Our Fantastic Food Writing Competition Winners and Finalists!

We recently held a competition in conjunction with Sous Chef – online ingredient and all round international food aficionados – where we asked you for an evocative piece of writing that focused on food and travel. The two are often inextricably linked, as trying out new foods and eating experiences is an integral part of travelling for many of us. We were very lucky to receive so many fantastic entries to the competition describing their culinary experiences through their pieces they entered – they told of exotic and mysterious street food, of the triumph of catching their own dinner and also about the enduring transformative effect of their foodie experiences. Fussy or cautious eaters expanded their horizons whilst on their travels – and have never looked back!
We are delighted to share the Top Ten finalists in the competition, and hope you enjoy reading them. The two winners were selected by Jessica Donnithorne who works at Sous Chef and has personal experience of both travelling and blogging – and has a passionate interest in food.

Our Winning Entry by Phillip Shortt – who won £100 worth of Sous Chef vouchers

Jessica’s verdict: “A really rounded short story that flows well. Manages to balance humour with an appreciation of the beauty of fresh fruit de mer. The author allows the produce to shine through the narrative, avoiding overembellished descriptions and leaves us wanting more!”

I have a live and kicking mackerel in my hand and my fishing companion is gesticulating from the other end of the harbour wall. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me as he is shouting in French.
It’s the middle of December in a small but charming fishing town in Finisterre. The sky is a leaden grey and the rain is lashing towards me in a horizontal direction; but I don’t care. I am jumping up and down with delight at my first ever catch.
Finally, my pal overcomes his need to bellow en francais and just screams in English, “Don’t let anyone see you.”
“What?”
I know it’s not the biggest fish anyone has ever caught but he cant be that embarrassed to be seen with my tiddler.
“It’s illegal,” he tells me.
“Illegal?”
“Yes, its out of season. We can’t land any mackerel.”
But if I am on Interpol’s most wanted list, then so too must be the Charcuterie I visited earlier that trip where I had been introduced to the delicacy of mackerel rillettes.
It’s Sunday afternoon and no-one else can be seen in the harbour. They are all, sensibly, recovering from a few too many of the local aperitif, Ricard. In the holiday season the town is alive with tourists and the sun beats down on the returning boats laden with their catch. But now, in the depths of winter, the only witness I have for my moment of glory is a squabble of seagulls, eager to relieve me of my catch, and a pal who is getting tipsy knocking back Muscadet.
The irony is that I thought I disliked sea food. Yet, I have spent the weekend enjoying nothing but Fruit de Mer. I had my first taste of Lobster, delicious; fallen in love with langoustine, served with a simple home-made mayonnaise; and tucked into coquille Saint-Jacques, though confess I avoided the orange roe.
But while I daydream of curling up with a glass of sancerre to wash down a simple dish of lemon sole, a second mackerel is on my line, eager to be caught, and I’m really in trouble, now.
“Do you want to be arrested?” my pal says. “Catch a sea bass instead!”
I wish I could, I had eaten one the day before and that was a true revelation. Along with a starter of local oysters, with a squeeze of lemon, it made a meal I will never forget.
But my pal has had enough, he hasn’t had a single bite and looks as if he immersed himself in the Atlantic Ocean. Time to head back for a bowl of steaming Breton Fish stew.
But what about the two mackerel I caught? Did I make my own version of rillettes which tingled the taste-buds? I couldn’t possibly say. I plan to return to that lovely fishing town, in the near future, and Interpol might be on to me.

Our Runner Up was Jennifer Watts who won a Sous Chef Round the World Chilli Tour Set

Jessica’s verdict: “The author successfully guides us through her initiation into Japanese food. The story is well structured with an amusing anecdote about takoyaki which keeps it light.”

