Competitive eating has always left a bad taste in my mouth (pun intended). The focus is on volume, speed and gluttony, and the food, which should always be so important, becomes a sideshow to the main attraction of self-inflicted human misery.
The wanko soba of Iwate prefecture is a particularly interesting cultural phenomenon. Tiny mouthful-sized bowls of soba noodles are served at you rather than to you; coming at a rapid pace pushed by hostesses who encourage, goad and bully you into just… one… more… bowl. You aren’t charged by the serve, so my only guess as to why the hostesses do this is that they just take a certain perverse pleasure in watching people in pain.
Some say wanko soba originated as a function of necessity, as soba could only be cooked in small portions. Others say that it was a way of making dwindling buckwheat stores last longer in Japan’s northern winter. Whatever its origins (and frankly I don’t believe any of the stories), what it is now is a lot of fun, and what sets it apart from other competitive eating foods is that it is actually delicious.
The soba noodles themselves are springy and dressed in a light noodle sauce. They’re served with tuna sashimi, minced chicken soboro, nori and a variety of other condiments that complement the noodles excellently. But no matter how well it’s made and how good it tastes, when you make the decision to eat for sport rather than pleasure, it is never going to be about the flavour.
My first (and last) attempt at competitive eating has taught me a few things. Firstly, it has very little to do with the size of your belly. Our portly sound recordist Tomo tapped out at just 30 bowls, while our wisp of a production assistant, Mai, who wouldn’t weigh more than 40kg herself threw down 60 bowls without breaking a sweat. Secondly, slow and steady wins the race. And the third and final lesson I learned from eating 112 bowls of wanko soba (and setting an Australian record in the process) borrows from the old Japanese proverb about climbing Mt Fuji:
He who does it once is a wise man. He who does it twice is a fool.