"So what are we doing for the cooking contest?" Twilight asked from the back seat of Rarity's car.
"Well, I expect we'll need to prepare a variety of recipes," Rarity said. "If I know our competition, they'll focus on one recipe exclusively and trust it to carry them through the entire contest." She hummed thoughtfully. "I believe a selection of Prench haute cuisine should—"
"Uhh, Rarity?" Sunset interrupted. "Stopping you right there. We can't go too fancy. For one thing, this is a high school cooking competition, not Teflon Chef. For another thing, we have to buy all the ingredients ourselves."
Rarity pursed her lips. "Hmm, yes. You do raise a valid point there, darling." She sighed. "Very well then. What do you suggest?"
"Well if we wanna win, we can't do anything too simple," Sunset said. "But we also need to do something that's not too difficult. Something we can make over and over again until we get good at it, but not so expensive to make that it blows a whole month's food budget." She grimaced. "And something we'll enjoy eating, because we'll be eating every attempt we make for dinner until the competition."
"And we'll need to decide on an order for our entries," Twilight suggested. "Whatever we come up with, we'll need to save our best for the semifinals and finals, but we also need something good enough to get into the quarterfinals and win them."
The girls fell silent for a long moment.
"Well," Sunset said thoughtfully, "I do know this one dish that could get us through either the quarterfinals or the semifinals. I make it about once a month. Sometimes more often if I have some junk in the fridge I need to use up."
Rarity frowned. "I don't know," she said. "Something you can make from just any old leftovers?"
"Well, not any old leftovers," Sunset said. "Just, you know, veggies and meat I need to use up before they go bad." She shrugged. "It's a fun recipe to make, it just takes some practice. You can make it from just about any meats and vegetables you like."
"What is it?" Twilight asked.
Rarity blinked. "Oooh, a Neighponese dish! How positively delightful!" she cooed. "An exotic offering would certainly give us an advantage."
"So you've heard of it?" Twilight asked. "You know what it is?"
"Hmm...no clue," Rarity said. "But the name is clearly Neighponese..." She paused. "It is Neighponese, isn't it darling?"
"That it is," Sunset said with a smirk.
"So what is it?" Twilight pressed.
Sunset pursed her lips. "Better if I show you than try to explain it," she said. "But I haven't been to the store in a while, so we'll need to go shopping." She frowned. "There's a store not too far from my place that has what we need, but...I gotta warn you. It's a little...strange."
* * * * *
Rarity looked apprehensively at the large sign above the glass automatic doors of the small supermarket. "Sharty's," she said flatly.
"I think it was supposed to be Shorty's," Sunset said with a shrug. "The owner's English is terrible. He retired last year, he's...well, he's got cancer. His daughter runs the place now. I guess she decided not to change the name."
"You know the family that runs this place?" Twilight asked.
"My neighborhood is just kinda like that," Sunset said. "Besides, the owner's son is my landlord. It's not exactly ethical, but the tenants in my building have a standing ten percent discount here. It helps stretch the food budget."
"Ooh, that's a nice perk," Rarity said.
"Yeah, well...for what I pay in rent, I deserve a few perks," Sunset muttered. "Anyway, it's a good little store to get what you need and they have a good imported produce section. It's just that the staff can be a little...odd." She paused, then added, "And, well..." She sighed. "You'll see."
The girls headed for the entrance. Once inside, Sunset grabbed a shopping cart. "We'll need a few things," she said. "And I might as well get a few regular groceries for later while I'm here, if I can remember what I'm out of."
"Well this seems like quite a lovely little neighborhood market, darling!" Rarity said as she looked around. Indeed, the store had a nice, quiet, relaxed atmosphere. Soft, inobtrusive music played over the public address system, there weren't terribly many customers around, and the overall presentation of the market was "well-worn".
Sunset shook her head and pushed her wobbly, squeaky little grocery cart toward the produce section. As she approached, she stopped momentarily, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Her hands visibly trembled on the handle of the cart.
"Sunset? Are you alright?" Twilight asked.
Sunset opened her eyes and nodded. "Let's...let's get the produce section over with," she said. "It's the worst part."
Rarity and Twilight exchanged a confused glance, shrugged, and followed Sunset into the displays of fruits and vegetables. Rarity tilted her head in confusion as they neared a display of round, ripe watermelons. "Watermelons? But those aren't in season—"
"OH NO MELON!"