Arriving into Tokyo’s Narita airport, I was filled with a sense of both joy and dread. I’d been planning this trip for years, and I couldn’t wait to see the sights. That was the joy. The dread? That all came down to the food. Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat, but I love to eat things that I can recognise, things I can pronounce, and things that are most definitely dead long before they pass through my lips. In Japan, I wasn’t sure that any of those things could be 100 percent guaranteed.
I’ll admit I started slowly. Accustomed to spending my holidays in the USA, land of fast food, I began my adventure into Japanese cuisine by dipping my toes into the waters, ordering a juicy burger from a local chain, enjoying some yakitori with the suited and booted ‘salarymen’ at the izakayas, and eventually spending each morning perched on a stool in a Japanese curry house near Shinjuku station. Ordering a spicier dish each day, I eventually had my loyalty card stamped which showed that I had proven myself, and was now able to order off the super spicy menu. It really was like a rite of passage.
Things were going well. I’d successfully used chopsticks to eat my bento box on the moving train, I’d sat down to a 7 course shabu shabu meal, and I’d even visited the ‘food theme park’ where I’d devoured a tub of garlic flavoured ice cream, which really wasn’t as bad as you’d think. I was navigating Japan’s food scene like a pro and, feeling more and more confident with each passing day, I’d keep pushing the boundaries, trying new things, and yes, even biting into fish that was still squirming a little. Nothing could stop me…. until I took a walk through Yoyogi Park.
Each street vendor here had huge queues. As I got closer to the front, I could see the design on the sides of the stalls – cute little octopuses. I imagined the food to be something similar to calamari – one of just a few fish dishes I was partial to back home. I ordered, I paid, and I picked up one of the six bite-sized balls in the container. As I took a bite, my whole body froze. I could feel the chewiness of the suckers (which are mostly tough muscle) and the sliminess of the tentacles, and I was soon trying to discretely cough up little bits behind a bush. A bit of research back at my hotel told me i’d had takoyaki – deep fried diced octopus.
I tried a lot of weird stuff over in Japan – barbecued sparrow on a stick, catnip lemonade – but takoyaki is one food that will always stick out in my mind. Japan, I love your cuisine, but takoyaki? No thanks.

Here are the rest of our finalists:

Matthew Arnold

Steam rose under a canopy of bright light, whilst sounds of the streets enwrapped us in an embrace of culture and drama. The destination was Aberdeen in Hong Kong, where street sellers drew me in with tempting dim sum of every description. It was like a theatre that you took centre stage in. Just what was in those tempting dumplings, didn’t seem to matter. You sensed with your nose that end result wasn’t going to be dissapointment. Flavours from the land and sea mixed, united with noodles and soups that burst with flavour honed from a culture that really lives its food. I will never forget the balmy warmth of Aberdeen being so well partnered with the tastes of such a rich earthy palate.

Emily Knight

Girne - E.K

“Cyprus”, to most people, is the Greek side of the island. Not for my family. My grandfather is Turkish Cypriot, and this summer around 40 of us gathered in his home town of Girne (or Kyrenia, to the Greeks) to celebrate my aunt’s wedding day.

Prior to the trip, my partner’s only experience of Turkish food was doner kebabs: by spending a week out there, it was my mission to introduce him to what Northern Cypriot cuisine is all about.

Many elements of Turkish Cypriot cuisine are actually found on both sides of the island. The salty, minted cheese known as hellim (halloumi to the Greeks), which squeaks against your teeth when raw, and still holds its shape when cooked. The shops selling mountains of Turkish Delight (Cypriot Delight in the south…) in all conceivable flavours. The bustling markets, stacked high with fresh watermelons, exotic-looking vegetables and local figs and pomegranates create sights, sounds and smells that truly are a joy to behold.

My main aim, however, was to introduce him to an established restaurant in Girne called Niazi’s – and specifically their “full kebab”. Their trademark dish, the full kebab began back in 1949 and allows hungry diners to sample a range of different Turkish Cypriot dishes, all created from beautiful local produce.

