The clock is ticking and flight attendant Sarah Ow is more than halfway through her seventh bowl of ramen when she suddenly sits back. Sweat is beading on her forehead and her jeans are unbuttoned. Her friends cheer her on. They suggest she move her body and try to burp.
Clenching her fists, the slender 1.68m-tall 28-year-old eats for another four minutes and then, without warning, throws up on the table.
Welcome to the thrills and spills world of competitive eating, where participants risk indigestion, vomiting and stomach cramps - to scarf down the maximum amount of food within a certain time.
Seems like a joyless task? Probably, for the uninitiated and modest of appetite.
And making it more puzzling, the rewards are humble too. Diners usually enjoy the meal on the house if they demolish the food within a stipulated time. The winner may take home vouchers or a small cash prize.
When I am competing, my mind's reciting the workflow: eat, chew, swallow. If you can taste the food, it means you are too slow.
MR NG CHIN SHENG, 37, who has been participating in eating contests for 12 years
Nonetheless, in the past five years, there has been a growing appetite for such contests, from once or twice a year to once a month these days.
At least 10 eateries are offering food challenges, which can be broadly categorised into three types. Contestants compete on the amount of food eaten, speed of eating or level of spiciness they can tolerate.
Regular competitors say they do not take part for the love of food.
Freelance photographer Ng Chin Sheng, 37, a competitor for 12 years, says: "When I am competing, my mind's reciting the workflow: eat, chew, swallow. If you can taste the food, it means you are too slow."
Neither are they in it for the prizes - usually dining vouchers, electronic devices or a few hundred dollars cash.
THE BEAST BURGER CHALLENGE
The 3.2kg burger comprises a grilled beef patty, pulled pork and fried chicken topped with coleslaw and lettuce. It also comes with a bucket of sweet potato fries. Finish the meal within an hour and it is on the house. Only three people have succeeded since the challenge was introduced three years ago.
Where: The Beast, 17 Jalan Klapa
Open: 5pm to midnight (Monday to Wednesday and Saturday), 5pm to 1am (Thursday and Friday), 10am to 5pm (Sunday)
Love spicy food? Try the "Level 18" version of the dish, which has 200g of pasta tossed with fiery spices including ghost peppers from India and Trinidad Scorpion "Butch T" pepper from Trinidad and Tobago, and chilli padi. Challengers have to pay for the dish, but if they manage to finish it within 10 minutes without drinking water, they can win either $100 worth of dining vouchers from the restaurant or two towers of Heineken draught beer.
IT consultant Kent Phoa, 40, says he was lured by the prize vouchers when he took part in his first contest in 2007. He "left the scene to get married" and returned last year to check out the new crop of eaters. He says: "I don't bother to find out what the prizes are. Joining these contests is a way to catch up with the competition. The newer eaters are faster and eat on a bigger scale."
Like in any other sport, competitive eating gives participants an adrenaline rush from the race, the challenge of testing their physical limits and pride at possessing and honing a skill - in this case, relentless eating or a high tolerance of spicy food.
Gaming assistant Alvin Chen, who declined to give his age, has been eating competitively for four years and says winning boosts his self-confidence. He had "accidental training" in his last job in outdoor sales, where his lunch breaks were short and he had to eat fast.
Personal trainer Zermatt Neo, 28, who has participated in more than 30 contests in the past three years both here and overseas, is driven by the thrill of competing and getting bragging rights if he wins.
With the physical discipline required of his day job, he keeps in shape by hitting the gym six times a week. His daily diet consists mainly of vegetables and lean meats, although on his cheat days, he enjoys eating at buffets.
The competitive eating scene here is turning professional, with the setting up of Food League Singapore, an events firm that helps eateries organise challenges. It is in talks with 10 eateries and gets paid up to $4,000 to organise a challenge.
It also manages a team of eaters, including Mr Neo, Ms Ow and Mr Chen, sending them to relevant events and coaching them on techniques to speed up their game.
Food League Singapore founder Sean Lee, 34, a competitive eater himself, says these events are good marketing tools for restaurants. "Our food challenge videos usually go viral as people are curious and will watch till the end to see if the eater finishes the food."
Malls and restaurants which hold such events agree. JCube mall has been organising spicy noodle challenges for the past two years. Its centre manager, Ms Maggie Chua, says these events increase visitor traffic by more than 10 per cent.
