Chapter 5:

Menu 4: Don't Be Chicken! Vanilla vs. The New Transfer Student

BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls

I woke up the next morning feeling exhausted. I hadn’t had a good night’s rest because all I could think about was that person. It was also raining, raw and chilly out, the type of weather that wanted to make you get right back into bed and sleep the morning away. Instead I got up and went downstairs into the kitchen to see Caroline talking with Ryotaro. She looked like she hadn’t gotten much sleep as well.Bookmark here

“Morning, Nee-san,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

I made a sound that resembled a zombie as I fumbled with the scoop I used to measure coffee into my press. “Rough night last night?” Ryotaro asked.Bookmark here

“You…you can say that,” I muttered as I waited for my coffee to steep. “What about you, Caroline-chan?”Bookmark here

Caroline nodded. “I feel a little better. Thanks for last night,” she said. (After dinner, I came in to see what was going on. It was some school related drama, and I listened to her venting about it for at least an hour.)Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, I wanted to know if you were scheduled to work this weekend,” Ryotaro said.Bookmark here

“No, I’m not. Why?”Bookmark here

“One of my fellow cast members gave me some passes to the Tokyo World Gourmet Fest, and I wanted to know if you’d be interested in going.”Bookmark here

“Really?!” I suddenly brightened up. “Of course I would!” This was the premier festival in the city, and while I’ve always wanted to go, the cost is extremely prohibitive when you’re a high school student on a limited budget.Bookmark here

“The World Gourmet Fest, huh?” Caroline said. “What do they have there?”Bookmark here

“What don’t they have there?” I said. “Food stalls from all over the world, stalls selling all sorts of tools and trinkets…And it’s right near the Sunshine Mall, too, if you want to do some shopping!”Bookmark here

“Sounds like fun,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

“Then it’s settled, and both of you are welcome to bring a friend,” Ryotaro said, smiling. “It’s been a while since we’ve had an outing together like this.”Bookmark here

I noticed Caroline looking somewhat less chipper than a few seconds ago. “Is something the matter?” I asked her, but she shook her head.Bookmark here

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I parted ways with Caroline at the train station and rode the train to school, passing through the gates and entering my homeroom, which was abuzz with activity as usual. Apparently, today was the day we’d be meeting our new exchange student.Bookmark here

“I wonder what they’ll be like,” Kei said as she sat down. “They’re from Ashwargandha, huh?”Bookmark here

“I looked it up,” Yomogi said. “It’s a tropical country. They’re famous for their rice paddies.”Bookmark here

“I wonder what division they’ve chosen?” I said, but as I was about to say something else, the bell to start homeroom rang.Bookmark here

“Stand! Bow! Sit!” Aiko instructed as Mizuhara-sensei entered the room, followed by a young woman who was using a cane to support her unsteady walking. Her skin tone was dark, but a little paler than my friend Michael’s (his mom is Japanese and his father is African-American.) Her black hair was short and in a pixie cut, but something about it seemed as if it was hastily done. And her eyes…they were a beautiful light brown, and reminded me of a gentle flame.Bookmark here

“Everyone, this is Salma Zhimalan, from Ashwargandha,” Mizuhara-sensei said. “She will be needing some help with physical activity, so I would appreciate it if all of you could chip in to assist her when the time arises. I’ll let her introduce herself.” He turned to Salma, who had been looking shyly down at her feet the entire time. She looked up and saw all of us staring back at her, said “Oh!”, then turned her back and started writing on the board. First was a series of strange, looping symbols that appeared to be some sort of foreign language, followed by a series of katakana and finally a series of romaji that read SALMA ZHIMALAN.Bookmark here

“My name is Salma Zhimalan, and I’m originally from Ashwargandha,” she said. Her Japanese was a little hesitant sounding, but it sounded as if she practiced a lot. “I have finished my schooling in my home country, and have decided to study abroad for my gap year before I enroll in university. I have enrolled in the Yoshoku Division and I look forward to meeting you all.” She made a very slow bow.Bookmark here