The meal begins with cold mezes – think freshly made hummus, cacik (tzatziki), grilled and cooled aubergines, various salads and the traditional thick yoghurt that is served with savoury dishes at every Turkish table. All served at once, this is feast enough in itself…but then the theatre begins.

Waiters flit between the tables with large silver trays, doling out more food to the diners. Chargrilled slices of hellim cheese, beautifully tender slices of doner kebab (which are far superior to the post-pub type served in England), the best fries you’ll ever taste, cheese wrapped in crunchy filo pastry and shaped into cigars…it’s a whistlestop tour of a variety of Turkish Cypriot specialities.

But you’re not done there. After these dishes, it’s time for the meat: in the centre of the restaurant is a chef sitting at a large charcoal grill, turning chicken kofte, lamb kofte, sheftali, shish kebabs and more. It’s a veritable feast, and shows just how versatile the country’s food can be.

If you’re still hungry, help yourself to dessert from the chiller – a range of cakes and fresh fruit vie for customers’ attention, but many will admit defeat before they reach this point.

Those looking for a true Turkish Cypriot food experience can do far worse than visit Niazi’s. It’s a down to earth place that’s always busy – and at around £15 for the full kebab, it’s hardly surprising…

Kim Styles

In 1995 I met a girl at college called Saanvi. She had come to England to learn the English language and we became firm friends. On her return to Hong Kong she asked that I might come and stay with her and her parents. After saving for a few months I finally managed to get together enough money to take the 12 hour flight to Hong Kong. I cannot find the words to truly do justice to the exquisite delicate foods that Saanvi’s mother served up every day. Meals so beautifully presented with precise garnishes and lovingly served in many dishes across the table . Whole fish baked in spicy sauces and soft rice balls stuffed with juicy tender meats adorned the table alongside steaming bowls of noodles and fragrant rice. Eating was a sociable time and shrieks of laughter and jokes filled the air at every meal.Saanvi introduced me to the busy street markets where the spicy aroma of street foods filled the air. I was a bit reluctant at first to try unknown foods, but was soon tucking into tangy ‘Cheung Fun’ a dish of rice noodles covered in a mixture of sweet sauce, sesame oil and seeds. I even tried pots of mixed pork organs (lung, intestines,stomach lining etc) cooked in a broth with vegetables. My favourite street food however has to have been ‘Congee’ -a type of rice porridge/ thick soup, creamy, made from boiling rice in water or stock. It is flavoured with a strange variety of ingredients anything from fresh crab to an hundred year old eggs,offal and fermented bean curd . This is the nearest I have been to culinary heaven ! My three week stay in Hong Kong was fantastic and I had immersed myself into an amazing food tasting frenzy ! One lesson I did learn however, after many many mishaps, that is there is a certain Hongkongese etiquette to follow at the dining table. When you are full, always leave a little bit of food to show your hosts you are finished, if you don’t then your host will disappear off into the kitchen and bring out more food for you. No one told me this until the end of the first week after a few issues with indigestion. Hongkongese people are the most beautiful people I have met and they show their welcome and love through their food so carefully made and presented. I will cherish my visit for the rest of my life.

Rachel Whatmore

Colmenar - R.W

Nacho! Even his name is food related. This is the name of the very humble chef who created the most authentic and delicious Andalucian dishes I have ever tasted. I stayed in a 17th Century rustic farmhouse in Spain this Summer. Every evening, I sat at the terrace dining table with a new set of strangers; an elderly couple from Sweden, two lawyers from London, a larger than life American from Dancing with the Stars and a female mechanical engineer from Ukraine, to name but a few. Every night we were all bowled over by Nacho’s food, which included a traditional stew from Malaga and the best tortilla. However, following a fishing trip, I asked Nacho if he would like me to bring him back the catch. “Sí, er, concinamos!” he replied with enthusiasm. I hauled in a good selection of horse mackerel and even an octopus. His eyes lit up when I opened the box. I had never gut or prepared fresh fish before and, despite the language barrier, he showed me how to prepare a traditional Spanish marinade with bay, thyme, paprika and vinegar. Mackerel can be such an under-whelming fish at times. I can only say that after an afternoon soaking in this magical concoction of flavours, the fish was transformed. Working on the battered and knicked farmhouse table, he coated the fish in flour and gently fried them. The best part was serving the meal to people I had never met before and there being only empty plates and compliments, for both chef and fisher-woman, as the table was cleared away, we finished another bottle of local Rijoca and listened to the wild boar in the orchards around the house.