Rarity and Twilight jerked to a halt.
A watermelon had just jumped up from the heap in the bin and moaned at them.
"OH NO MELON!" it moaned again, bouncing in place. Sunset sighed and walked away, and the strangely active melon ceased moving, rolling down the heap of melons and coming to a stop at the edge.
"What...the..." Twilight muttered, staring at the melons.
Rarity blinked. "I...I..." She shook her head. "Well alright then." She followed Sunset; Twilight trailed behind her, continuing to cast wary glances at the melon display.
As Sunset made her way through the produce section, selecting various vegetables and fruits, some of the produce would occasionally jump up and declare itself. A "Twilight Onion" had introduced itself to them, as well as a few mushrooms; an out-of-season autumn squash had shouted "LA PUMPKIN!" at them.
"This is weird," Twilight said nervously. "This is...this is just weird. Right?"
"It's weird," Rarity agreed.
Finally, Sunset moved on to a display of exotic vegetables, intent on purchasing a very large white radish. As she neared, one of the radishes jumped up and shouted "ROOT VEGETABLE!" at them.
"Yes. Yes you are," Sunset said boredly, grabbing it and shoving it into a plastic bag. It wriggled in her grasp as she dropped it into her basket.
"Sunset, darling?" Rarity asked timidly. "What...precisely...is happening here? The out-of-season produce aside, this...this is hardly normal or appropriate behavior for vegetables."
Sunset sighed. "It's my fault."
"Your fault?" Twilight asked. "How can talking fruits and vegetables be YOUR fault?!"
Sunset grimaced sheepishly. "Rarity, you remember that day I tried doing experiments on you girls' magic, and how things got a little...crazy?"
"Vividly, darling," Rarity said with a frown.
"Well, I didn't realize it at the time, but I absorbed a lot of stray magic that day," Sunset said.
"Like a static electric charge?" Twilight asked.
"More like radiation exposure," Sunset said. "I mean, I know I got hit with a lot of weird magical effects that day..." She laughed. "I was pretty frazzled and sore all over by the time I finished getting rainbow-slimed, tripped up, apples-to-the-head, and blasted into a wall. On my way home, I decided to stop off here and grab a couple of things.
"What I didn't know is that I was overcharged with magical energy, and..." She gestured vaguely. "Sometimes, magic behaves in ways you don't expect it to, especially if it's abnormal magic and you're suffering from some kind of magical affliction. Which this more or less qualified as." She scratched the back of her elbow and ducked her head. "So anyway, I, umm...I was here shopping, and I started, well...farting."
Rarity raised an eyebrow. "Farting."
"Yeah, farting," Sunset said, her cheeks red.
Twilight tilted her head. "Farting?"
"Farting magic," Sunset clarified. "I left loose clouds of magic floating all over this store." She shrugged. "They...settled. It ended up having some weird lasting effects."
"Oh, darling," Rarity said in a chiding tone, her nose wrinkled distastefully. "Passing gas in a grocery store is bad enough, but passing radioactive magic gas...!"
"I know!" Sunset cried, throwing up her hands. "It's not like I did it on purpose!"
"We know you didn't," Twilight said soothingly. "Still, how has this gone, well..." She adjusted her glasses. "This seems like the kind of thing that'd be in the news or something. Or at least draw a crowd."
Sunset shrugged. "There've been rumors about this market being haunted for years. The locals just write it off as that. I mean, it's just some randomly noisy veggies and...and a few other things. Besides, the people running this place are so weird anyway, nobody really cares." She grimaced. "Which brings me to our next stop. The meat counter."
Twilight and Rarity glanced at one another, identical nauseated grimaces on their faces. "It's...it's not gonna moo at us, is it?" Twilight asked.
"No, the food behaves itself there," Sunset said as she pushed her cart toward the rows of refrigerated meat cases in the back. "It's—"
The swinging double doors into the employee area at the rear flew open as they approached.
A man dressed in bloodstained white clothes emerged from the back, holding the doors open with his arms spread wide, leaning languidly forward and smirking at the girls.
His short dark hair and scrubby black beard gave him a roguish look. The metal plate that took up a large portion of the right side of his face and the glowing red light where his right eye should be made him look like something out of a cheesy science-fiction movie.