Western food restaurant Southwest Tavern in Boon Lay Way gets about 20 challengers a week for its Spaghetti From Hell contest, featuring pasta tossed with fiery ghost pepper and Trinidad scorpion pepper. Owner Andrew Koh, 40, says: "My business has grown by 15 per cent despite our non-central location."
For the past four years, Peperoni Pizzeria has been organising the XXL eating challenge. Contestants need to eat a 21-inch pizza, the diameter of a car tyre, within 45 minutes.
Group manager Adrian Tan says: "The dish becomes a talking point, with more people signing up for the challenge over the years."
Medical professionals, however, frown on competitive eating.
Ms Jennifer Shim, a dietitian with Singapore General Hospital, says swallowing food without adequate chewing can lead to indigestion. Overeating can cause a spike in blood sugar levels which, in turn, leads to fatigue.
Dr Yim Heng Boon, a senior gastro- enterologist with Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, says serious side effects include tearing of the gut wall, choking and water intoxication from gulping large amounts of water to hasten the food passage, which can lead to nausea, muscle cramps and seizures.
He says: "Long-term side effects include gastroparesis, or slowing of stomach contraction from the frequent stretching of the stomach wall due to sudden ingestion of large amounts of food."
Other problems include loss of satiety, the body's signal to the brain that it is full and one should stop eating. Dr Asim Shabbir, senior consultant and director of the Centre of Obesity Management and Surgery at National University Hospital, says loss of satiety results in weight gain and problems such as obesity and diabetes.
Despite the health risks, most competitive eaters say they know their limits and space out their competitions. Mr Ng says: "How often does one have the chance to perform such crazy acts? These competitive eating achievements are something I can show to my grandchildren in future."
Meanwhile, it is back to the drawing board for Ms Ow. She failed to finish her seventh bowl of ramen as fast as she could, but it had only "a few strands of noodles and some pieces of meat" left.
She says of her personal challenge: "I am up to doing it again."
Scrawny freelance photographer Ng Chin Sheng, 37, is Singapore's No. 1 eater.
In 2012, he represented Singapore in the international finals of CP Biggest Eater Competition organised by frozen food brand CP Foods.
Eventually beating fast and furious eaters from around the world, he wolfed down 161 steamed wontons in eight minutes to emerge first in the regional male eaters category.
In August last year, the bachelor made the Singapore Book of Records for the fastest consumption of xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings) in 10 minutes. His number? 109.
In the last 12 years, he has participated in more than 100 eating competitions here and abroad.
Mr Ng, who is 1.74m tall and weighs 50kg, says: "I have never excelled in a sport when I was young. This is the first sport in which I can channel my competitive energy and do well."
His forte is speed-eating, but he is also good with spicy food. At last Sunday's So Spicy Eating Challenge at JCube Mall, he gobbled 150g of noodles tossed with spices that included chilli padi and Sichuan chilli sauce within 19 seconds.
He has a serious training regimen. To stretch his stomach, he downs more than 2.5 litres of water within five minutes three times a week and records his timings. He increases the volume of water every six months.
To boost his tolerance for spicy food, he buys chilli sauces such as Thai bird's eye chilli sauce from an online speciality shop as "those available in supermarkets here are not spicy enough". He eats a few spoonfuls of the chilli at one go for practice.
He also orders three to four cartons of frozen wontons at one shot from supermarkets, to practise swallowing them at lightning speed.
"Joining competitions no longer gives me the thrills," he says. "It has become second nature for me to compete."
He is fully aware of the pitfalls of competitive eating, from choking to having stomach cramps. He says: "Over the years, I have almost experienced whatever can go wrong in competitions, so I am not afraid of anything."
Despite being older than most participants, his appetite for competitive eating is insatiable. Top of his bucket list is participating in the famed Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York. He says: "It is only by entering competitions that you can push your limits."
Toughest challenge: "Finishing 11/2 portions of Spaghetti From Hell at Western restaurant Southwest Tavern in Boon Lay Way within 10 minutes without drinking water. The spices included ghost pepper, which gave me such a shock. After the challenge, I vomited and my stomach was in extreme pain."
She eats enough for three
When Ms Sarah Ow cooks for her husband and herself, she typically cooks enough for four people and ends up eating 70 per cent of the food.
The 28-year-old flight attendant says: "My husband is a small eater and I really hate to see food being wasted, so I finish up what's left on the plates."
