When it comes to reality TV — and competitive cooking shows in particular — there are many reliable ways create drama: menacing judges, preternaturally ticking clocks, the threat of elimination, and, of course, clever editing.
The Indian cooking show, Foodistan, on NDTV, has all of these tricks plus another spicy device: nationalistic pride. The show pits Indian chefs against Pakistani chefs in a mad race to prepare three dishes in 90 minutes. And in doing so, it exploits the long rivalry between the two countries — something that has rarely been a joking matter.
“So what if we take this rivalry to a whole new arena? Where the battle is fought with forks, knives and skillet,” host Aly Khan said in the opening episode.
A fork-and-spoon-armed battleground may be a source of comic relief for many viewers given the countries’ history of strained relations. India and Pakistan have fought four wars and regularly rattle their sabers over the disputed region of Kashmir ever since the countries were split by partition in 1947. That forced millions of Muslims living India and Hindus living in Pakistan to flee to the other side.
While Foodistan’s hook may be the simmering nationalism of the two rivals, the kitchen isn’t the only place it plays out. The cross-border love of cricket has made the cricket pitch the usual proxy for the rivalry. India’s booming Bollywood movie-industry – and the chart-topping music hits it churns out – are not only wildly popular in India, but Pakistan as well.
In the kitchen, there’s plenty of common ground. Much of the cuisine from the Eastern provinces of Pakistan – Sindh and Punjab – is similar to Mughlai cuisine of northern India: Think Tandoori meats, naan and vegetable dishes with paneer, or cheese.
But the contestant chefs also have to conform to the cultural differences of their rivals. Beef has traditionally been a no-no in the predominantly Hindu India. Pork is forbidden in Muslim Pakistan. Both are outlawed on the show.
Putting a new twist on centuries old cooking traditions — with sometimes unfamiliar ingredients — can also be a tall task. To make the playing field as even as possible the nightly ingredient themes have not always exotic: Take “Get creative with rice,” “Spinach Special” and “Banana Mania.”
But the simple themes don’t seem to have dampened creativity. Some winning dishes have included Poached Lahori Fish with Sun-Blushed Red Chillies and Imli Pesto and Pakistani-Style Potatoes Bhujia, with Besan ki Roti.
On Monday, the two Indian chefs, wearing blue, and two Pakistani chefs, wearing green, remaining in the competition will go to the semi-finals. The winners will move on to the final battle.
While there’s still a long way to go for the kitchen stadium to replace the cricket stadium as the main battleground for the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, both seem better than the alternative.