One of the advantages of living in a cosmopolitan city is that dining locally doesn’t mean having to forgo international cuisine. Many such dishes were available this Sunday at the Columbus International Festival, held in the Vets Memorial Center. For the first time in the festival’s history, there was a contest to decide the best of these foods, and I had the pleasure of judging this contest, along with Bethia Woolf, from Columbus Food Adventures, Jim Ellison, of CMH Gourmand, and Erika Pryor, reporting for Advanced Language Access.
(From left to right: Erika Pryor, Wayne Shingler, Jim Ellison, and Bethia Woolf. Photo by Columbus International Festival)
This being the first food contest there, we ran into some unanticipated problems, like trying to accept a dozen entries all at the same time, and figuring out how to divide small portions of food four ways using only plastic forks and spoons. We nonetheless managed to sample each entry and get all the scores recorded.
Best of show went to the Community Association of Pakistani Americans for their sampler plate of many items, including a spicy rice and chicken dish. Regrettably, I don’t know the names of anything they served us, but whatever it was, I wished I’d had more of it. It reminded me of Indian food I’ve had at local buffets, except that the bouquet of flavors was both more complex and more distinct, suggesting they hadn’t simmered it to the point of all the flavors bleeding together. This was very good. I’d like to be able to eat like this more often.
Best Savory Dish was awarded to Espestos Brazilian Street Food, because the other three judges disagreed with me.
We awarded this prize based on our opinion of who had the second-best savory dish after CAPA’s. In my opinion, that was the Bourbon Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, and Fried Rice submitted by Mai Li’s Chinese Foods. Last year when my wife and I hosted an open house at our farm, she and a friend of ours made Bourbon Chicken from my free-range chickens. I appreciate all the work that goes into that dish, and I was impressed with how well Mai Li’s had prepared it. It wasn’t too sweet. Many Chinese restaurants in the area that I’ve sampled seem to be of the impression that American pallets require food to be candy coated, so that whether you’re ordering sweet & sour, kung pao, General Tso’s, lemon, or bourbon chicken, you can count on it being cloyingly syrupy. (As opposed to the “Chinese” buffet I went to in Greenville, Ohio, where everything was inexplicably covered with melted cheese.)
I was also impressed with the presentation. The woman bringing us the dish told us what everything was, poured the sauce on the sweet & sour chicken in front of us, and explained that she’d been selling Chinese food in Vets Memorial for 26 years. Bethia was adamant, though, that no matter how good any of it might have been, she was not going to award a prize to Sweet and Sour Chicken. I believe her exact words were, “I’d rather die.” The others, while not so animated about it, seemed to share her opinion all the same. I suppose in food snob circles, Sweet & Sour Chicken is the equivalent of peanut butter sandwiches and frozen burritos, or maybe macaroni and cheese out of a box. It’s not that it’s bad. They’re just embarrassed to be associated with it. Not suffering any such inhibitions myself, I’m free to give an unvarnished opinion of what I liked and what I didn’t.
What I didn’t, unfortunately, was what everyone else loved so much they wanted it for best of show. I wanted to like this entry. “Brazilian Street Food” just sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Like Carnival in your mouth. I had never had any sort of Brazilian dish, and I was looking forward to it. My total exposure to Latin American food up to that point had been my Cuban in-laws’ cooking and what passes for Mexican fare at fast food chains in Ohio. I was excited to try this entry.
Here’s what we got:
Now, to be fair, my first frustration was probably my own fault. It could be that what you see pictured was actually my portion and not the portion for all four judges to share. I only saw them set down the one paper basket, though, so I set about trying to cut each of these items into four equally sized pieces with a plastic fork before tasting any of it. That was no small task, and everything got pretty mangled in the process. I’m suspecting now, though, that the other judges may have been sampling from other plates; so right off, I was thinking of Espetos as being frustratingly stingy when perhaps they actually weren’t.
The first thing I tried was the sausage, that greyish brown stuff in the lower-left corner of the picture. I like sausage. There are very few sausages I’ve tried that I haven’t liked. When I put this thing in my mouth, though, I found it cold, hard, and fairly flavorless. I didn’t want to even finish eating that bite, and remember, I was only trying one half of one of the slices you see here. I moved on to the various types of empanadas–I think one was beef and the others were two different flavors of chicken. Again, bland. It was unremarkable fried dough, cold and tasting like shortening (not unlike a disappointing pie crust), and filled with a pasty substance identifiable as meat, but otherwise having only the slightest flavor. There may have been some cumin and garlic in there, but just enough for you to taste that they hadn’t left it out. I didn’t finish it, and I scored it very low.
Later, though, as I was helping clean up, I carried this dish to the trash. I had overlooked the sauce entirely, so, curious, I dipped a finger in it to have a taste before tossing it in the can. It was heavenly! This is what a sweet spicy sauce should be! I thought, “Oh, that’s where all the flavor is!” I found myself regretting that I hadn’t put any sauce on my samples.
