put my shop apron back on, then went back out onto the floor to do my time ringing up sales.
“Here’s to another great week! Kampai!”
We clinked our glasses together. Six of us from the supermarket were clustered around a table at an okonomiyaki restaurant near work. After our shift ended, someone mentioned that they were doing a special that night, so we unanimously decided to go there instead of a generic family restaurant. (We walked by the spot where Michiru was located—emphasis on was, unfortunately, as the sign had been taken down and there was a “space available” sign hanging on the door. I peeked inside and said a silent prayer to the chef and for Michiru to find happiness and safe rest.)
“That was a great suggestion of yours, Eisaburo-kun,” Auntie Yumiko said. She was using her spatula to take a cursory glance at the underside of her okonomiyaki. “I haven’t had okonomiyaki in forever.”
Eisaburo gave a nervous laugh. “Well, they’re cheap, fast and good here,” he said. “Some of my friends from college and I go here for lunch.”
I took a drink from my glass of cola. “I’ll have to bring my friends here,” I said. “Although I don’t know anyone from the Washoku Division. Then again, if I did, they’d probably spend the evening critiquing everything.”
“Vanilla-chan’s really learning about world cooking,” Auntie Yumiko said. “She was telling me about how she’s learning about the French mother sauces. Maybe someday you can cook a meal for us!”
“Well…” I blushed a bit and studied the edges of my okonomiyaki, which were beginning to brown. (I take my okonomiyaki with bacon and corn.) “Someday. I mean, I’m used to cooking for myself and for classes, but I’ve never really done a whole meal for a lot of people before. And…I’m learning more about gourmet recipes and such. Nothing like a barbecue or party food.”
“What about baking?” one of the other janitors asked. “Do you know any baking?”
“We haven’t learned it yet,” I said, “but a lot of it’s handled by the Yogashi Division because of sweet breads and pastries.” Baking was one part of cooking I hadn’t quite perfected yet—it’s not as speedy, and requires exact measurements to avoid disasters, like the time I decided to try making my own melon bread when the supermarket was out. I spent about two hours cleaning out our little toaster oven that time.
“Well, if we all pitched in to help, we could make a huge production,” Eisaburo said.
“We should do this for Christmas! Instead of getting fried chicken, we’ll have a huge dinner!” one of the cash register checkers said.
I smiled. “That does sound like a good idea for Christmas,” I said. Anything to keep me from coming home to visit my family for one less day.
Our okonomiyaki tasted good, but I think the fact that I was eating with other people for the first time in a while that made me really enjoy this meal. It reminded me of eating in my classroom with my friends, before I started getting serious about cooking.
We finished our meal as the sun was beginning to set, and all went our separate ways. Auntie Yumiko hung back. “Would you like to walk with me to the train station?” she asked.
“I guess,” I said, shrugging. It wasn’t like I needed the company, but we were going in the same direction. She lived a few stops away, but in the opposite direction.
“You live alone, don’t you?” Auntie Yumiko asked. “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to stop by for dinner some nights.”
“Well…” I looked down at my feet, trying to figure out the best way to answer without disappointing her. “I’ve got to get to school early in the mornings,” I said. “We have morning sessions in the culinary arts building every other week, so sometimes I need to get there early.”
“Well, this wouldn’t necessarily have to be after work,” she said. “It gets lonely sometimes, with my children off in college. They have their own lives now, and I’ve got to give them space.”
I sighed. “Maybe. It depends on my schedule…”
The truth is, I preferred being by myself. I had my fill of dealing with my school mates during the day and my work mates during the evening.
“Well, let me know,” Auntie Yumiko said, as we were nearing the station. “Oh, my train’s almost here. I have to run. See you next week, Vanilla-chan. Have a good week at school.”
“Thanks, Auntie Yumiko,” I replied, as I watched her dash through the turnstile like a running bird. My train wasn’t going to be here for a while yet, but I slapped my phone against the receptor and passed through anyway. I needed some time to be alone.