ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
“Hey, thanks so much for helping me out, Sakamoto-san!”
It was a school holiday today, and I also didn’t have to work, so Mako-san had enlisted me to help her out with doing some housework around her apartment. We had the futons laid out on her balcony to air out, and she and I were going over the floors with a stick vacuum and dusting furniture. The bathroom and toilet room were next on the agenda.
“HEY! EBIFRY! GET OFF THERE!” Mako screamed from the balcony, after spotting Ebifry sitting on top of the futon and casually washing his nether regions. I saw him jump down and sprint into the yard, possibly to hide in his shelter.
“You’re so hard on him,” I said. “I like having him around. Have you thought of turning him into an advertising mascot?”
“’Come rent at Saibara Building! We have our own cat that likes to wash his balls in public.’ Yeah, that sounds like a catchy slogan,” Mako said. “Hey, can you start on the bathroom? I need a cigarette.”
I started scrubbing the tiles on the floor as Mako came back in a few minutes later. “Hand me the cleanser, I’m going to wash the tub out,” she said, as the scent of her smoke mingled with the scent of the bathroom cleanser I was using.
Some time later, we had finished up in the bathroom and rinsed everything off with the shower head. Mako and I perused the delivery menu of a local pizza place, and we ordered a two-person pizza topped with plenty of tomatoes and garlic—cheap, filling, and a great way to get your recommended daily allowance of vegetables. We sat in Mako’s main room watching a soap opera on TV when it was delivered.
“So glad that Daisu’s not coming to visit tonight,” Mako said, using her nickname for her boyfriend. “I’ll probably kill him with my farts after having this.”
I giggled. “This is good, though,” I said. “I haven’t had to do a pizza related challenge—that would be interesting. It’d have to be a place where I can get dough ready.”
“Is pizza dough like bread dough?” Mako asked.
“Some places it is, yes,” I said. “Where I’ve seen people making it fresh, it needs to rise and proof. And some places, you get it premade and you just have to put the toppings on.”
With the pizza finished, we resumed our cleaning jobs. I plugged in the stick vacuum and used it to dust out the living room, trying to suck up all the cobwebs, while Mako brought the futons back in for their airing. As I turned off the vacuum, I heard the sound of banging on the door.
“Mako-san! Someone’s at the door!” I yelled.
“Go answer it for me, please,” Mako yelled back.
I went over to the door and opened it to reveal…a boy not much older than me. He was wearing a ratty sweatshirt, had bangs that nearly covered his eyes, and a bit of stubble on his face. He smelled like he had just had a workout.
“I’m looking for Mako Saibara,” the boy said, and I put two and two together and realized that this was my legendary neighbor Tenmyouji.
“She’s here,” I said. “Mako-san! Can you come to the door?” I called behind me.
“Coming,” Mako said, hurrying towards the front door from where she was in the back. “What can I help you with, Tenmyouji-kun?”
“I just had the power trip in my room,” he said. I glanced over to the wall at the vacuum.
“It might’ve been my fault,” I said. “I was doing vacuuming in here.”
“That’s fine, no problem,” Tenmyouji said. His voice was fairly soft and deep, but he looked relatively young. Maybe he was closer to my age?
“I’ll take a look at the fuse box,” Mako said. “Did anything happen?”
“No, my UPS kicked in so I didn’t lose any work,” Tenmyouji said.
“A UPS?” I asked.
“Uninterrupted power source. It’s like a power saver battery for computers. Kicks in if there’s a power cut. Kinda need it in the summer,” Tenmyouji said.
“Wait here,” Mako instructed me. “I’m gonna head upstairs and take care of this.” She exited the room, following Tenmyouji, and I heard them walking upstairs. After listening to them walk away, I decided that now would be the best chance to take a look at Tenmyouji’s inner sanctum—I was curious, after all. Carefully, I mounted the stairs, making sure not to step on any of the places that cracked or squeaked, and slowly shuffled my way down the hall, making sure not to make any noise. I saw the door to Tenmyouji’s apartment slightly ajar, and heard Mako and Tenmyouji speaking behind it.
“…should really think about getting a water cooled system, but I just upgraded my server,” Tenmyouji was saying as I peeked into the apartment.
My eyes widened as I saw that while Tenmyouji’s apartment was no bigger than mine, almost every inch was covered with some sort of electronics. There was wire rack set up in the small kitchen space that had various bits of computer equipment on it—I saw keyboards, mice, cameras, microphones, and what appeared to be some disassembled large tower cases. The apartment felt extremely hot, and all I could hear were the whirring of fans, the chittering of disc drives, the high-pitched hum of CRT monitors and an occasional sound from a system here or there.
“Anyway, this should do the trick,” I heard Mako say, and I dashed back to the stairwell and ran down the stairs, hoping that she wouldn’t notice or hear me. I plopped myself down in front of the TV and not a second too soon, as I saw Mako enter the room.