“Zhimalan-san, there is an empty seat in the front row,” Mizuhara-sensei said. “And Yomogi Kisaragi is the class’s health rep, so if you need any assistance with the infirmary, she will be the one to assist you.”Bookmark here

Yomogi nodded to Salma as she slowly made her way towards the seat, and sat down. Salma looked around at the classmates around her, and I gave her a quick smile as if to say, “Welcome.” She blushed a little, unused to the attention.Bookmark here

Things were just beginning to get interesting around here.Bookmark here

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It was still raining during lunchtime, so the three of us sat in the classroom to eat while everyone else in the class fawned over Salma.Bookmark here

“What made you decide to study in Japan?” one of my classmates asked.Bookmark here

“I’ve always admired it. It’s a place that’s one with nature,” Salma said, after some thought.Bookmark here

“What’s life in Ashwargandha like?”Bookmark here

“It’s a little chaotic,” Salma said. “There’s been so many people fighting over it for so long. We’ve only just achieved peace in the last few years…” She seemed to trail off. Maybe that wasn’t the right kind of question to ask.Bookmark here

“Are you into Gourmet Battles, too?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“Yes! Although they don’t have a federation in Ashwarghanda,” Salma said. “We’re still trying to form one. I have registered myself with Japan’s National Professional Gourmet Battle Association, though!” She pulled a smartphone (it was in a very cute looking case decorated with little flowers) out of the pocket of her school blazer and displayed her insignia. Ah, the zero-star ranking…how nostalgic. I smiled as I remembered the day I turned 14, when I registered with the NPGBA and just spent hours gazing at my portrait and blank rating stars.Bookmark here

“Would you like to challenge one of us someday? We can help you out!” one of my classmates said.Bookmark here

“Well…I was thinking that maybe…” Salma’s eyes traveled around the group of girls and boys standing around her, until they rested on me. “I could challenge you first?”Bookmark here

“Uh…” I started blushing. “You really, REALLY don’t want to do that,” I said.Bookmark here

“Why? You seem like a nice person,” Salma said, smiling.Bookmark here

“I know that, it’s just…I’m a four star. I don’t want to challenge someone who’s a zero star,” I said. “I’d feel terrible if I won.”Bookmark here

“It’s okay! I’ve been cooking ever since I was a little kid,” Salma said. “I may not have the credentials, but I’ve put in the work.”Bookmark here

“Well…” I still had reservations about it. If I won, it might come back to bite me in the butt (“She steamrolled that foreign girl, what a terrible person!”) If I lost, it might come back to bite me in the butt (“She threw that match, what a terrible person!”) Out of all the people she could’ve chosen, how come it was me?!Bookmark here

“Come on! We haven’t seen you in a match yet this year. Think of the publicity!” one of my classmates said. I looked around at everyone surrounding me and let out a deep sigh.Bookmark here

“Zhimalan-san, if you’re going to battle with me, promise that you’ll give it your all. Everyone here can attest that I’m very tough to beat. Understand?”Bookmark here

Salma smiled. “Of course! I enjoy challenges.”Bookmark here

“Then…how does this afternoon sound? Are you available then?”Bookmark here

“If it’s right after class, then…yes! I can make it,” she said.Bookmark here

We entered the time and location of the challenge into our phones, and as everyone’s phones began buzzing around us, our eyes met.Bookmark here

“May the best battler win,” I said.Bookmark here

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I wrapped my afternoon studies up a little early in order to prepare myself for the competition. Already, the culinary arts building was beginning to fill up with awed spectators. They were buzzing about why one of the Four Horsewomen was challenging the new transfer student—and a foreigner that had just barely started competing, even.Bookmark here

As I was getting my utensils in order, I heard a familiar voice coming from behind.Bookmark here

“Ko-i-zu-mi-sem-pai,” Momoko chanted. I turned around to see her grinning.Bookmark here

“Momo is here to watch your battle,” she said. “Sounds exciting! Momo can’t wait to see what the two of you have up your sleeves.”Bookmark here

