As I strolled into the walls of Ewa Makai Middle, half asleep from studying late the night before, I did not expect to see bulletin positing all over the Tiger TV advertising about the EMMS 1st annual Fried Rice Cook-Off. Initially, I thought nothing of the advertisement however, that changed when I was offered the opportunity to be trained by the cafeteria cook, Ms. Winnie Supnet. She was gracious and energetic about competing in the cook off. As the school day progressed, I was distracted and anxious because all I could think about was the fact that I was actually going to enter a cooking contest! I was terrified because I had little to no cooking experience at all, but there was something satisfying about trying something new! MEEEEP, interrupted the school bell that released me to begin my first legitimate cooking lesson. I rushed straight from 3rd period to the Home Ec room, hardly breathing and dodging incoming students who seemed equally ecstatic to be done for the day. “I’m here, Ms. Winnie”, I exclaimed as I burst through the door with perspiration dribbling down my forehead.
“Hi my dear! Bebeh, go wash hands with soap, put your hair in the net and wash your face so that we can get started.” ordered Ms. Winnie. Ms. Winnie calls everyone, “Bebeh”, as a term of endearment which sounds awesome when combined with an Ilokano accent.
Once I entered the kitchen, I could smell a variety of ingredients resting on the shelves. We started the process of brainstorming what ingredients we would use. The dish we were required to make was fried rice. However, Ms. Winnie and I didn't want to make the typical fried rice that you could order at a random restaurant. We wanted to make a dish that would not only appeal to the judge's taste buds, but to their eyes as well. We decided to make an Asian style fried rice. After some time, we finally decided on all of our ingredients. Ms. Winnie was so confident in the recipe that for a minute, all of my doubt was nonexistent.
The Preliminary Round started in about an hour, so we started to get to work immediately. We gathered all of our ingredients and laid them out in front of us on top of a steel cart. All of my anxiety came back when I saw some of the ingredients that Ms. Winnie wanted me to cook with. There were some ingredients in front of me that I had never seen before! How in the world was I supposed to cook with them!? I was extremely hesitant at first, but Ms. Winnie's confident smile and positive attitude made it almost impossible to be nervous.
We started by preparing all of our ingredients. Ms. Winnie and I tried to keep the recipe as simple as possible. We decided to use Jasmine rice, olive oil, garlic, turmeric, salt and pepper, carrots, green onion, Chinese parsley, and lup cheong (Chinese Sausage). She showed me how to prepare the lup cheong first. I peeled off the skin of each sausage carefully, making sure that all of the clear wrapping was completely off of the meat. By the time I was done peeling all of the sausages, my hands were so oily and sticky that I had trouble switching on the sink handle. I washed my hands as thoroughly as I could, but when I picked up the knife to start chopping, it nearly slipped through my fingers! I washed my hands a second time, and wiped them with a clean towel. This time, my grip on the knife was firm. I began slicing the sausages in half straight down the middle. I rarely had any experience with knifes, so my hands shook a little whenever it went through the tough meat. Mr. Santa Monica, the cafeteria manager, saw that I was struggling with the blade. He came up to me and told me, "Don't be afraid of the knife! You are in control! Don't be afraid of the knife or you'll get hurt!" He motioned for me to give him the knife, so I did. He took hold of the handle, thumb on the opposite side of the four other fingers. He took a sausage and set it on the cutting board. With one hand, he pressed down the sausage with the tip of his fingers. With the other hand, he set the tip of the knife down first, then brought the rest of the blade down into the meat. He did it with such ease that it made me wonder how many times he had taught others how to cook. He gave me the knife and told me to try and mimic what he just did. I held the knife exactly how he did, cut the sausage the way he had. He smiled and told me to let him know if I needed further assistance. I thanked him for the gesture and continued to cut the sausages (more confidently than last time).