“Phew…man, I can’t stand how hot that kid keeps his room, but he’s a good renter, so…” Mako shrugged as she came in, and grabbed a can of beer from the inside of the fridge. “I think we’re good. Hey, thanks for helping me out today,” she said as I turned to look at her. “I couldn’t have done it alone.”
“No problem,” I said. “By the way, I’d like to borrow your kitchen sometime before I have my midterm exams.”
“Hey, of course. Let me know the morning of, okay? That way I’ll try to clean my stuff up before you start cooking,” Mako said.
“Of course,” I said.
As I walked back to my apartment, I thought again about Tenmyouji, and what the inside of his apartment looked like. When I opened the door and looked at my pristine kitchen, I got an idea: maybe I should try making some food for him. His apartment was awful hot, so maybe something nice and cooling, perhaps? I knew just the thing.
One brief trip to the small supermarket around the corner later and I was back with a package of fresh ramen noodles, another package of bean sprouts, a cucumber, and a tomato: some of the very basic ingredients for hiyashi chuka, cold noodles with various toppings. I had everything else all set in my kitchen, so I got to cooking.
I had decided against making them with shellfish, ham or eggs, since I didn’t know Tenmyouji’s allergies or dietary habits. All that really needed to be done was to cook the noodles, mix the sauce, and top with the vegetables. I folded a little wax paper envelope and squirted a bit of mustard in, for him to flavor to his liking, and whisked together the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar and water in a separate container for him to pour over the noodles. I tossed the noodles a few times in a strainer, and put them in a separate container, sprinkled with crushed ice to keep the temperature down. With that, I packed the two boxes together and made my way back upstairs.
At Tenmyouji’s door, I could hear the hum of various computer components from inside as I put my ear against it. I stepped back and knocked loudly. “Anyone home?” I asked.
The door opened to reveal Tenmyouji, looking as if he had been interrupted from an important task. “I’m Vanilla Sakamoto, your downstairs neighbor,” I said, holding the two containers out. “Saibara-san mentioned that you must be burning up in there with all the equipment running. Here’s something refreshing.”
Tenmyouji took the two containers and looked them over, shaking them. “Cold noodles?” he asked.
“Yeah. Man, it is hot in here,” I said, feeling the warmth hit me. “Do you work a lot with computers?”
“Yeah. I’m kinda in the middle of something, so…thanks. I was gonna order out,” Tenmyouji said.
“You can keep the containers,” I said, but Tenmyouji shut the door behind me before I could say a proper goodbye.
Well, that was friendly, I thought. Perhaps he’s a hikkikomori or something.
Inside the apartment, Tenmyouji set the two dishes onto the table next to his laptop. “Sorry, I had an unexpected visitor,” he said.
“That’s fine,” said a man’s voice from his laptop. He had been on an audio call when Vanilla had come to his door.
“It was her,” Tenmyouji said. He opened up the two containers and started to pour the sauce on top of the chilled noodles and vegetables. “Brought me lunch. Said she heard it was really hot in here.” He stirred everything around and started munching on a vinegar-soaked cucumber.
“What have you found out?” the man’s voice asked.
“I haven’t tested it fully 100% yet, but there is a way to influence the system. I’m going to try it out on a random user tonight, and see what the result is. They likely won’t notice a thing.”
“Good, good. I do hope it works.”
Tenmyouji rolled his eyes and sighed as he slurped a noodle. “It had better. Do you remember how long it took me to get those developer login credentials?”
“I’ll be heading out later tonight to put the code for phase two in the usual drop.”
“You need to head out more. Last time I saw you, you were milky white.”
Tenmyouji angrily shoved a mouthful of noodles in his mouth. “I get enough Vitamin D through pills,” he said, his mouth full.
“I’ll talk to you later. Thanks for the update.”
The window with the video call closed, and Tenmyouji slurped the rest of the noodle broth down. It was refreshing and tangy, and the vegetables were the right crispness…maybe he should ask for more toppings next time. He dumped the containers into his kitchen sink with the rest of the dirty dishes and went back to his work.
The next day was a school day, and an early one for me as I braided my hair sleepily in front of the mirror and made sure my cleanest uniform was free from stains. As I made my way outside, I noticed a familiar figure in the front foyer, locking up his mailbox.
“Good morning, Tenmyouji-san!” I said. He looked back to see me, and nodded.
“Morning. Vanilla Sakamoto, correct?” Tenmyouji said. “You’re up early.”
“I go to Umami Gakuen. Today’s a culinary arts morning session day. I need to get there early to make sure everything’s set up,” I said.
“Do you like it there?” Tenmyouji asked.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “It’s where a lot of famous gourmet battle chefs went and graduated from.”
“That’s nice,” Tenmyouji said. “But does it make you truly happy?”