Just then, Salma entered the room, along with a few more curious onlookers. She had spent the afternoon getting a tour of the culinary wing, learning about the food storage and supplies and the type of ingredients the school provided to students. I could tell that she’d been trying to learn as much as possible about the environment before her battle. She looked fairly nervous.Bookmark here

“You’re the new transfer student Momo has been hearing about?” Momoko said as she approached Salma. “Momoko Ijuuin! Momo-chan for short. Momo is Vanilla Koizumi’s number one fan.”Bookmark here

Oh really, I thought, rolling my eyes.Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you, Momo-chan,” Salma said, smiling. “I’m Salma Zhimalan.”Bookmark here

“You’re from Ashwargandha? It’s a really interesting place. Momo learned about it in elementary school. Well…looks like Momo should join the audience. See ya.” Momoko waved and found an empty spot in the back of the room. She leaned against the wall and started playing with the beads on one of her bracelets.Bookmark here

“Another friend of yours?” Salma asked.
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“Not all my friends are like that,” I said, sighing. “She just happens to be one of the more…unique ones.”
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“She certainly seems like a handful,” Salma said. She still looked nervous.
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“Zhimalan-san…If you want to call things off, feel free,” I said. “You look nervous.”
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“No, it’s fine,” Salma said. “I kind of thrive on pressure.”
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“Okay,” I said, shrugging as the room began to fill up with spectators. “You know, you kind of remind me of my friend Yomogi-chan when you say that.”
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“Oh, really? No wonder. You seem like you two get along very well together,” Salma said, smiling. Wow, her smile is so cute, I thought.Bookmark here

Yomogi, Kei and Hanabi all entered and took their usual positions, watching the two of us from a vantage point that would give them a full view of everything. They were going to try their best to stay neutral, even though I knew they’d be cheering for me.Bookmark here

“Are you ready?” Salma said, holding out her phone. “Let’s do the selection.”
“All right,” I replied, taking out my phone and pressing the on-screen button to confirm the challenge. The spinning wheel appeared on the screen. I looked up and met Salma’s eyes as we waited for the sound of the spinning to slow, and then stop. We looked down to see the subject of our challenge appear on our screens: Chicken.Bookmark here

“Wow, this is such a good one!” Salma said, looking up and smiling at me.
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I smiled back. “Yeah, so many possibilities,” I said. “Good luck, Zhimalan-san.”
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“It’s okay…You can call me Salma-chan,” Salma said as the timer clicked down to zero.Bookmark here

I dashed towards the refrigerators, opening them up and taking out a pre-wrapped Styrofoam tray of chicken breasts from my personal stock. I noticed that Salma seemed to be moving a little faster using her cane than she was earlier—maybe it was the rush of adrenaline you get from competition. She went over to a cupboard filled with various appliances and pulled out a pressure cooker, which she carried back to her station.Bookmark here

I had formed an idea in my head as soon as I learned we were making chicken: the first part of my creation would involve karaage, marinated fried chicken. My personal recipe involved a marinade with tons of garlic and ginger, with enough crispy coating to keep everything moist inside. When I was living by myself, I’d cut big pieces of chicken into little bites—like the size of pineapple chunks—and toss them in some cornstarch after giving them a good soak in a marinade before frying them, then eating them mixed with a cool, green salad. I chopped the chicken breasts into smaller pieces before I rushed over to the vegetable storage to retrieve the ingredients I needed for the marinade: garlic, ginger and a dried hot pepper for a little kick.Bookmark here

Salma was filling the pressure cooker with what appeared to be a light chicken stock flavored with various herbs. She then made her way back towards the refrigerator and searched inside, pulling out three small bundles that she cradled in one of her arms as she hobbled back to her cooking station. They were the type of chickens known as Cornish game hens, each of them about the size of a softball. It was the kind of poultry you’d often see stuffed with wild rice or something like that at a fancy restaurant.Bookmark here

I chopped the garlic into fine pieces and peeled the ginger, rubbing it vigorously on a grater as I watched Salma cleaning the three hens. It was then that I realized I was up against someone who knew 100% what they were doing. She scrubbed each of them under running water, trimmed all the fat and the wingtips, and made sure the cavity of each was free and clear of all blood and internal organs before setting the three hens with the cavity upraised on a cutting board.Bookmark here