After dicing all of the lup cheong, Ms. Winnie set it front of me a huge bunch of Chinese Parsley. I let go of the knife to stretch out my hands, and for a second my fingers couldn't move, they were cramped from gripping the knife so tightly! She began to cut the stems, then asked me if I had any questions before I started to do the same. I began to mince the parsley. I held the bunch against the cutting board and cut the stems first, just as Ms. Winnie had. I sliced the pieces as thin as possible so that I could sprinkle them into the fried rice later. Ms. Winnie came to check up on me, and to my surprise, she squealed with delight. She had a smile so wide that I couldn't help but smile too. "I'm so proud of you!" she cried, wrapping her arms around me. To be honest, I was, too! This was my first time ever preparing ingredients for a meal, and I managed to prepare them without any setbacks (so far). Next, she brought out a bright orange carrot about the length of a pencil. She taught me how to skin the carrot with a vegetable peeler to peel away the skin of the carrot. Having already finished cutting the slippery lup cheong and mincing the skinny stems of the parsley, dicing the carrots was an easy task. Unlike the lup cheong, the carrots did not slip underneath the blade, and unlike the parsley, I did not have to repeatedly adjust them so that they stayed altogether as I chopped. Before I knew it, I had a pile of diced carrots in front of me. Afterward, Ms. Winnie set on the cutting board a bunch of green onions. She showed me how to cut the green onions in skinny slivers to use as a garnish. I was terrified, I thought that I would surely cut my finger, the pieces that I had to cut had to be so precise! I laid one stalk apart from the others and began to diagonally slice the bottom into skinny slivers. It took a while to cut all of the green onions because they were so long and skinny, but when I finally finished, I was pleased with how much I had done. We placed the slivers in a bowl that was held very little water inside, just enough to make the green onions curl so that we could use them as a topping, and we placed the glass bowl in the refrigerator. Lastly, Ms. Winnie set in front of me two heads of garlic. Then, she brought out a tool that I had never seen before, a hammer with bumps on the side. There was a smooth wooden handle, and the top of the handle ended in a thick metal cube (I later discovered that this tool was called a grooved meat tenderizing hammer). She set the first head of garlic on the cutting board and peeled 3 cloves at a time from the head. Then, before I had the chance to cover my ears, she brought the hammer down on the cloves. I almost jumped out of my own skin! Others in the kitchen looked up to see what the noise was, but Ms. Winnie didn't notice. It didn't help that I was standing very close to her. Everyone else seemed to hear a pounding noise, but what I heard resembled thunder! After she had smashed the garlic cloves, I noticed that the rough exterior of the garlic had split open, revealing inside a bright, fresh garlic clove inside. She removed the garlic from its shell and set it aside. She then handed me the hammer and said that she would be back to help me when I was finished. I crushed every garlic clove on edge, it took me a while to get used to the ear-splitting noise the hammer produced! Soon after, Ms. Winnie and I minced all of the garlic. By then, I was completely comfortable with the knife, it felt natural to mince the garlic into tiny pieces, and this time my fingers did not cramp. I asked Ms. Winnie when we were done "okay, so what is next?" She replied, "now, we cook it."
We loaded the ingredients onto a steel cart and maneuvered it to the two burners that we were using. We set extra virgin olive oil into a frying pan and fried all of the lup cheong. We then drained it completely of oil and let it sit for a little while. Then we set a skillet on top of the burner. We poured two ounces of extra virgin olive oil and waited about 3 minutes. Then we poured in two tablespoons of turmeric into the oil and mixed with a wooden rice paddle. Afterward, we poured in our garlic. We knew that we had timed it perfectly because as soon as we dropped in the garlic, the oil began to sizzle, creating little bubbles everywhere in the skillet. We continued to mix the garlic with the turmeric and oil. When the garlic was toned a golden color, we took the skillet off of the stove and added in our pre cooked jasmine rice. We thoroughly blended the rice so that every single grain was hued yellow by the oil and turmeric. When all of our rice was mixed in, we placed the skillet onto the burner once more and added everything we had prepared, all of our vegetables along with the lup cheong. We went to the refrigerator and pulled out our curled green onion slivers.