“Huh?” I thought for a moment, wondering why my neighbor who hardly ever ventured out of his room that was filled with computers, was hotter than a sauna, and who probably only ever ate take out would ask such a prying question. “Well…”
“There’s no such thing as true happiness, Vanilla Sakamoto. It’s a story concocted by those who control us from the shadows. All that we as human beings can hope to achieve is complacency.” Tenmyouji’s voice was suddenly animated, like he was Toyota-sensei giving a lecture on the virtues of balsamic vinegar.
“Excuse me…” I tried to move past Tenmyouji, but he suddenly put his hand against the wall, blocking my path. I froze up.
“Remember my words,” Tenmyouji said, looking me in the eye.
“What the hell is your problem?” I snapped back.
Tenmyouji turned away from me and went back into the building, and I dashed out, not wanting to be near him again. Whatever curiosity I had about meeting him had vanished, and now I didn’t want to have a thing to do with him.
“So, what did you make this morning?” I asked as Kei opened a small plastic container.
“Yokan,” she said, displaying the cold and jiggly block of sweet red bean paste dissolved in agar and formed in a mold. It looked refreshingly delicious.
“Does it take you the entire class time to make red bean paste?” I asked.
“It does. I’ve heard stock takes a long time, too,” Kei said. She pulled a small plastic knife from her bag and carefully cut the yokan down the middle, then again so it was four cubes. “Do you two want to try it?” she asked.
Yomogi immediately grabbed a cube in her chopsticks and laid it down on the lid of her bento box. “This is good!” she said. “I can’t wait to have this on a hot summer day.”
I took a small cube and put it in my mouth. It was sweet, but not cloyingly sweet, and had a slightly grainy texture, thanks to the red bean paste. “This would be great with some cold barley tea,” I said.
“This is what we made,” Yomogi said, displaying a photo of delectable cream puffs on her phone. “They’re chilling in the refrigerators right now—the whipped cream melts pretty fast if you don’t serve them cold.”
“I’ve heard you can use pate a choux for savory dishes,” I said.
“Yes, and the best part is that it’s relatively easy to make,” Yomogi replied.
“Sorry I don’t have anything to show you two,” I said, shrugging, “but you probably wouldn’t find what we did in class very interesting.”
“Oh, come on! Hearing about your classes are always interesting,” Yomogi said. “Both of you! I’m learning things from you two I never would have heard of if I didn’t hang out with you two.”
“Oh, all right,” I said, sighing. “We learned how to completely debone a chicken.”
“Wow,” Kei said. “How do you do that?”
“A big knife, and a lot of strength,” I said. “You’d probably have no trouble with that, Kei-chan. Then once we deboned it, we flattened it out under a heavy weight. They call it ‘spatchcocking.’”
“What’s that do?” Yomogi asked.
“Makes it cook faster. More surface to work with,” I said. “Then, of course, once we have the bones out…”
“Stock, right?” Yomogi said. “Everyone in my homeroom that’s also in the Yoshoku Division talks about saving all their scraps for stock.”
I nodded. “Do you two ever have to stockpile anything for later?”
“I’m still working my way through the red bean paste I made at the beginning of the year,” Kei said.
“Not me. Although I’ve heard that there’s such a thing called ‘sourdough starter’ that bakers use in place of yeast for bread,” Yomogi said. “It’s supposed to be really delicious.”
We returned to the task at hand: continuing our lunches. I was still distracted by Tenmyouji’s statement to me this morning. There’s no such thing as true happiness. What prompted him to say that, I wonder? As I was about to finish my serving of rice, Kei spoke up.
“Vanilla-chan, do you have work tonight?” she asked. “If it’s OK, do you think you can show me the machine you got your Banana Cat from?”
“I do,” I said. “It’s right after school, and I usually go straight there.”
“I’ve got practice with the karate club, actually,” Kei said, “so I might not get there for a couple of hours. Is it all right if I say hi to you at work?"
“Yeah, it’s completely fine,” I said. “My boss is okay with me socializing, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my duty. That being said, I never know where he’s going to assign me when I come in, so if I can’t help you out, it might be better to wait a few days.”
Kei nodded. “That’s fine.”
We continued eating and watching the leaves flutter overhead, until the bell for afternoon classes rang. “Well, time for the worst part of the day,” I said, waving goodbye to Kei and Yomogi as the two of them entered the opposite end of the building.
As I was sweeping the aisles, I could hear the whispers from the other customers about an extremely tall and tough looking girl hanging out near the crane games, which is when I realized that Kei had arrived. We had a convenience food counter near the crane games, where she had purchased a hot steamed red bean bun and was sitting down to eat it.
“Kei-chan!” I called, and she looked up and smiled.
“Yomogi-chan, is that your work uniform? You look so official,” she said.