“What do you think she’s making?”
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“Looks like it’s some kind of soup, based on that pressure cooker there.”
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“What about Sakamoto?”
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“Seems like it might be karaage…doesn’t that seem a little mundane to you?”Bookmark here

My reservations hit me in the gut again. I knew this would happen…they were suspecting that I was throwing the match. I couldn’t back down now—after all, I had a few tricks up my sleeve, and not many people could make karaage that was as crispy and juicy as what I made. It’s a tricky dish to perfect.Bookmark here

I grabbed a plastic bag and poured a simple soy sauce and mirin marinade into it, then added the chopped garlic and ground ginger, followed by a few bits of torn hot pepper. The chicken went in and received a few good squeezes from my hands as I attempted to rub as much flavor in as possible. It’d take a few minutes for the chicken to take on a good flavor—and that’s when phase 2 of my plan would come into play.Bookmark here

As I hunted for the next few components of my culinary battle—nori, plain rice, and umeboshi—I watched as Salma inserted a funnel into the open end of one of the hens, and then poured what appeared to be sweet rice into it. The students watching us were buzzing again.Bookmark here

“I know what she’s making! It’s samgyetang!
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“What’s that?”
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“Korean chicken soup! It’s supposed to be really good for you.”Bookmark here

I was impressed! I’d have to ask Salma about her culinary experience, but now was no time to stand back and admire her handiwork—I rushed back to my station and loaded a couple cups of white rice into the rice cooker, then added water to it. I pressed the Cook button and started pulling the umeboshi out of the package and chopping them into small pieces, followed by making small, confetti-like shreds of the nori. Those would be needed later.Bookmark here

The chicken had marinated enough, so I put my deep-frying pot onto the burner and turned it on before pouring in some canola oil. I poured it from the plastic bag on a pile of paper towels to absorb the excess, then dropped the chicken piece by piece into a cloud of white powder that was a mixture of flour and corn starch, carefully coating each one and dusting off the excess. I had my tongs and a rack for draining and crisping the chicken ready, so all I needed to do was to watch over the frying chicken and make sure it cooked all the way through. I watched as Salma lowered the three hens, which had been stuffed with rice and an assortment of herbs and then fastened at the cavities, into the pressure cooker that was filled with simmering stock. She carefully fastened the lid and set the dial for the pressure, watching the gauge carefully as she moved back in search of serving containers.Bookmark here

I stuck my cooking chopsticks into the pot and was rewarded with the sight of tiny bubbles coming forth, so I loaded my spider with bits of breaded chicken and slowly lowered it into the pot. They danced and sizzled as soon as they hit the hot oil. Good! Everything else was ready to be assembled, and this was the most crucial part. I closely monitored the frying chicken as it started to float and turn crispy golden brown before fishing it out and laying it on the rack.Bookmark here

Salma had found three black iron cauldrons that one would normally eat soup from, and was warming them by pouring boiling water from a hot water dispenser inside them and swirling them around, like how one would warm a teapot before making a hot cup of black tea. There was a gentle hiss of steam from the pressure cooker on her stove, and I could smell the fragrances of several herbs and spices I didn’t recognize in the air.Bookmark here

I looked down at my phone to see that we had about twenty minutes left. The rice was still cooking away, and would be done with enough time for me to dish it into three donburi bowls. I carefully picked up one of the fried chicken pieces with tongs and carefully sliced into it with a clean knife, making sure that it was cooked all the way through. It was perfectly cooked on the inside, and as I carefully slid the still piping hot bite into my hand, I felt the moisture and the tenderness combined with the crunchy coating on the outside. I popped it into my mouth and tasted crispy breading and juicy chicken flavored perfectly with pungent garlic, sharp ginger, the sudden heat of hot pepper and the salty tang of soy sauce. This was absolutely perfect.Bookmark here

