Monday, 13 February 2012

CP and the Wonton Factory

This recently ran in the South China Morning Post. I recently stopped eating wontons. 

If your idea of how to eat shrimp wonton is daintily supping on ‘har gow’ in between genteel sips of jasmine tea at Yung Kee, look away now. For the humble shrimp wonton in its fastest, most mass-produced form has become the latest craze to sweep the distended, dyspeptic and some might say disgusting world of competitive eating.

Thailand food giant CP Group, which churns out microwave wontons by the millions, is behind The Biggest Eater, which might sound like a prequel to reality fatty fest The Biggest Loser but is in fact a regional speed eating contest that will see hungry hopefuls from Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia pit their bottomless pits against the best Thailand has to offer at the grand finale in Bangkok’s swanky Siam Paragon shopping mall on February 11.

 “Five times bigger and five times more exciting than its debut in 2010,’’ CP proudly proclaims, and this year it has certainly attracted a who’s who of the world’s best competitive eaters, along with over 1,000 amateur nibblers and dabblers hoping to gorge their way to the US$3,000 grand prize.

The Hong Kong leg of the competition took place in November, where waif-like Natalie Chin scoffed 74 wontons in the allotted eight minutes, setting a new Hong Kong record in the process. Men’s division winner Lam Yat Ming beat out local hero Johnny “Hong Kong’s biggest eater’’ Wu by getting 131 wontons down before the buzzer.

Their feats paled beside a casual display of speed eating by last year’s grand champion Joey Chestnut, as the US native tossed back 225 slippery shrimp bits for fun, nowhere near the 380 he downed to become the 2010 Biggest Eater men’s champion, beating Takeru Kobayashi. The pair’s rivalry has spanned more than six years and the globe, battling for speed-scoffer status over hot dogs, waffles, burgers, chicken wings, pizza and gyoza.

Past feats of gluttonous glory count for nothing if you don’t have the stomach for battle, however, and Chestnut was dealt an early shock when he was bested by the “ocker oesophagus’’ Tim Janus in Australia.

As all eyes now turn to Bangkok (including those whose clearly aren’t bigger than their stomachs - the finalists), one wonders where it all ends. CP is basking in the massive publicity its stunt marketing has garnered.

But surely, if the ultimate aim is to sell more wontons, there’s a risk of reverse psychology taking hold, with people so grossed out by the spectacle that they never want another wonton again. Could it be coincidence that CP Group rhymes with Augustus Gloop, the glutton from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who meets a sticky end in a river of chocolate? What if one of the contestants explodes, spraying the crowd with half-digested shrimp and rice noodle? And with 65,000 crustaceans crammed down by contestants this year alone, aren’t they also eating into CP’s profits?

CP Group spokesman Kosit Lohawatanakul says the Biggest Eater was developed “with people in mind’’ and had received “tremendous support’’. Some people might compare the US$30,000 in total prize money handed out to wanton wonton gobblers to a roughly equivalent sum the group spends on education scholarships for underprivileged kids each year and wonder if greed really is good.

STOP PRESS: It's official. The Biggest Eaters for 2012 are Joe Chestnut, who eclipses the field and sets a new world records, wolfing down 390 wontons. Sonya 'the Black Widow' Thomas scoffs 231, a new women's record.

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