The uniform at my store is an orange polo shirt and black pants, with a bright yellow apron emblazoned with the Kotobuki Supermarket logo. My nametag, in an oval shape with my name in katakana punched into tape, was pinned to the apron, making me look like a kindergarten student. The only other outlier to my uniform was the kerchief I was currently wearing while I swept.
“Welcome! Is there anything I can help you with?” I said, giving my usual welcoming speech. “I go to Umami Gakuen just down the road, so ask me any of your cooking questions!”
“You must say that a lot,” Kei said as she threw the paper backing to her steamed bun in the trash. “Oh, I looked and it looks like they rotated the gacha machine prizes out.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” I said. Sure enough, the machine I had gotten my charm from had been replaced with one that had kiddie cosmetics as prizes.
“Want to know a secret?” Kei asked. She looked eager, and I shrugged, knowing I had a brief break.
“Yeah, but make it short,” I said.
“One year, I took my new year’s gift money to the department store in town, went up to the arcade and gacha machine floor, and blew it all on one machine because I wanted to get a full set of Kirameki Crystal figures.” Kirameki Crystal was the name of a magical girl TV series that I watched when I was in elementary school. It featured a girl that was the daughter of gemologists, who discovered that the crystal that her father had found on an expedition was magical and allowed her to transform into an alter ego that had crystal armor.
“Did you get them?”
“I did get a full set, but I had like four of Crystal,” Kei said. “I covered for it by saying I bought books.”
I giggled. “I heard some otaku are paying big bucks for those now,” I said. “You’ll get all of your money back, and then some.”
“I gave them all to my friends,” Kei said, “and I can’t remember what I did with the set…” Her expression turned from jovial to serious in a second, and that’s when I realized Kei needed to drop her façade. Someone was approaching the table—a female Umami Gakuen student that was in our grade, and was a member of the Wagashi Division. She had a short haircut, wore rectangular glasses, and was wearing a couple of barrettes shaped like butterflies in her hair.
“Nagisa Tomizawa,” Kei said, looking up at her.
“Kei Mitsurugi,” she said, looking at Kei square in the eye. “You’re not only a formidable karate-ka, but you’re a master when it comes to traditional sweets.”
“So a challenge to see which one of us is superior, huh?” Kei got up to her full height. She towered over, but despite that, she didn’t back down. “Very well, Tomizawa-san. I accept. Perhaps after school tomorrow?”
The other student smiled. “You’ll find me quite capable, Mitsurugi-san,” she said. “I look forward to seeing the result.”
I was stuck in the middle and waved. “Excuse me, I need to get back to work,” I said. “Can you perhaps plan your challenge somewhere else, like NOT where I’m doing any sweeping?”
“Oh, sorry.” Nagisa noticed me for the first time (I guess when you’re really competitive about martial arts, you have tunnel vision only for your opponents) and smiled. “Are you Vanilla Sakamoto? I heard about your loss the other day. Sorry it didn’t go as well as you liked.”
I nodded. “Yes, and I really need to get back to work," I said, lifting up my broom.
“Come on, Tomizawa-san,” Kei said, getting up. “We’ll hash this out outside. Follow me.”
The two girls got up and left the building, just as Kinoshita approached. “Friends of yours, Sakamoto-san?” he asked.
“Yeah…well, one of them,” I replied.
Kinoshita nodded. “I am glad to see you’re making friends at school, but I am not paying you to socialize,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “It won’t happen again.”
“When you are finished with sweeping, I need your help at the checkout counter. Someone had to leave early.”
As I arrived at school the next morning, my smartphone was vibrating and buzzing with the announcement that a challenge would be happening after school that day, between two students in the Wagashi Division, Nagisa Tomizawa (rated one and three quarters stars) versus Kei Mitsurugi (one and a half stars.) A gourmet battler that has started high school usually has at least a one star rating, and in rare cases two, depending on how much experience they have under their belts before their matriculation. (And then there’s the really rare cases, such as my being a three star.) I didn’t have anything to do that afternoon, so I decided I would check it out.
When Yomogi and I went to our usual place to eat for lunch, we were surprised to not see Kei there at all. “She must be practicing,” I said, knowing that her class was using the culinary arts wing that morning. “Challenges take all our skills into account, right?”
“Well, yes, but sometimes we do get thrown a curveball,” Yomogi said. “I did a challenge against a guest at our hotel once, and it was for scallops. I’d never, ever worked with them before.”
“Really? What did you end up doing?”
“Scallop rice bowl. I lost,” Yomogi sighed. “And before that I had an undefeated record. Well, undefeated if you count a five match win streak as undefeated.”
I nodded. “I’ve never gone against something that’s thrown me for a loop, I’m proud to say,” I said. “My father was a jack of all trades when it came to the kitchen, and I learned a lot from him. Hey, do you want to hear about what happened during my first challenge? It was the same day I got signed up, and I decided to challenge this kid in my class that ran a restaurant, and I—”
“Hi,” Kei said. We both turned our heads and saw that Kei looked extremely pale and had dark bags under her eyes.