“How are you doing over there, Sakamoto-san?” Salma called from across the room.
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“All right, you?” I asked. “Is that samgyetang you’re making?”
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“Yes! It’s one of my favorites! I had a housekeeper who was from Korea when I was a young girl,” Salma said. “She used to make this for me a lot.”Bookmark here

I smiled as I remembered one of the dishes my dad used to make for me, especially when I felt like I was sick: a hearty vegetable miso soup that he could whip up with whatever was lying around in the refrigerator. Nowadays, my usual go-to sick food was some tamagozake, a hot cup of sake with a bit of sweetener and a whole egg beaten into it, along with a bowl of hot okayu rice porridge topped with a bit of black sesame salt, both served by my mother (or myself, if I felt like I could manage cooking while I was sick.)Bookmark here

Salma was removing the pressure cooker directly from the flame, and was now carefully carrying it towards the sink on her station. She turned on the faucet and let the cold water fall on the pot’s lid. After a few seconds, she turned a switch on the cooker, and the lid detached easily. A cloud of steam issued from inside that was extremely fragrant, making the people standing around her gasp in awe as the smell hit their noses. It smelled like a light chicken broth, with hints of ginger, black pepper and a few other spices I couldn’t easily identify. Salma pushed the three black cauldrons towards the sink and carefully lifted each of the hens into them, and pulled apart the strings that were wrapped around the cavities. Then she shifted back to the pot and grabbed a ladle, filling it with fragrant broth and pouring it into the cauldrons around the chicken.Bookmark here

My rice cooker beeped, and I pressed the button to open the lid. I was greeted by a cloud of steam and the scent of light, fluffy white rice. I scooped the rice into the waiting bowls, and then carefully folded the bits of chopped umeboshi into them. I followed that up with a spoonful of the karaage bits on top, followed by a few squeezes of mayonnaise—just a few squiggly lines to add some contrast, not too much. The nori would be added on at the very end as a last second garnish. I had finished just in time, too—there were three minutes left.Bookmark here

Salma was finishing her soup up with a few shakes of what appeared to be a spice mixture as the final seconds ticked down, and I sprinkled my three bowls with the nori as the final seconds ticked down and a round of applause rippled across the room. Kei, Yomogi and Hanabi came over as I leaned against the counter, my energy spent.Bookmark here

“Those look so good!” Yomogi said as she admired the bowls of fried chicken and rice. “And Zhimalan-san’s dishes look so good, too…”Bookmark here

“When you get down to it, we both thought of chicken and rice,” I said. I looked over at Salma’s station. She was leaning up against the counter of her station with her cane next to her, but someone watching her thoughtfully pushed over a stool, which she sat down on. “Thanks! I appreciate it,” she said.Bookmark here

“How are you doing?” I asked, walking over.
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“I’m all right. I just need to sit down,” Salma said. “That was exciting, wasn’t it?”
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“Yeah, did you have fun?” I asked?
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“Of course! I haven’t cooked competitively like this in so long,” she said.Bookmark here

The randomly chosen judges were ushered into the room. One of them was wearing the uniform of an Umami Gakuen student, but the other two were people that came right off the street: an older gentleman that was carrying a construction hardhat under his arm and a woman who looked like she just left an aerobics lesson. They were seated at a table as Salma and I pulled out our phones to do the coin flip to see who would present their dish first.Bookmark here

“Call heads or tails,” I said.Bookmark here

“Heads,” Salma replied, but the on-screen coin fell down and showed tails. I picked up the rice bowls and placed them in front of each of the judges.Bookmark here

“My chicken interpretation is a fried chicken bowl over rice,” I said. “Each rice bowl has a generous amount of crunchy umeboshi bits to go along with karaage chicken marinated in soy sauce, garlic, ginger and a little bit of hot pepper before being breaded and fried, and everything is topped with a bit of mayonnaise and a generous amount of nori. Enjoy!”Bookmark here

I stood back and watched as each of the judges picked up their utensils and loaded them with bits of rice and chicken. Each of them took a bite and their expressions changed as the flavors combined in crispy, tart and creamy harmony.Bookmark here

