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“You burn the biryani and your countrymen will burn you”: this the warning given to these 12 chefs, seasoned and experienced at the stovetops, while battling it out on the new popular reality show, Foodistan. The show features them in two teams of six – one for India and one for Pakistan – in a fight to the last recipe, under the gaze of the television cameras. The final mission? To discover who reigns supreme, at least in the kitchen. The final competition runs for three days until March 21st, when, after eight elimination rounds, the winner will be declared: India or Pakistan?
At the moment, they are challenging each other with regional dishes like biryani, a local specialty made with rice and either vegetable, meat or fish – with the ingredients all cooked separately and then joined together in the dish, which has as many variations as Asia has cities. The original dish came from Persia and then spread throughout Asia thanks to the Muslim trade merchants. Each episode, however, features a culinary theme: from appetizers like prawn popcorn, to a fish curry with mango and Southern dishes like the traditional meen alleppey curry with brown rice, or simple but complete dishes like paneer bread with masala sauce, or a classic Pakistani dessert like golden rasmalai, based on semolina – as are many Asian sweets. Episode after episode, the chefs follow the given theme and then are judged by a jury made up of critics, chefs and journalists, heterogeneous in nationality: one is a French-Pakistani, one an Indian, and is European.
The show’s incredible success is because it manages to dramatize what happens daily in the streets of Asia. There has been conflict between India and Pakistan for at least 64 years, but here, at least, politics plays no part: since the two nations were divided in 1947, they have also been engaged in a war of cuisines. Instead of weapons, these battles are fought with ovens, pans and handfuls of spices. And with this spicy tension, it’s no wonder that the show is more popular here than the Western versions like Masterchef. It’s aired by the Ndtv network and started on February 23rd in India (where the episodes were shot over three intense weeks in New Delhi studios) and Geo Tv shows it in Pakistan, where it airs three nights a week. From Delhi to Karachi, viewers have been glued to their seats.
Despite their geographical proximity, the cuisine of India and Pakistan are actually quite different, and reflect two distinct characters. Pakistan’s food is more meat-centred and artful, while India relies more heavily on vegetarian dishes and its vastness and variety reflects on the nation’s enormity: the Punjabi dishes tend to be stronger, those from the South, more delicate and sweet. While Pakistan may have many dishes similar to those in Northern India, it’s hard to find ones that resemble the traditional fare of regions like Goa, Kerala and Calcutta.
But one thing everyone can agree on is that the reality show is popular among both nations – each one represented by well-trained chefs who have come from their country’s best kitchens, many of them from luxury hotels like the Leela, the Marriott and Hyatt. Many of these chefs have traveled and cooked all over the world (from Italia and France to London and Singapore): while they are specialized in their own regional dishes, they are also skilled with French, Mediterranean and experimental cuisines. While they hum a latest hit tune from a Bollywood movie, or they shout at one another in urdu, even a simple street food like chaat becomes a five-star delight.