India-Pakistan Rivalry Serves Up 'Foodistan' Cook-Off Show

Homegrown show developed by broadcaster New Delhi Television's NDTV Good Times channel pitches professional chefs from both countries, which sees India's Manish Mehrotra as the first season winner.

NEW DELHI – As the saying goes, “If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Only in this case, things really heated up between edgy neighbors India and Pakistan when professional chefs from both countries competed in Foodistan, a first of its kind cook-off show which concluded Wednesday night following its 26 episode run.

Foodistan brought together 16 professional chefs from India and Pakistan to face off in a battle of national cuisines. Think Iron Chef with a geo-political edge.

The show, which aired simultaneously on India's New Delhi Television's lifestyle channel NDTV Good Times and Pakistan's GEO TV network, has been well received. On NDTV Good Times it drew between eight and 10 million viewers, making it one of the niche channel's bigger shows, according to NDTV Lifestyle CEO Smeeta Chakrabarti.

But the significance of Foodistan goes beyond audience figures and market share. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from British rule in 1947 and tensions between the two nations are notoriously high. In this context, Foodistan can be seen as a pop cultural attempt to bring the two nations together. As the show's tag line put it, in the land of Foodistan "borders cease to exist and food emerges as the winner in this Indo-Pak clash."

“When we were developing the show, we looked at what brought the two countries together and realized that, like cricket (which has a long tradition of fierce rivarly between the two nations), food was integral to both cultures,” Chakrabarti told The Hollywood Reporter.

The eight member teams from both countries were given challenges to create dishes in a limited time frame which were then awarded points by the judges, with Foodistan pushing both sides to prove who could really serve a better kebab or biryani.

Leading Indian production company Big Synergy - which produced the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - produced Foodistan in a studio near Delhi.  The show's three judges included British celebrity chef Merrilees Parker, renowned Indian journalist and gourmand Vir Sanghvi and Pakistani actress (and Bollywood star) Sonya Jehan  along with Indian hosts, actor Aly Khan and actress Ira Dubey.

While the two nations share many culinary traditions, there were a few culture issues to be ironed out. Beef and pork were banned from the show's menus from the get go - the first being taboo for India's large Hindu population and the later forbidden to Muslims, the majority in Pakistan.

“It was a big challenge for the Pakistani chefs as beef is a popular ingredient in their cuisine but that is what made the show challenging,” said NDTV Good Times, head of food programming, Monica Narula. “However, we faced bigger production challenges such as obtaining visas which can take about two months in addition to security clearances.”

While there are a host of cooking shows on Indian television, such as the local version of MasterChef, Chakrabarti says Foodistan had a unique premise “as the nuances were more about the regional and specific skills of two countries cooking similar and different cuisines.” As for comparisons with an international format like Iron Chef, Chakrabarti added, “Foodistan is more a competition between teams rather than individual chefs. Our show does boil down to the individual in the final contest but its still a fight between two countries."

Unlike real-life border clashes in the region, however, Foodistan was a force for cultural understanding.

“There are two sets of problems between India and Pakistan. One is political where you and I can't do much (about that)," Foodistan judge Vir Sanghvi said on the show's final episode. "The other is people to people relations... When you don't know your neighbor then you imagine the worst about him... Its actually nice to put people together, have them exchange ideas.  That's when you say, hey, he is just like me.”

Online response to the show also seemed positive given the Foodistan Facebook page ended up with over 36,000 likes including fans from both countries.

“Hope to see more ties between India and Pakistan to spread love, peace and harmony,” said a post by Yousuf Aslam commenting on the show's launch in Pakistan. “Regardless of their country of origin, these chefs have endeared themselves to the viewers so much so that they seem like family members now,” said another post by Tahmina Naqvi.

An unexpected cross-border connection came with one of the show's most popular contestants - female Pakistani chef Poppy Agha. Agha, already well-known in Pakistan as the host of local cooking show The Taste of Fusion, has became a celebrity of sorts in India after finishing second in the Foodistan competition.

“Poppy is actually thinking of opening a restaurant in India,” said Narula of NDTV Good Times.

In the final cook-off, Indian chef Manish Mehrotra had the edge, taking the first Foodistan trophy for his country with a soft shell crab dish which wowed the jury. But he was gracious in victory.

“It was a fantastic learning and bonding experience because we in India don't know much about the restaurant culture in Pakistan,” said Mehrota.  “The truth is that there really isn't much of a difference between chefs from both countries.”

In addition to its regional broadcast, Foodistan is reaching out to the global South Asian diaspora through NDTV's channels on EchoStar and Dish Network in the U.S., and Sky and Virgin in the U.K. And a second season of the show is already in the works. This time, it could take cross-border cooperation one step further. Chakrabarti said if logistics can be sorted out, the second season of Foodistan could be a true co-production between India's NDTV Good Times and GEO TV in Pakistan.

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