“I love how you’ve given everything a Japanese flavor,” said the Umami Gakuen student. “Fried chicken is usually pretty Western but I can taste everything you mentioned in the marinade. And the rice is pretty refreshing, too.”Bookmark here

“I like how everything’s a mix of different textures, but I think there are a few things you could’ve done differently,” the woman said. “I think this would taste better with shiso leaves instead of nori, for example.”Bookmark here

“I agree with her, but I think everything works harmoniously already,” said the construction worker. “The way you cooked the chicken keeps it juicy and still warm. I think you could punch up the flavor a little bit more with some lemon.”Bookmark here

The three judges finished everything, looking extremely satisfied. Salma waited until the dishes were cleared, and carefully brought over the iron cauldrons with the samgyetang one at a time and placed them in front of them.Bookmark here

“This…this is my first time doing this, so…” Salma hesitated and cleared her throat. “When I heard ‘chicken’ the first thing I could think about was this samgyetang that I ate a lot in my youth. We had a tutor and cook from Korea that lived with my household for a while, and when I was feeling tired or worn out from school, she’d make me this to get my stamina back. It’s filled with all sorts of medicinal herbs and spices like ginseng and jujubes, and I’ve added a few spices native to Ashwargandha that are used in our cuisine as well. We also believe that eating well is important to good health.”Bookmark here

The three judges looked down at the whole chicken in the bowl of clear broth. The man working in construction dipped a spoon into the broth and sipped it. “It’s got lots of spices in it, but I can taste the chicken,” he said. He started picking the stewed chicken with his chopsticks, and some of the rice, herbs and jujubes that had been stuffed inside the hen’s cavity were freed and began to float to the surface. “The chicken’s perfectly cooked. I see you know your way around a pressure cooker.”Bookmark here

“Well, yes. We do have things like that in Ashwargandha,” Salma said. From the way she spoke, I assumed she got that question an awful lot. Isn’t it great how people like to assume that since you’re from another country or culture, you don’t know about modern conveniences?Bookmark here

“This broth is excellent,” said the woman. “I can feel it warming me up from the inside out. And I’ve never had chicken prepared like this before. It just falls right apart. And the way the rice cooked inside…” She smiled.Bookmark here

“I think this probably could’ve been cooked longer for more flavor,” the Umami Gakuen student said. “Even so…it still stands up on its own. I would eat this for my health, too.”Bookmark here

“Thank you,” Salma said as the judges continued eating. I watched their expressions, and saw that they were content. They didn’t seem uncomfortable with the level of flavor, and it looked as if they were enjoying themselves. I shouldn’t have judged her right off when she asked to challenge me, I thought. I mean, just because her country doesn’t have a gourmet battle ranking organization doesn’t mean she’s an unskilled chef…Bookmark here

As we waited for the votes to be punched in, I stood with Kei, Yomogi and Hanabi. “What do you think?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Well, she’s definitely skilled,” Kei said. “I don’t think I learned how to use a pressure cooker until I started here.”Bookmark here

“Everyone looked so content eating what she made,” Yomogi said. “I haven’t seen that look on someone for a long time.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “She’s pretty good. You might not think it from looking at her, but she’s good.” I glanced over at Salma, who was still seated on the stool. She was surrounded by a few more well wishers, a few of which I recognized from our homeroom class. She smiled as she noticed me looking at her.Bookmark here

“Hey, the judges are ready!” called someone standing up by the judges table. Our phones vibrated as the voting entry was ready to begin…Bookmark here

Beep. I looked down at my phone and saw that the first vote had been cast in my favor. Salma looked down at hers with anticipation.Bookmark here

Beep! The next vote was locked in—and it was for Salma! I heard her gasp happily from across the room. The competition could go either way at this point…Bookmark here

Beep! The final vote came through—and it, too, was for Salma. My eyes widened in disbelief.Bookmark here

The room applauded, and I joined in as Salma, shocked at her first win, covered her mouth with her hands and blushed. “That was amazing!” I said.Bookmark here