The couple do not have children.
Despite her voracious appetite, she did not think much of it until she came across a Japanese eating challenge on television, which featured competitive eater Angela Sato from Japan going on a binge- eating trail.
Ms Ow says: "She looked so slim and pretty and could eat so much. I wanted to be like her."
Intrigued by such contests, she went online to search for similar ones here and ended up having a go at a 3.8kg chicken platter challenge at 289 Xiang Ji Chicken Rice stall in Bukit Batok last month. She polished the dish off within 28 minutes.
Two weeks later, she created a buzz in the Singapore social media scene when she demolished a 3.2kg burger with fries at Southern American restaurant The Beast in Jalan Klapa in 43 minutes.
She also ate 10 packets of nasi lemak within an hour for a radio show last month.
The 1.68m-tall Ms Ow, whose weight fluctuates between 48kg and 52kg, says: "I want to see how far I can push myself to my limits of eating. It is only when I am pushing myself to the extreme that I can experience life to the fullest."
To train for the contests, she wolfs down four foot-long Cold Cut Trio sandwiches from deli chain Subway within nine minutes "as my post-dinner snack". This helps to hone her coordination skills in handling food and taking gulps of water efficiently.
Despite being aware of the health risks and "feeling hungry all the time", she does not have an exercise regimen.
On her secret to staying in shape, she says she has her "very mobile" job to thank.
"I have no time to eat on flights and walk a lot up and down the aisles to serve passengers. I'm fasting and doing a workout."
She adds that she plans to go for eating competitions during her rest days abroad. "It beats the excitement of collecting a tattoo from every country that I visit," she says.
Toughest challenge: "Eating seven bowls of ramen at a go. I didn't know I had to consume such a huge amount of soup, which filled me up.
"It was also quite stuffy in the restaurant so I wasted some time drying my forehead with tissue paper. I am quite a vainpot, but I need to learn to be less conscious of my looks during these challenges."
Looking a mess when gobbling up food
In his competitive eating career, he has devoured wheel-sized pizzas and kilograms of chicken rice, so it might be surprising to find out that Mr Zermatt Neo had a weak stomach when he was young.
When in primary school, he often suffered indigestion. Unable to handle solid food, he ate a lot of porridge and still had frequent bouts of diarrhoea.
Fast forward to today and the ripped personal trainer is an eating machine.
Every week, the 28-year-old posts two to three videos of his eating challenges on his YouTube channel, Zermatt Neo, which has more than 9,000 subscribers. Some of his recent food challenge videos include him devouring, on separate occasions, a 3kg platter of nasi lemak, a 4.5kg bowl of laksa and 20 fish burgers.
He also gets paid to appear at and take on such challenges, getting a fee ranging from $500 to $1,000.
Earlier this week, he took up a 1kg ribeye steak challenge at Big Bern's American Grill in Toa Payoh North and finished a thick slab of meat and four side dishes, such as baked potatoes and baked beans, within eight minutes.
How does all this square with his day job and six-pack?
Well, he pumps iron in the gym six times a week. His regular meals are filled with vegetables and lean meat. And he goes for health check- ups twice a year.
Mr Neo, who is 1.76m tall and weighs 65kg, says competitive eating is a dangerous sport. "There are no rules or guidelines for this sport and a lot of how I am training comes from experimenting."
His first experience of competitive eating was in 2013, when his friend dared him to sign up for a ramen-eating competition at Japanese restaurant Ramen Champion in Bugis Plus. On a whim, he did and came up tops after slurping 11 bowls of ramen in under 20 minutes.
A year later, he won a beef-bowl eating competition organised by Japanese fast-food chain Yoshinoya in The Philippines. He ate more than eight bowls in 15 minutes. It was then that he decided to get serious in the sport.
Mr Neo, who is single, says he receives his fair share of attention from female fans, who turn up at his eating challenges or leave messages of encouragement on his Facebook page.
Asked if women are attracted to him because of his competitive eating glory, he says: "I think it is quite a turn-off as I look like a mess when I am gobbling down all the food."
Toughest challenge: "I ate a whole 3.5kg buttercream vanilla cake on a live television show in 35 minutes. The cake was dense and heavy and high in sugar. It was one of the rare challenges where I felt sick after that and had to rest for a few days before feeling better again."
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