"Did you miss me?"
Twilight and Rarity screamed, clutching each other tightly in fear.
Sunset sighed. "And here we go," she muttered under her breath. In a louder, resigned tone, she said, "Hello Trevor."
"Ain't seen you by in a while, love," Trevor said as he emerged fully from the back, swaggering. "Come 'round for your usual, eh? Some chicken breast..." He stepped closer to Sunset, dangerously encroaching on her personal space. "Skirt steak..." He leaned forward, pitching his voice to be low, husky, and rough. "Bit o' pork loin?"
Sunset groaned, pushing him away with her fingertips. "Do you have to do this every single time, Trevor?" she said. "You know I'm not interested in your ham."
Trevor chuckled. "Ollright, love. You win. For now." He grinned at Twilight and Rarity. "Well that's back to work for me, I suppose." He reached behind his back and drew out a large, wickedly gleaming butcher knife. "Oh this," he said in a low voice, running a finger along the edge. "Cuts 'em nice and deep..." With a menacing chuckle, he walked back through the swinging doors.
Sunset deflated, her body trembling. "Every. Single. Time," she grumbled.
"Who, or what, was that?" Rarity asked.
"What a creep," Twilight whimpered.
Sunset sighed. "He's actually not so bad, really," she said. "I mean, all that's just an act." She smirked. "He weeds old ladies' gardens for free and walks every dog in the neighborhood on Sundays."
Rarity blinked. "Seriously?"
Twilight's jaw dropped. "That guy?!"
"Yep," Sunset said, rolling her eyes. "Creepy as he is about it, he does know exactly what I buy every time," she added as she moved along the counter and made her selections.
"But his behavior," Rarity said with a grimace of distaste. "Why have you not reported it to his supervisor, or...?"
Sunset shrugged. "If you had an employee who looked that scary, would you have the balls to fire him?"
Rarity blinked. "I...I take your point," she said.
"Besides, he knows his boundaries," Sunset said. "The first time he pulled that bit on me, I kicked him in the balls. It didn't stop him from his creepy idea of flirting, but at least after all that I found out he's an okay guy." She shook her head. "Come on, we've still got some other stuff to get..."
* * * * *
The rest of the shopping trip had been fairly routine; the girls drove to Sunset's apartment and spent several minutes putting away the groceries. After that, Sunset went to her computer, spent a few minutes looking up an okonomiyaki recipe online, then printed it out. "Okay!" Sunset said, clapping her hands together and moving over to the kitchen. "Let's make a mess." She took an apron off a hook and slipped it on.
Rarity eyed Sunset Shimmer's apron with a grimace of distaste. "Really, darling? Must you?"
Sunset rolled her eyes as she cinched the apron—the front of which was emblazoned with the slogan "NO BITCHIN' IN MY KITCHEN"—tight around her waist. "It was a gift from Flash, alright?" she said somewhat defensively. "Besides, it's the only one I've got." Sunset quickly put the girls to work cutting, measuring, and mixing ingredients while she prepared the griddle and explained the preparation. "So what we're dealing with here is essentially a pancake with meat and vegetable toppings," she said. "And the batter has shredded cabbage in it. The trick is to brown the toppings a little, then add a layer of them to the pancake once we pour it out. When we flip it over, we have to be careful so we don't send all the good stuff flying. Then when it's done, we add the sauce and garnishes to the top."
"Sounds simple enough," Twilight said.
Sunset smirked. "You'll ruin at least three apiece until you figure it out."
She wasn't far off; Rarity messed up two attempts before cooking a passable okonomiyaki, while Twilight gave up after the fourth. "I'll just...I'll just cut and brown stuff," she said. "You two can do the flipping part."
"Fair enough," Sunset said as the girls sat down in the living room with plates of hot okonomiyaki.
Rarity took a bite. "Oh my," she said. "This is a very interesting dish."
Twilight tried hers. "Huh," she said. "For everything we put into it, it tastes...not like you'd expect it to?" She took another bite. "Not bad."
"We'll certainly score points for originality," Rarity said as she took another bite. "Although perhaps we should season the toppings while we're browning them."
"Yeah, I think you're right," Sunset said. "I never really thought about it all that much because I usually put so much mayonnaise on mine I don't really notice."