Also, being unfamiliar with Brazilian street food, I wondered about the temperature. Since I had basically been eating room-temperature clods of congealed fat, I knew that they would probably have tasted many times better if they had been even a little bit warm. When it came time to name the winners, I asked the other judges whether this was supposed to be cold, and they assured me that it wasn’t, and that they had made allowances for that in their own decisions. With all the contestants coming in a mad rush at one time and and us setting all the entries aside to work through as we were able, most of the dishes were cold. That’s not the contestants’ fault. I would very much like to try this stuff under better conditions–fresh, hot, with the sauce, and being able to handle it with my fingers and pop it in my mouth as street food is meant to be eaten. I expect my opinion of it would improve tremendously.
The winner of Best Sweet went to iLoveStroopwafels.com. I did take a picture of this entry, but all you see is waxed paper with the entry tag on top. I do wish now that I had opened it up to photograph it, because it was adorable. Imagine a very thin waffle, about like a waffle cone, but softer and chewy, cut into the shape of a heart. Take two of these, and spread a thin layer of caramel-like syrup (with perhaps a hint of cinnamon) on one and stick them together to make a large sandwich cookie, and you have a stroopwafel.
The taste was surprisingly good. I don’t mean I expected it not to be good. I mean that when I bit into it, it was startlingly delightful. I recommend this highly. I can imagine that one might be tempted to dress it up with vanilla ice cream or dipping part of it in chocolate, but that would be overkill. This cookie is just right as it is. I wish I had one right now.
I feel I should clarify: I didn’t hate the Brazilian street food. It wasn’t bad…well, not very bad, anyway. It simply wasn’t good, and I had very much been expecting it to be. The low score I gave it was more about disappointment than anything foul tasting. As I said, I’d like to have another go at it, but served properly. There were some truly foul-tasting entries, and I think they deserve mentioning.
The most notable (or notorious, as it were) was the Scandinavian seafood chowder presented by the Scandinavian Club of Columbus.
I admit to a prejudice against Scandinavian fare. I still recall vividly the most nauseating thing I’d ever seen prepared on TV was when Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, took lots of random bits of things that once lived in the ocean–fish heads and shellfish parts and whatnot–tossed them all together into a large Jello mold, and poured clear, unflavored gelatin over the whole mess to stick it together, like a mason pouring a slipform stone wall. When it had finished chilling, it looked like a giant, quivering, horrifyingly colorful, plasticine paperweight, something out of a vegan’s worst nightmare.
This chowder, fortunately, was nowhere near as bad as that. I removed the lid, expecting to be hit with a fishy smell. There wasn’t any. It looked like it could taste like anything, so I was optimistic. At the first bite, I was wishing I had somewhere to spit it out. I tried a second and third bite, not believing it could possibly be as bad as I was telling myself the last bite had been. I went through half my bottle of water just trying to cleanse that taste from my mouth.
Erika said she really liked it. The rest of us thought it tasted like dirt. I’m not being hyperbolic there. It tasted like soil, like clay. That’s not something I look for in a seafood chowder, Scandinavian or not. I seriously wonder if there was something in there that wasn’t supposed to be, like maybe Erika got a good scoop, and the rest of us all got scoops after a clod of mud fell in or something. Beyond that, it was unremarkable. It was billed as seafood chowder, but it didn’t taste like there was any sort of seafood in there. It was just sort of a milky vegetable and potato soup…that tasted like dirt.
The other horrible entry was a cream puff submitted by Juergens Bakery and Restaurant. Before I go on, let me say that I enjoyed the soft pretzel they submitted, and I thought their presentation was nice. The shiny foil pan with the lace doily was much fancier than the styrofoam and paper vessels everything else was being served in. When I first took a bite of the cream puff, I liked it. I thought it was very nice. I took one bite, enjoyed it, and then didn’t explore it further.
When it came time to name the winners, though, and I suggested the cream puff, Bethia and Jim both scrunched up their noses and said it tasted like moth balls. I found this claim incredible. That was a very odd and specific complaint, and I thought I’d have noticed something like that. I asked whether it was the cream or the pastry, and Jim told me that it was the pastry, pointing out that he had taken care to taste them separately. I hadn’t. I just chomped into it, tasted cream (which was very nice), and swallowed. Figuring such a claim demanded further investigation, I peeled off a bit of pastry, and my stars, they were right! It was disgusting. It tasted like mothballs. If they can find the source of that flavor and eliminate it, I still think this cream puff could be a contender for Best Sweet. So long as the mystery ingredient remains, though, I don’t consider this cream puff fit for animal consumption. I fear something may have gotten into it that wasn’t supposed to be.
I’d like to end on a more positive note. We all agreed that there should be a beverage category next year. There were three beverage entries–some nice organic coffees, a perfectly respectable strawberry-banana smoothie, and a mango colada from the Cayman Islands that I’d have voted to win the beverage category had there been one.