Thidara Udomritkul

mallorca - T.U

I can’t distinguish where the sea ends and the skies begin. Perched upon the flattest rock I can find, we sit in scattered positions at the foot of Puig d’en Galileu (1,181M), below one of the highest peaks in Mallorca. Having descended from our climb, we reach into our rucksacks and pull out an array of Mallorcan produce ranging from a loaf of freshly baked, unsalted bread to a jar of green olives.

Everything we have is laid out on a picnic rug and the food selection is a patchwork of contrasting colour.Tomatoes, larger then tennis balls, gleam a healthy red. The long green peppers are sliced and the quarter of cheese is cut into manageable chunks. We prise open a tin of pate and the salty parma ham is unwrapped. Plastic plates and serviettes are passed around and we gather round in anticipation of our feast of local produce in the mountains.

“PA AMB OLI! IT’S AMAZING!” announces our tour guide, Eduardo enthusiastically. He demonstrates the art of creating a typical Mallorcan lunch. Grabbing a halved tomato, he rubs the flesh of the fruit directly onto the bread, leaving a pink tinge and a few tomato seeds on the bread’s surface.
He grabs his hiking knife and exclaims “now you must take out the meat of the tomato”. The fruit is defleshed in front of us and the soft inner core is placed onto the bread. Thin slices of parma ham are placed on top, along with a few slices of roughly cut Mallorcan cheese. He grabs a handful of olives, capers and green peppers and scatters the sides onto the plate. A final light drizzle of olive oil finishes off the lunch. “It is the best, I eat it everyday!” Eduardo says cheerfully.

A little weary after our hike, we follow Eduardo’s directions and create a Mallorcan lunch. I balance the plate on my lap. There is a gentle caress of the mountain’s breeze. I take in the magnificent backdrop of the Tramuntana mountains unfolding beneath us. Deep green forests of Olm Oak contrasts the coastal blue waters and the cerulean sky. Vultures encircle the crumpled rock face and wild flowers bloom through the mountain range. It is incredibly tranquil and a far cry from the assumed image of Mallorca as a party island.

I thoroughly enjoy my picnic lunch. The airy, unsalted bread provides an excellent base for the crisp peppers, dried meats and mellow cheese. Pickled jalapenos add a touch of heat and the lunch is rounded off with fruit and chocolate topped biscuits.

I spent a week in Mallorca. It was a beautiful insight into the island as a emerging premier walking destination. I’ve wiped away all my previous misconceptions of Mallorca as a tourist destination and I look forward to returning to the island for further exploration and more picnics made with local produce.

Rose Taberer

26571002_1_fried_tarantula

I love eating local food whilst I am travelling, what is the point of going all that way and eating what you like at home? From street food to fancy restaurants with exotic dishes, I’ll try them all but even I balked when our local bus stopped for a rest break at a small market in rural Cambodia. Beside all the colourful fruits and veg were huge piles of something dark brown. On closer inspection, these piles revealed themselves to be scores of DEEP FRIED TARANTULAS!! Oh my goodness, I’m not good with spiders when they are alive (their speed and erratic running spooks me every time!) but surely they couldn’t be tasty?? After much deliberation, I decided to try one having seen the locals tucking in to platefuls. And I am happy to report that, like most deep fried things, they are crispy and don’t taste of too much at all!