After using an ice cream scooper to set mounds of the fried rice on 5 different plates, we garnished it with green onion slivers and slices of lup cheong that resembled petals of a flower. I was very pleased with the outcome, and even more pleased was Ms. Winnie. We were so excited to present our dish to the 5 judges. We placed each dish on top of a metal tray, and with good luck, Ms. Winnie sent me up to the cafeteria stage. There, I spoke on the microphone, voice shaky and heart racing. "My name is Charlise Limjoco-Ragasa, and my dish is called Garlic Fried Rice." I then walked up the steps and placed a dish in front of each judge. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the judging round because I had a soccer game to attend.
The next day, my fellow leadership member, Maile Morrell, informed me that I had taken 2nd place and moved on to the finals. I ran to tell Ms. Winnie the good news, and when I got there, I was very surprised to see her already sitting with a notepad and pen. She was writing down all of the ingredients I would need to buy, and together we determined what elements we would add and change for the final round.
After getting all of my ingredients, Ms. Winnie and I repeated our process from the first round of the competition. We diced the lup cheong, minced the Chinese Parsley, chopped the carrots, slivered the green onions, pounded the garlic, and measured our spices. We carefully placed each ingredient on the steel cart, putting them in the order of which I would need to cook them in. I wheeled the steel cart into the Home Ec room where there were four stoves. I set up on the first one closest to the door. As i finished setting up my cooking station, Ms. Winnie pulled me out and said to me the most unbelievable thing: "We should add an egg to the recipe!" I could not believe it. I had to start cooking in less then 5 minutes, and she wanted to add another ingredient!? That isn't even the most surprising part. The most surprising part is the words that came out of my mouth: "Yeah, we can try it."
Ms. Winnie squealed and began to power walk back to the kitchen, I had to jog to keep up with her! She taught me a method she calls the "microegg". She cracked an egg, mixed it in a small bowl, and microwaved the egg for 20 seconds. Then she flipped it and put it in for another 20 seconds. The finished product was a fully cooked egg! I ran back to the Home Ec room with 2 eggs in my hand, along with a shallow bowl . After all of the adults finished mingling and introducing themselves, the contestants were all given the cue to start cooking. We had one hour to complete our fried rice dishes.
I first put in all of my extra virgin olive oil. Then, I added in my turmeric, Japanese Dashi, salt, pepper, and Montreal Steak Seasoning for extra spice. I used a wooden rice paddle to mix all of my spices together. When the spices were all mixed, I added in some garlic, and the oil did not start to sizzle. I waited two more minutes. Added in some more garlic. It STILL wasn't sizzling. I sighed and looked around the room. All of the other contestants looked busy, and here I was, standing in front of my station doing nothing. When I looked back down at the cooking station, I vaguely was aware of the fact that my hand was turning the knob from medium heat to high heat: which was what Ms. Winnie said not to do. She emphasized the importance of not burning the garlic or the whole dish would be ruined. But, I guess that standing out from others in a negative way has always been one of my biggest fears, and that was what I was doing. While everyone was cooking, I stood there panicking. One of the chef judges came up to me and broke me out of my daze. "How's it going over here? Everything okay?" I smiled and nodded as he continued to ask me questions about my dish. I took the cup of minced garlic and dumped it into the oil and spices. It sizzled loudly, covering the sound of my sighing in relief. Heads turned at both the sound and the smell. The aroma was very crisp, and i mixed until the garlic was toned perfectly gold.
I set the heat back on medium and removed the skillet from the burner. Next, I picked up the steel tray of cooked jasmine rice with one hand and grabbed the wooden rice paddle with the other. The tray was wayyyy heavier than it looked! My hand nearly bent backwards before I was able to catch the tray with my other arm. It was a good thing that everyone was too occupied to notice a girl struggling to hold a pan of rice!