“I won?” Salma looked down at her phone in disbelief. “No way…”
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“You won!” I said, running over to Salma. “It was your first battle here, too!”
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“Oh…I didn’t want to defeat you, but…” Salma looked like she was about to cry.
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“No, it’s okay! What mattered is how much everyone loved the food! I was watching them while they were eating, and everyone was so happy with your meal! It made me want to try it!”
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Salma smiled. “Well…someday I’ll make it for you. All right?”
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“Yes, definitely!” I said, shooting her a thumbs up.Bookmark here

An alarm tone then went off on her phone. “Oh! I need to go…” Salma looked up from her phone at the kitchen. “Wait, what about cleaning up?”Bookmark here

“It’s okay! It’s tradition for the loser to handle it,” I said, rolling up my sleeves. “Don’t worry about it.”Bookmark here

Salma smiled and picked up her cane. “Well, then…I’ll see you tomorrow in class?” she said, before smiling and waving. I noticed then that an older woman was standing at the entrance to the kitchen classroom. She was wearing what appeared to be a three-piece suit with aviator sunglasses, and had long black hair. Something about her stance seemed a little familiar to me, and that’s when I realized that Salma was walking towards her. They exchanged a few words before the two of them departed.Bookmark here

“Hey, Vanilla-han, you need any help with the dishes?” Hanabi asked. “I’m free until later.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Don’t you have work?”
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“Yeah,” Hanabi said. “But not until a little later.” (Hanabi was working part time in the same position I had been in at Kotobuki Supermarket. In fact, I recommended her as my replacement.)Bookmark here

“You’ll be all right by yourself?” Yomogi asked.
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“Yeah, I’m going to be fine. Relax,” I said. “Besides, I kind of want to be by myself right now…Got a lot to think about.”
“Okay…I’ll see you tomorrow,” Yomogi said. Kei merely nodded as she walked away, as the room rapidly began to empty.Bookmark here

One of the last people to exit the room was Momoko. She was staring down at her phone, and looked up to me. Our eyes met, and she smiled.Bookmark here

“Looks like you’ve met your match, Koizumi-sempai,” she said, before stashing her phone in her pocket and scurrying out of the room.Bookmark here

I filled the sinks with warm, soapy water and set the pots and pans in them to soak as I applied dish soap to a scrubber and began to wash the serving bowls. It had been a while since I suffered a loss, but this one felt…different. I was giving it my all, against someone who was completely new to this country, but still an experienced chef. It opened up a whole other set of questions for me, but all I knew was that I wanted to know more about Salma. An idea formed in my mind as I scrubbed away at all the dishes: maybe I’d invite her to come with us to the Tokyo World Gourmet Fest.Bookmark here

After I was done with dinner and my homework, I decided to start looking up information on Ashwargandha online. I found its page on Quickiepedia and started reading through it. Ashwargandha was a fairly young country, situated in the middle of a temperate area of Southeast Asia. It was probably about as big as Hokkaido, and was mostly agrarian. It had gained independence about fifteen years ago, after years of being disputed territory between two other countries. It was currently being ruled by a military government, after the king had taken ill and the queen and oldest daughter were fatally injured in an automobile accident about a year prior. Their son had died tragically in a military barracks fire some years earlier. Their major exports were rice, including a specific strain of rice that had a distinctive reddish color—kind of like azuki beans—as well as various herbs and roots that were used in traditional medicines across Asia. The capital city was Mesha, which had received support from tons of different companies all over the world in order to bring it into modern times: upgraded electrical power, fast internet, a modern postal and banking system. It was also famous for its zoo and botanical garden, which was currently hosting a panda on loan from China among other animals.Bookmark here

As I scrolled down the page, I noticed a picture of the royal family from eight years ago, and suddenly felt like I had seen something familiar. I stopped and scrolled back up to see the royal family: a mother and father, who were most likely the king and queen, along with three children, a boy and two girls.Bookmark here

My eyes were locked on the picture of the youngest daughter, and my jaw dropped.
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Oh my god…she looks just like Salma-chan! I thought.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.