The reality TV food contest between acclaimed chefs from India and Pakistan is a battlefield where everyone's a winner
M. Ammar B. Yaser
The culinary delicacies of India and Pakistan stem from the same roots as does the region's music - embedded in shared history that goes back to centuries. Traditionally, "secret recipes" that cooks and housewives in the region zealously guard as their own are more or less open secrets in every household of both nations. And it's no surprise - they stem from the same pool of experience of living together for hundreds of years.
But India and Pakistan have tagged themselves as rivals. So whether it's the cricket pitch or reality musical shows on television, Indians and Pakistanis have this unrelenting urge to battle it out. This time the war is over food and the battleground is neither Hindustan nor Pakistan but Foodistan - a cooking contest between chefs from India and Pakistan.
Sixteen seasoned chefs (eight each) from India and Pakistan are contesting on the show, produced and broadcast by NDTV Good Times in India and the Geo Television Network in Pakistan. Good food is a premier pastime of people in both countries, involving much passion and pride. We love to boast about our gastronomic indulgences. Having all this at stake only makes the ground for the battle more exciting.
"India and Pakistan are two nations who share a common passion for good food and this love for food is something that binds the two nations, despite the numerous differences," commented Smeeta Chakrabarti, the CEO of NDTV Lifestyle, talking to the media.
The 26-episode series, which started being aired by the Geo TV on February 11, is in many ways formatted on the international reality contest Masterchef. The major difference is that the participating chefs in Foodistan already enjoy some national repute in their respective countries.
Model Ira Dubey and actor Aly Khan are the hosts of Foodistan. Khan, who is in Karachi these days, told AKA, that he found the concept of a cooking contest between the two nuclear-armed neighbours very exciting. "I simply loved the idea. Both the countries take immense pride over their culinary prowess, so this had to be interesting."
Food lovers on both sides of the border see Foodistan as a celebration of slight differences in methods and techniques that chefs from India and Pakistan use to make the same popular dishes, for example, biryani.
"It's the small variations in techniques that make the Indian cuisine stand apart. I won't say they are better - but it's just different," observed Shahana Sohail, a housewife from Karachi who is following the show on Geo TV.
Manish Mehrotra, one of the participating chefs from the Indian side, made a similar point. He lauded the way Pakistanis handle the meat. "They do it very nicely. We do things with meat, but there it is done in a different way, with different techniques."
Keeping in mind the cultural sensitivities of the two countries, pork and beef were barred from being on the list of ingredients.
The panel of judges consists of British chef Merrilees Parker, actress Sonya Jehan from Pakistan and Indian journalist and restaurant critic Vir Sanghvi.
For Pakistani viewers, the show has an added zing, as the audience (mainly housewives) sees their local food gurus vying with Indian counterparts. As Sumaira Rana, a full-time housewife and an avid follower of the show put it, "this is our cricket match between India and Pakistan."
The young and talented chef Amir Iqbal, a Foodistan participant, hosts a popular cooking show in Pakistan. A menu consultant at the reputed Hobnob Cafe, he is well versed in Italian, Mexican and French cuisines, factors that allow him to experiment with his cooking.
With nine years of industry experience, Amir is also a visiting faculty at many culinary institutes in Pakistan. He started his career as a trainee waiter, it was only while watching chefs chop, and stir and plate on television that he decided to become a chef.
Another well-known face is Khursheed Amina Agha, a.k.a "Poppy", who runs her own show "The Taste of Fusion" on a local channel.
A self-taught cook, Poppy has been cooking for the last 17 years. Currently compiling a recipe book of Sindhi dishes, Poppy specializes in Pakistani, South Indian, French, Italian, and Thai cuisine. She has also developed and owns the first professional culinary institute in Pakistan.
Foodistan has become a hot favourite for Pakistanis who love to cook and eat - which means practically anyone who has the opportunity to follow the show. Viewers who keenly follow chefs like Amir and Poppy in their daily lives now find their taste-gurus put on the roaster to prove their mettle.
This is one contest, everyone agrees, that is so yummy that everyone involved is a winner.
The writer is a reporter at The News.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
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