Sweat dripping from foreheads and intense looks of concentration on their faces, seven contestants relentlessly gnash down on a bowl of extra hot chicken wings; their pile of clean bones rising as they attempt to consume as many as possible, while a panel of judges watches on with keen interest.
As a bell rings to announce that three minutes has passed, the first round of the second Nando’s Chicken Wing Eating Competition comes to an end. More than 40 plucky participants deemed their heat tolerance high enough to tackle the challenge of eating as many spicy wings as possible in just three minutes.
The Nando’s chefs made the task devilishly difficult by coating each chicken wing in an additional layer of PERi-PERi seasoning before smothering it in Extra Hot sauce to really bring on the burn.
As the enthusiastic crowd calmed down following the first round of excitement, each bowl of bones was transported to the panel of five judges, which included Chris Fisher from Merge 104.8, for expert assessment. The winner from each of the six rounds would be put forward to a grand final, where the heat would be cranked up even higher, with the wings drenched in Extra Extra Hot sauce.
Dany Saliba waits nervously with a tingling tongue; eager to hear the result of the round he participated in.
“It was spicy, I can still feel the burn on my lips,” he says. “I think I ate seven or eight pieces. I’ve done this kind of thing before and I lost, but it was still good fun. No matter what the outcome is, I’m definitely going to be here next year when I will do my best and aim for even more wings.”
Ultimately though, he was bested in the preliminary round by Samir Ahmed Fayaz, who was as surprised as anyone to learn he had qualified.
“To be frank, I was not at all confident. I was quite worried actually. I am very happy to be through to the final, but I think it was a fluke.
“My technique was to eat through the heat and suck the bones clean. It was extremely spicy, I now feel like my oesophagus has been burnt out,” he says, laughing as he wipes away the beads of perspiration that have formed on his brow. “There should be wet towels on hand for the final because I may catch fire.”
And then before I know it, it is my turn in the hot seat (quite literally). I have a love for spicy food that borders on addiction and a successful track record in eating competitions (I took on the Reggae Bar 800g triple decker burger challenge in Thailand and won back in 2012), so my confidence was high.
When the bell rang to start my three minutes I dived into my bowl with both hands, man and chicken wing blurring together in frenzied motion. The heat was tolerable, but the judges had specified that only intact bones would be counted, which was to prove the difficult part and become my undoing.
Focusing on speed over finesse and shunning both drinks and napkins, I guzzled down as much as possible, the downside being that the bones would often separate from each other in my haste. My attempt was a valiant one, but when the bones were counted up, I had little over four.
The competition drew an equal mix of men and women of all ages, with Indians, Filipinos and Omanis making up a vastly varied field of fellow contestants.
At 62, Mohammad Osama was the eldest competitor and managed to polish off an impressive nine chicken wings in his heat to get through to the final. “I’m not a big eater of hot food, but chicken wings are one of my favourite foods,” Mohammad confessed before the final. “We don’t eat a lot of hot food in my family. I’m going to suffer tomorrow.
“I wanted to enter to see how I would do. I’ve enjoyed it and the challenge.”
The final took things to another level with contestants asked to replicate the form of the qualifying rounds in the face of even hotter wings. After a tense wait, the judges passed their decision on to the host of the evening and it was announced that Samir had once again surpassed expectations to claim the overall title of king of the wings.
“The pain has almost disappeared because I can’t feel anything inside my mouth anymore,” he says moments after his win. “It was tough because it was really spicy. I’d say it was five times worse than the first round.
“Before eating I had a bit of a cold and a blocked nose, but that’s all gone now!”
His secret to success was a relatively simple one though: “Just to eat and eat, that’s it!”
Hani Mirza, partner and managing director of Bin Mirza International, the company responsible for bringing Nando’s to Oman, and a judge on the night was impressed with the contestants, whom he says were better than in the previous competition.
He tells me that the judging was a difficult task and often a close call. But could he handle the heat himself? No, he confides, he’s more of a medium kind of guy.