An unexpected pinch of garam masala and a quirky presentation led to culinary school graduate Nayab Siddiqui emerging tops in this year's International Tapas Competition held in Valladolid, Spain.
The 29-year-old beat 11 freshly minted chefs and culinary students from nine countries such as Germany, China and Poland to clinch the coveted accolade earlier this month.
In a telephone interview from Spain, Ms Nayab says: "The win was so extremely surprising and overwhelming and I could not express my happiness in words."
Her winning tapa, which she calls Torto Miniatura, is her bite-sized take on torto, a deep-fried cornmeal fritter that is commonly found in Asturias, north-west Spain. Crowning the crisp golden-brown shell is minced lamb rib with sofrito, French beans, pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika), red peppers and saffron.
Paying homage to her Indian heritage, Ms Nayab, who was born in Meerut, north India, sprinkled garam masala on top.
The Diploma in Culinary Skills graduate from Shatec Institutes, who has been living in Singapore for five years, says: "I added a hint of garam masala to make my tapa stand out. The spice mix brings out the flavours and adds warmth, but I used it sparingly as Spaniards cannot take too much spice."
She presented her tapa together with a miniature clay replica the size of a dollar coin.
Ms Nayab, who has made more than 100 miniature food figurines - from chicken rice to chilli crab - as a hobby over the past six years, explains: "It is a play on tapas being a type of miniature gastronomy. The judges were quite curious and surprised to see such a unique concept."
For the competition on Nov 7, participants were given a day to prepare the ingredients in advance, before dishing out 11 servings of the tapa within 10 minutes. The judges included chef Ronny Emborg of the two-Michelin-starred Atera in New York and chef Oriol Castro of El Bulli Lab in Barcelona.
The most challenging part of the competition, Ms Nayab recalls, was deep-frying the torto to yield a crisp finish. She says: "I was most nervous when frying cornmeal dough as it is thin, delicate and sticky and some parts were stuck to the fryer."
The competition is part of the annual Spanish Gastronomy Training Programme that immerses young chefs and culinary students in Spanish gastronomy. In its ninth edition, it is organised by the ICEX Spain Trade and Investment, a government agency that promotes foreign investments in Spain.
Ms Nayab studied at the International School of Culinary Arts of Valladolid, learnt Spanish, visited wineries and farms across Spain and interned at three restaurants, including the two-Michelin-starred Casa Marcial in Asturias and Los Zagales in Valladolid.
She was nominated by Shatec to take part in the six-month programme that culminates in the competition. Last year, another Shatec graduate, Mr Teo Jun Xiang, won the same competition.
One of the biggest takeaways from her maiden trip to Spain was savouring high-quality ingredients, such as pimientos piquillos (roasted red peppers) from Lodosa, which "is sweet and has good smokiness".
Ms Nayab, who is married to a 31-year-old software engineer, used to work as a translator in a bank here for two years before quitting in 2014 to pursue her culinary aspirations. The couple have no children.
With her recent win, her culinary career is firmly on track. She hopes to work in a restaurant that fuses Asian and Mediterranean cuisines when she returns to Singapore.
She says: "I look forward to having more opportunities to showcase my cooking skills. This win proves that the career switch is right and I was meant to be a chef."