No guts, no glory
There isn't a drop of soup left by the time Leung Hoi-ki finishes his bowl of noodles. That's perhaps not surprising; Japanese ramen in beef stock, topped with barbecued pork, soft-boiled egg and seaweed, is Leung's favourite noodle dish. The eye-popping element, however, is how long he took to gulp it down - 44 seconds.
'I'm hardly the fastest on our team,' says the truck driver as he wipes his mouth clean.
Leung is part of a competitive eating club, the Eatcredibles, and he and his friends are honing their chops one Sunday afternoon at a Japanese restaurant in Jordan before it opens for the evening.
Lab technician Taylor Mak Tai-loi formed the group with five friends in 2006. Now the Eatcredibles, which claims to be Hong Kong's first competitive eating association, has swelled to more than 40 people. The group has since entered more than a dozen contests in the city and eventually hopes to take the prize at Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, an international event staged annually on July 4 by a famous restaurant in New York.
'We want to put Hong Kong on the map as well. We know we can do that some day,' says Mak, 34.
Also a taekwondo instructor in his spare time, Mak caught the bug after his first match four years ago when he faced Takeru Kobayashi, the renowned Japanese competitive eater, at a dumpling eat-off.
'It was a total disaster,' he says. 'I entered out of curiosity and without preparation. I was no challenge at all.'
Crushing defeat, however, only roused Mak's fighting spirit. With the help of a few friends from his taekwondo group, he began to work on his gobbling tactics.
Before long, the informal group coalesced into the Eatcredibles, who have since crafted various eating strategies, depending on the types of food involved and whether the contest calls for speed or quantity.
They have found, for instance, that the fastest way to down barbecued pork rice is to tackle the rice before the meat. Of course, there's no chewing involved, just swallowing.
'Those approaches are really scientific. We developed them through a lot of experimenting and research,' says Leung. Now team captain, he once polished off eight bowls of barbecued pork rice in a day, and set a personal record of 30 bowls in a week.
'There are no short cuts to success; practise makes perfect. I enjoy pushing myself to my limit. The challenge is great fun.'
Another club stalwart, Chris Lam Yat-ming, says: 'It's really for personal satisfaction. With so many things in life, people give up before putting in a real effort. Competitive eating is like anything else - it takes perseverance, determination and definitely some nerve.'
It's not just a matter of winning. What Mak and many members value most are the friends they make. 'If it weren't for this, I wouldn't have made so many fantastic friends,' says Mak. 'It's not just about competing, but reaching out to people who share similar interests.'
Meeting every two months or so, the Eatcredibles visit restaurants to try out various ways of eating different foods. Is it quicker to, say, shovel down pork rice with chopsticks, a spoon or perhaps bare hands? Will drinking water help?
With hot dogs, the group has developed a 'compression' method that involves first squeezing the bun and sausage at both ends to flatten it and then chewing as quickly as possible before swallowing.
The club also holds regular contests of its own to help members maintain their gorging abilities.
'We have a system to identify everyone's strengths so that we can win different matches,' says Leung.
Once a competition is announced, they conduct trials with the specified food and contestants then go on a fast, drinking only water and vegetable soup the day before the eat-off.
Their techniques have paid off, mostly in food coupons. Representatives who appeared on a television variety show went home with restaurant coupons worth about HK$50,000, which were distributed to members, and at a hot dog eating competition one member walked away with the Big Eater belt and more vouchers.
However, registered dietitian Priscilla Lau Li-yi says competitive eating abuses the body.
'The most obvious risk is that it can create gastrointestinal discomfort. Competitive eating can put great stress on a person's intestinal system and liver. Having to eat such a large amount of food in one sitting can also create nausea.'
By ignoring the body's natural reaction to stop food intake when full, Lau says, contestants may also develop a habit of overeating, which could then lead to weight problems.
The Eatcredibles are, however, surprisingly active. A number are taekwondo enthusiasts like Mak; some have formed a club badminton team and several took part in the Standard Chartered marathon this year.
'Participating in eating contests gives us more incentive to exercise and eat healthily,' says Mak, who eats only fruit and vegetables for breakfast and avoids greasy food as much as possible.
Many members make it a point to restrict calories in their usual diet to compensate for the enormous amount of food gobbled down during contests. Contests involving poon choi - a traditional festive dish made up of a basin layered with different meats, prawn and mushroom - mean ingesting at least 6,000 calories, Mak says.
Leung, too, says he has reduced his daily food intake since joining competitions. 'I used to be a big eater, but I've now learned to control myself,' he says. 'I only start eating more a couple of weeks before a contest, just to expand the capacity of my stomach.'
Eating contests are usually held by restaurants or food companies for publicity, but Leung says some are poorly organised.
'Safety always comes first when entering contests. We don't want to get hurt by swallowing food that is too hot or too hard to chew. Some things are just not suited for eating competitions,' he says.
Mak says he once threw up at a noodle-eating competition. 'It was because I ate too much too quickly ... But these things rarely happen. Of course, there can be side effects [from competitive eating] just like any other sport. But I know how much I can eat and won't push too hard.
'Everyone can have different hobbies. If you like eating, why not make good use of it?'
But perhaps not if you want to taste the food.