“Kei-chan, what’s wrong?” Yomogi asked.
Kei didn’t say anything, but slumped down on the bench. She looked like her energy had been drained. “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night,” she said. “I was just so nervous!”
I was about to say, “Nervous? You?” but then I realized that I had only known Kei for less than a week. It was too early to make judgments about her personality. What I could glean from her personality is that she had two sides to it—the lover of cute things and sweets versus the tough karate club member that probably dreamed of opening a mixed martial arts themed cafe.
“What’s Tomizawa-san like?” I asked instead.
“She’s…a formidable opponent,” Kei replied. “She belongs to another school in the same style of karate as my family owns, and she’s also apparently a really good artist. I don’t know if I even stand a chance against her.”
Kei’s comment about Nagisa Tomizawa being an artist was pretty apt. Wagashi are some of the most beautiful culinary creations in the world, and it’s amazing how you can craft and decorate things like leaves and flowers with just the simplest of tools and ingredients.
“What kind of art does she do?” I asked.
“More like, what doesn’t she do. She’s gotten awards for her paintings since elementary school, and I heard for part of her entrance exam she did something like watercolor painting on cookies.”
“Watercolor painting on cookies?” Yomogi asked. “That’s something I’d like to see for myself someday.”
“Vanilla-chan, tell me. What’s your advice in this kind of situation?” Kei asked. “She’s really, really good. I admit…I look up to her, even though we’re in the same year. I need to know what you’d do in this situation.”
“Why me? I’m the type that mixes up tsubu-an and koshi-an in a recipe,” I said. (Tsubu-an and koshi-an are two different kinds of red bean paste. One is smooth, the other is chunky. I forgot which is which.)
“You’ve got the experience. You’re the only first year that’s three-star rated!”
I sighed. She needed to hear something from me. “Kei-chan. When you get stressed out in a karate competition, how do you calm yourself down?”
“Meditation. Deep breathing. Visualizing the goal.”
“That’s the same thing as winning a gourmet battle,” I said. “There’s…another thing to it, too. The feelings of the person that gets to eat your food. You want to see their face light up. You want to hear them say, ‘This reminds me of such-and-such’ and you feel good about invoking that feeling.” I felt disgusted as I said these words, with my distaste of people comparing my cooking to familial love, but I shoved it aside.
“How about this,” Yomogi added. “Think of making something that you’d serve to someone that’s important in your life. It’s what I do when I perform in my competitions. The judges are strangers, but you want to treat them as friends.”
Kei seemed to brighten up in that moment, and smiled. “You know what, Yomogi-chan? You’re absolutely right about that. And you too, Vanilla-chan.” She got up and brushed crumbs from her skirt. “Visualizing the goal and thinking about serving someone important…that’s a good idea to have. Thanks…I feel a lot better.”
“Kind of good advice from two people you didn’t even know existed last week, isn’t it?” I said, and all three of us laughed. Yes, we hadn’t been childhood friends, but that didn’t matter; we’d learn about each other and grow together because fate decided to put us together in the gratin dish of life.
A few hours later, a bunch of powerful and muscular students, many of them with bags holding equipment slung over their shoulders, filed into the culinary arts classroom where Kei Mitsurugi and Nagisa Tomizawa were holding their challenge.
Yomogi and I sought out a space by the windows where we could see both Kei and Nagisa performing. Kei was doing what appeared to be warm-up exercises, wiggling her fingers and bending her wrists. Nagisa was sitting upright in a chair, eyes closed, and with her chest moving in and out as she breathed deeply.
“They look so serious,” Yomogi whispered.
“I know. I want to see them sparring. It’d be intense,” I replied.
Kei turned in our direction and Yomogi waved to her, but she barely acknowledged it and went back to her stretching exercises. “How rude!” Yomogi murmured.
“She’s got to keep up appearances, I think,” I said.
The room started filling up with more and more students, and it appeared the entire Umami Gakuen Karate Club was there to show their support, split almost evenly into Nagisa and Kei factions. Some of the boys were even wearing headbands reading “Calm Beauty” or “Passionate Firefly,” playing off the single kanji that comprised both girls’ names. (Nagisa’s name is written with the kanji for “calm,” by the way.)
After a few minutes passed, Nagisa opened her eyes, pulling her smartphone out of her pocket. She approached Kei. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Proceed,” Kei said, taking up her phone. They pressed the button to start the roulette wheel for their challenge, and everyone whipped theirs out, tuned to “spectator mode.”