Claire Procter

My story dates back many years to when I was chosen to represent the South East of England on an Experiment in International Living in Sri Lanka. I was 18 and had just left school. I had never been further than Europe previously and don’t think I had even tried a curry.
I was excited about the whole trip and the food was one part of the adventure. The cultural differences were huge. Eating a curry with your hand instead of cutlery and it had to be the right hand. I had to sit on my left hand to make sure I didn’t make a mistake.
Finding it strange that one of the daughters of my host family didn’t eat rice which was such a staple there. But because of that, I was introduced to string hoppers. I liked these so much that I brought a packet home.
Being asked if I would like chicken to which I answered yes. And then being surprised to find that I was being offered the neck and giblets. These were considered the best bits to serve. The breast meat had been given to their servant.
Developing a love of king coconut milk drunk straight from the tree. Being surprised that it was colourless rather than white and that the shell wasn’t hairy. I had only previously seen coconuts at the fairground.
Helping my host family to serve a lunch at an orphanage which was my first introduction to mass-scale catering. Huge vats of curry and rice which had to be transported in their car. Three of us squeezed in the back seat each holding a large dish.
Even the poppadoms were different to those you get here. Much thicker, a darker colour with uneven bubbles in the texture and broken into pieces rather than a circle.

Chloe Grainger

“What’s your favourite food?”

The single most infuriating question someone could utter in my direction. It’s like saying “What’s your favourite kind of ice?” Surely that would depend on what you’re putting that ice in. Amaretto on the rocks would need the rocks, frozen margarita, crushed. The North Atlantic Ocean, icebergs.

The same applies to foods and moods. Right now, I think a rare steak and horseradish ciabatta would be delightful, but give me an hour or so and it could have (probably will have) all changed.

That’s not to say I always know what I want, for all my love of things food based, there are times when I am so devoid of inspiration that I just don’t eat. Not because I’m not hungry, but because nothing is just right, and if I can’t find that perfect mouthful at that time, I don’t want anything. I don’t want some poor attempt at a taste I can’t define that is ultimately unsatisfying. On the other hand, there are the days when anything goes, even down to the odd craving for a microwave chicken burger. I hear your gasps, but don’t judge me, we’ve all had those kinds of hangovers…

Then there’s the more general want, of a style, or flavour. The savoury spiced joy of Middle-Eastern foods, or Indian. The sweet, sour, salty flavours of Asia with so many different styles, of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai. Meals that morph into their own style, like taking a rich tomato sauce to be served with pasta, Italian maybe, but you’ve added so many of your favourite things to it, its undefinable. And it’s still delicious, even though you’ll never have it again, because you’re not sure what’s actually in it.

And what of the foods for your physical self? When you’re ill, and you need comfort. I personally have grades of poorly, which relate to different foods. Spending days in bed, unable to do anything, means a quick leek and potato soup. So simple, but a bowl full of velvety, peppery, thick soup, warming you from the inside, feeding your soul. For the slightly worse than an average cold, there is Tom Yum, the Thai hot and sour soup, a thin broth for the bad days, or with a dash of coconut milk if you’re feeling better, always with rice vermicelli and a little chicken. And slight sniffles, with a possible headache, hardly counting as illness but you want the sympathy all the same, a nice, moist roast chicken, with buttery mash, broccoli and a slick rich gravy made from the juices. Heaven.

Sometimes you want to sit down with a tub of ice-cream and destroy it. Things as simple as a tub and spoon lean towards the lethargy of being slightly unhappy, though food to accompany misery, in my mind, should probably be covered in some kind of cheese.

In response to the initial question, the answer is always “One type of food? Don’t be ridiculous!”

Thank you to everyone who took the time to enter our competition, to our collaborators Sous Chef and we hope that Phillip and Jennifer enjoyed their prizes – and ended up with a lot of new foodie experiences to write home about!

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