I poured the tray of rice into the skillet and blended it into the garlic mixture. The outcome was rice hued bright yellow. I set the skillet back onto the burner once every grain was hued yellow and set the heat to low. Then, I grabbed most of my other ingredients: the diced lup cheong, carrots, and minced Chinese parsley. I sprinkled each onto the rice and mixed thoroughly to make sure that the ingredients were evenly distributed. I grabbed a spoon and hastily scooped some into my mouth. I could barely taste anything because the rice was scorching hot. I felt my taste buds begin to burn, so I gulped the rice down as quickly as I could. I decided to add more salt to the rice to add some flavor. I tasted the rice for second time, letting it cool down first. I added in some more pepper, and finally, when I thought that it was seasoned perfectly, I left the station to find a bowl to crack the eggs in.
When I found a bowl that was the right size, I grabbed my first egg and cracked it, mixing it with a metal fork from one of the drawers. I then poured the egg into the shallow bowl that Ms. Winnie had given me before the competition. I wanted her there with me more than anything at the moment. I had my doubts that this would work. I hurried across the room to where the microwave sat on the counter. I felt eyes on me, wondering "what does she think she's doing?" I set the timer for 20 seconds. It felt more like 20 hours, but when the microwave beeped, I immediately opened the door. My heart began to race. The egg was still very watery, only partly solid. I put it in for 20 more seconds. Still not completely solid. 10 more seconds. Finally, it seemed fully cooked on this side. I flipped the egg over, and I had never been so relieved to be wearing gloves. The underside of the egg was still very watery. The egg burned when I flipped it over, I almost dropped the bowl on the floor! I put the egg back into the microwave for about 30 seconds, now the egg was fully cooked on both sides! I repeated this process until both eggs were completely used. By the time I was done, I was convinced that I would need ice to cover my red hand from being burned by the searing eggs. I put the eggs on top of three plates. Then, using the ice cream scooper, I placed one mound of the fried rice on each egg. To top it, I used my curled green onion slivers and garnished it with diagonally cut lup cheong pieces. In all honesty, I thought that Ms. Winnie would have been proud.
The contestants all finished at around the same time, 10 minutes earlier than the time limit. Each contestant walked to the judging table and presented our dishes. As I walked up to the judges, my breathing got faster and faster and I thought everyone could hear the beats of my heart. Then, when they began asking questions about the dish, I relaxed. After all, I was in the Leadership Team- we were trained on how to talk to professionals with confidence. The judges said their thank yous and called up the next contestant. When they had finished eating all of the dishes, the winners were announced. Holding the scoring sheets, Mr. Ihara, one of the directors of the competition, read out the names of the runner-ups. My name was not mentioned.
They first began to announce the recipient of the "Most Creative Award" to the contestant that had the most unusual dish. I was thrilled that the recipient of this award was my fellow Leadership Team member, Kiana Favela. A wide smile spread across my face. When they announced that "our first place grand prize winner for our culinary arts competition is... Charlise Limjoco-Ragasa!," I smiled and thanked the judges. They gave each of us some feedback and tips about what to keep and change in our dishes. To my surprise, the chefs only gave me positive feedback. I thanked them for their time and was handed a prize package. Also, I was told that my name would be the first to ever be on the culinary arts competition trophy for Ewa Makai for the following years to come. Pictures were taken, smiles were exchanged, and I couldn't wait to tell my family.
The next day I rushed to Ms. Winnie to tell her the good news. She was thrilled, especially when I gave her the T-shirts that I was given in the prize package. The Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper also featured me on the front cover, and many of the staff and students congratulated me. I can't wait to start cooking for my family and friends!
Trying new things are scary, sure, but I can tell you know that everything you try will only make you a stronger person. I had never cooked anything by myself before, ever. I went into the competition with no experience. But when you want something you've never had, like your face on the cover of the newspaper or your name on a trophy that will be kept for the next generations, you have to do things you've never done: even if it means cooking some fried rice.
8th Grade Leadership Vice President