The wheel began turning around and around, and as it began to slow, people were beginning to clap and cheer. Finally, the wheel stopped on a space, and the keyword for the competition appeared:
“Dango?” Yomogi and I looked at each other, surprised. How appropriate! Kei and Nagisa looked at each other, their eyebrows raised as they realized what they had just gotten themselves into: the making of one of the easiest Japanese desserts that could be dressed up in many ways. Dango are basically rice flour dumplings, made from flour and water and boiled until dense, gluey and chewy. Everyone has their own favorite way to eat dango—personally, I’m a fan of dango coated in kinako (roasted soybean flour) that’s been slightly sweetened so it tastes a lot like peanuts. They’re no fuss, no muss wagashi that anyone can enjoy.
The countdown clock began to beep, and as the long beep sounded, Nagisa and Kei sprung from their positions and went to the pantry to grab bags of rice flour, a large bowl and a large pan. I could see the intensity of the fire in their eyes: they were lovers of competition as much as I was.
Kei had torn open the bags of rice flour like they were tissue paper, and shook them out into a measuring cup on top of a scale to make sure she had the right ratio. With dango, the ratio of glutinous rice flour to non-glutinous rice flour can affect the chewiness factor of the finished product. “Hmm, seems like she’s making a fairly solid dango,” I said to Yomogi, as Kei began to tip both flours into a large bowl.
“Look, Nagisa’s only using one flour,” Yomogi said, pointing to Nagisa. Sure enough, it looked like she was using all glutinous rice flour for her dango. She turned to a large bottle next to her, opened it, and tipped it into the bowl.
“That’s rose water!” Yomogi said, gasping.
“Rose water?!” My eyebrows raised, remembering the gift of rose flavored Turkish Delight my father had given me after returning from a culinary tour of Eastern Europe. Eating it was like eating the most fragrant roses.
“And pink food coloring!”
Nagisa was squeezing a pinch bottle of liquid food coloring into the mixture, and as she mixed and kneaded the flour in her hands, it began to turn into a pale pink. I noticed there was a smaller bowl next to her, which was opaque. “I wonder what’s in there,” I said to Yomogi, who tugged on my sleeve and pointed at Kei.
“She’s turning her dango green!” Yomogi said. A fine green powder was being mixed into Kei’s flour and water mixture, and it was becoming darker as it was distributed throughout the mixture. I recognized it as being a little darker than culinary matcha powder, and smiled.
“She’s making yomogi dango,” I said, looking into Yomogi’s eyes.
“Oh!” Yomogi looked very pleased. “Well…I’m glad she took my advice, but I hope taking it a little too literally isn’t going to hurt her.”
The two girls kept kneading and mixing. Soon Kei was pinching off marble-sized balls of green mochi dough, and dropped them into a pot that was bubbling away on the stove. She kept a close eye on them as they seemed to dance and tumble in the boiling water, and after a small timer on her station beeped, she grabbed a spider and fished them out, dropping them immediately in a metal bowl that was wet with condensation on the outside. It was likely ice water to help flash cool them and firm them up. Then another few were dropped in, and the process repeated.
Nagisa’s station was busy, but instead of making the pink dough into balls, she was shaping them into coils, and pinching the outer edges to make them look like petals. We then discovered that the smaller bowl was also housing dough, but this dough was tinted green thanks to culinary matcha powder, which would color it pale green as well as flavoring it, just as the rose water did. She took out a small chunk of it, and pressed it thin between her fingers before putting it down on a board and marking a series of lines on it. This got dotted with a little water and pasted on the side of the pink flower-shaped dango before it was gently lowered into boiling water.
“A rose shaped dango,” Yomogi said. “How well is it going to keep its shape after being boiled, I wonder?”
Kei finished up the making of her dango, and she grabbed a colander and set it in the sink. Carefully, she poured the contents of the big metal bowl, and dango along with melted bits of ice cubes came streaming out of it. She picked up the colander with both hands and gave it a firm shake, trying to get as much water out of them as possible, before pouring the dango into a shallow dish that she set in the center of a larger dish filled with ice.
On the other side of the room, I saw Nagisa fish her rose-shaped dango out of the boiling water to a chorus of oohs and aahs. She smiled, and placed it on a plate before taking up some more pink dough in her hands and rolling it into another flower.
“What do you think about her sculpting abilities?” I asked Yomogi, who was intently watching as Nagisa was rolling more roses.
“She’s pretty good, but…” Yomogi watched as Nagisa gently lowered another rose dango into the boiling water. “I’ll tell you in a minute, it looks like Kei-chan is finishing up!”
Three shallow metal dishes were on the counter; they reminded me of the small ice cream dishes that were served with kiddie lunches at some restaurants. Kei was walking back to her station, holding two things in her arms: a small container that was dotted with ice crystals and a spring loaded ice cream scoop. Kei put the container down and I smiled when I realized what it was.
“Vanilla ice cream,” I said, smiling.
“She really is taking it literally,” Yomogi said, smiling back.
Kei made a small pyramid of the green yomogi dango in each of the dishes. This was followed by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a small dab of smooth red bean paste, and the sprinkling of a powder on top of the vanilla ice cream. I peered closer and realized that the powder was kinako.