"We definitely need to go light on the mayo for judging," Twilight said, pushing up her glasses. "Didn't the recipe we looked at say just spread a thin layer and make lines in it with a fork?"
"Presentation is important," Rarity put in.
"We'll work on it," Sunset said.
Once they'd cleared their plates, Sunset took everything to the kitchen and washed the dishes while Rarity and Twilight sat back in the living room. Sunset returned several minutes later with cold sodas and set them in front of the girls. "So, think that'll get us through the quarterfinals?"
"It should," Rarity said. "We just need to refine the process and improve the recipe a bit. What was that rather large radish? I've never tasted anything quite like it."
"Daikon," Sunset said. "As far as I know, Sharty's is the only place that has it in Canterlot."
Twilight shook her head. "There's a world foods market two blocks from my place," she said. "I can get any vegetables we need, any spices."
"How fortuitous!" Rarity said. "Then perhaps once we decide on our other dishes, we should experiment at your place next."
Twilight smiled. "Sure! Mom's been wanting to meet my new friends for a while now." She frowned. "Probably better to do that on the weekend, though." Her eyes brightened. "Oooh! How about a weekend sleepover?" She clapped her hands. "I've always wanted one of those!"
Sunset laughed. "I think we can do that," she said. "In the meantime, we'll look at other recipes to try, and spend this week perfecting the okonomiyaki."
* * * * *
By the time the weekend had rolled around, the girls had refined their menu for the cooking contest. Having decided to use okonomiyaki as their quarterfinal presentation, they opted to go with chicken cordon bleu for the first round as it was relatively simple and inexpensive and a good 'icebreaker', as Rarity put it. After some discussion, they decided to go with a complicated layered deep dish pizza recipe for the semifinal (a decision reached when Twilight's mouth started watering just from seeing pictures of it on the Internet), but an idea for their final offering still eluded them.
Twilight's mother, Twilight Velvet, had been delighted to meet them, and had welcomed them into her home with a hearty dinner and pleasant conversation. Over dinner, they met the rest of Twilight's family: her father, Night Light, and her older brother, Shining Armor. After dinner, the men wandered off to do guy stuff while the girls cleaned up the kitchen and talked about the cooking contest. When the girls finished explaining their planned menu, Velvet put on a thoughtful expression. "Chicken cordon bleu, okonomiyaki, deep dish pizza...you girls certainly are getting a variety of cultural cuisine going there!"
"Yeah, but we're stumped on a fourth dish," Sunset said. "We're not sure the pizza could win the finals, but by that point we've kinda painted ourselves into a corner, you know?"
"Yeah, for a high school cooking contest, deep dish pizza is hard to top," Velvet agreed, earning a groan from Twilight. "Honestly, I'd make that your dish for the final round. Come up with something else for the semifinals." She looked around at the girls. "I mean, you're in high school. The odds of anyone beating that pizza recipe you showed me are pretty steep."
"Hmm," Sunset muttered, tapping a finger on the table. "Yeah, the pizza's gonna be a tough one and it might take us all day tomorrow just to nail that down," she admitted. "Girls, what do you think?"
"I think it'd be a good final dish," Twilight said.
"I suppose," Rarity agreed. "I would prefer to enter something more exotic as our anchor, but I suppose the complexity is a factor."
"You know," Velvet said thoughtfully, "after the okonomiyaki, it might not be a bad idea to offer a 'fun' dish to lead up to the pizza."
"What do you mean?" Sunset asked. "You mean like an appetizer?"
"More or less," Velvet said. With a smile, she added, "Actually, I think I know just the thing..."
"Uh-oh," Twilight muttered. "Mom's up to no good."
Velvet laughed. "Silly! I was just thinking you girls could take a look at a certain recipe of mine." Her smile grew more devious. "That certain recipe I always make for a certain party we have for a certain big game..."
Twilight gasped, eyes wide. "You don't mean..." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "The special nachos?"
Sunset raised an eyebrow. "Special nachos?"
"SHH!" both Twilights hissed.
Twilight's dad and brother materialized out of nowhere. "WHO SAID SPECIAL NACHOS?" they chorused.
Both Twilights facepalmed.
Rarity blinked. "Am...am I missing something...?"