“There’s not much time left,” Yomogi said, looking down at her phone. There were only five minutes left, and while Kei was ready to present her dishes as they were, there was apparently one more step. She went to another cupboard and grabbed a sealed container, marked on the outside with her name and with a dark, viscous liquid inside. “That’s kuromitsu syrup,” I whispered. It was an essential for Japanese sweets, and a fairly easy to make condiment. I’m pretty sure that was her own personal supply she made for class that she was using.
Kei dipped a spoon into her syrup and carefully dribbled a thin amount over the surface of each of the three dango desserts, then placed the spoon into the sink. She took a deep breath and sighed, looking over her three desserts nervously and watching Nagisa make the final steps.
The three rose dango were ready, and were being presented on some very exquisite looking red lacquer plates. She had also dribbled them with kuromitsu syrup, but had made a pattern on the plate instead of dribbling it directly on the roses. A small pick was set on the plate as well, most likely for cutting and eating. It was like she was making a presentation of sweets for the tea ceremony.
Time was called, and both Nagisa and Kei wiped their brows as their respective factions cheered. Kei noticed us and walked over. “I was working so intently, I didn’t notice you were here,” she said.
“You were really in the zone,” I said. “Being able to block things out when you’re doing a challenge is pretty hard to do.”
“My martial arts training really helps,” Kei said.
She walked off to talk to some of the students from the karate club as we waited for the judges to be called into the room. I remembered Yomogi’s statement earlier, and asked, “What did you want to tell me, Yomogi-chan?”
“Look at Tominaga-san’s roses,” she said. “Do you see anything?”
I looked at them and saw that while the first rose she had pulled out of the boiling water had clearly defined color, the other two looked a little more muddy. “Yeah,” I said. “You’re right. The green tea got diluted in the water, and it affected the pink color.”
“That’s an important thing to remember in making colored desserts,” Yomogi said. “If Tominaga-san had changed the water she boiled the dango in, the other two would look better.”
“And didn’t you say something about how she did ‘watercolors on cookies’ or something?” I asked. “If it’s like painting with regular watercolors, you’ve got to be constantly rinsing your brush off, and when you do, it makes the water muddy…and you’re dipping your brush in that same water to make the next color you’re using wet.”
Yomogi nodded gravely. “For her to forget something as simple as that…”
“She’s nervous,” I replied.
“I wonder if she was nervous when she decided to challenge Kei-chan.”
The judges filed into the room; they included two people that had probably came in from off the street—a man wearing a business suit and a man wearing street clothes—and a woman wearing a cafeteria uniform. They were shown to their seats at the front of the room, and the virtual coin toss to decide which chef would present first was done. Nagisa was the winner.
“Our subject was ‘dango’, and I thought, are you tired of the same old round spheres?” Nagisa said, putting the plates in front of each judge. “I used my experience as an artist and a sculptor to make these rose dango for you. There’s some kuromitsu syrup on your plate to dip them in, but I would suggest you take the first bites plain to taste for yourself.”
The judges obeyed, carefully cutting into the dango and spearing the cut piece on the wooden pick. As the woman tasted the pink part, she smiled. “It’s roses! You made a dango taste like roses!” she said.
“And the leaves taste like green tea,” said the man wearing street clothes.
“Mine…I don’t know. Do you see how my pink is compared to yours? I think the flavor kind of got mixed together,” said the man wearing the business suit. He held out a chunk of the pink part of his rose dango and the others looked at it, silently agreeing.
“But the way you made it is beautiful,” said the man in street clothes. “I’ve seen panda and puppy dango, but I’ve never seen a dango rose. Did you like playing with clay when you were a kid?”
Nagisa chuckled. “I loved to,” she said. “In fact, I still do.”
The three judges finished their dishes, obviously pleased with the creativity and flavors, and pushed them aside. It was Kei’s turn now.
“In honor of the impending summer season, I’m giving you a cool taste,” she said, putting the dishes in front of each judge. “These are yomogi dango parfaits, made with mugwort for feeling like you’re lying under a tree on a hot day, vanilla ice cream with a little mint for a refreshing flavor, and topped with a little red bean paste, a little kuromitsu syrup and some kinako flour. I’ve kept these chilled for you so you can enjoy these at your leisure.”
Kei stepped back and allowed the judges to sample their first bite. They each went for the dango, and all of them cut a small chunk off with their fork and chewed it. “This is remarkably chewy for something that’s chilled,” the man in the business suit said.
“I love the flavor! It’s just like you said, I’m lying under a tree on a hot day and I can smell the grass,” the man in the street clothes said. “And when you mix it with the vanilla ice cream, it’s different! Creamy and refreshing!”
“I love the texture and the color of the dango,” the woman said. “But there’s hardly any flavor other than the yomogi you mixed into it. You have to mix it with the other ingredients to give it flavor…”
“They’re all in harmony with each other, at least,” the man with the business suit said.
The three of them finished their dishes, and it was time for judging. Kei came back over to us, looking nervous. “Well, I’ll be happy if I just get one point,” she said.
“You never know,” Yomogi said. “Vanilla-chan and I were discussing what Nagisa made. You might have a chance.”
“Kei-chan, did you…did you really make that recipe based on us?” I asked, a little embarrassed. Kei looked down, blushing a bit herself, as her smartphone chimed. The votes were beginning.
Beep. We looked down as one vote was recorded for Nagisa. Kei bit her lip and took a deep breath, but then…
Beep, beep! The last two votes were recorded for Kei. She had won a split decision!
The Kei fan faction erupted into cheers, as Kei smiled broadly. (However, when she turned to address her fans, her stoic expression returned.) I noticed Nagisa smiling sadly as she put her smartphone back into her pocket.
“I knew I wasn’t going to defeat her,” she murmured. “I completely forgot about changing the water to keep the colors clear. I was so nervous.”
I went over to her. “Tomizawa-san,” I said.
“Do I know…oh, you were at the supermarket,” she said. “Mitsurugi-san is something else, isn’t she?”
“Don’t put yourself down over this,” I said. “I think rose dango are a great idea. I would have loved to try one.”
“You know, I based it on a dessert I once had at an Indian restaurant,” Nagisa said. “Only they’re balls of fried cheese, and you serve it in a syrup flavored with rose water and honey.”
“That DOES sound good!” I said. Kei was waving me over, so I said a quick goodbye to Nagisa and ran over to join her and Yomogi.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to pull that off, after seeing what she made,” Kei said. “What did you tell her?”
“That I thought that rose dango were a pretty neat idea,” I said. “She told me about what inspired it. You…kinda got inspiration from us for your dango, didn’t you?”
Kei looked down at her feet. “I’ll tell you two in a minute, when we’re cleared out of here. Okay?”
When the room had cleared out, Kei led us to our usual lunch spot, and she sat down on the bench.
“To tell you the truth…you two are the first people who ever really approached me that weren’t scared off or intimidated,” she said. “I grew up with two older and one younger brothers, and karate’s been our life. Everyone expects me to be this tall, powerful, tough girl, and yeah, I am. But I also like cute stuff. Like Vanilla-chan’s charm or my lunch box or stuff like that…When I was in elementary school everyone was avoiding me, so I decided to start doing some traditional activities to balance things out. Things like flower arranging or tea ceremony, even knitting...lots of martial artists practice traditional art like that. The only thing I really liked was the tea ceremony, and that got me into wagashi. I became obsessed with it, practically, once I found out how you made it and how you could decorate it. I convinced my mom and dad to sign me up for courses, and the teachers told me about Umami Gakuen and encouraged me to take the entrance exam. My parents were really supportive of it—of course, only after they found out that they have a karate club here.” Kei giggled.
“But at least I’ve found something that I can define myself with that doesn’t involve punching or sparring. I like karate, but I don’t want to have it take over my life. And…I’m glad that I was able to meet people as passionate about good food as I am, that aren’t afraid of me.”
I nodded. “I think I understand a little bit about how you feel,” I said. “I was always close to my dad. He taught me everything about cooking, and I spent a lot of time with him. My mom was always busy with society stuff…She and my dad ran in separate circles, and that kinda clouded our relationship. She wanted me to continue on to the high school—I went to an all girls’ school with an elevator system—but I turned her down. My best friend and her mom were my biggest cheerleaders.”
“What happened with your father?” Kei asked.
“Long story…his plane went down in the Himalayas, and that’s the end of that,” I said. Kei would probably put two and two together later. “I gave up being able to go to school with my best friend for this opportunity. She knew that, but she still supported me. I couldn’t let her down, and I can’t let my father down, either. It’s my mission to graduate and enter the world ready to take anyone on.”
Yomogi looked quiet. “You two…” She sighed. “It’s my first time in such a big place here. I lived in a fairly isolated area, so I had to go a long way to school each day…I never really made any close friends. I spent all my time at home reading magazines, and my mom’s cookbooks, and that’s how I got interested in pastry arts. My parents run a traditional inn, and business has been getting slower and slower. And when my sister got married, we met a wedding planner, and they helped us out with getting some weddings scheduled for the inn. And that got me interested in wedding planning. There’s so much involved, and if I learn how to be a pastry chef as well, that would be like killing two birds with one stone.”
We sat there a few moments in silence, after each of us had bared our souls to each other. That’s when I realized, despite how little time we knew each other and our difference in backgrounds, that we had become best friends.
“Hey…” I spoke up. “Not to be awkward, but…are you two doing anything this weekend?”
“No, why?” Yomogi asked.
“I’m pretty much free,” Kei said.
For the first time in a long time, I was genuinely excited. “Want to come to a dinner party?”