TV show Foodistan heats up India and Pakistan rivalry in the kitchen
NEW DELHI // It's India vs Pakistan - the food wars.
The long-time rivals have fought three real wars and their clashes on the cricket field are legendary. Now, the South Asian rivals are taking it to the kitchen, capitalising on cookery reality shows that have drawn die-hard followings from Asia to the West.
The first episode of Foodistan, an eight-part series, aired in India last night on the popular NDTV Good Times, with a one-point victory delivered to India in a battle of the biryani.
The series, featuring eight professional chefs from each country, will air in Pakistan next month.
The two countries' cuisine share similar origins, reaching back before India and Pakistan were created out of the 1947 division of the British Indian empire on the subcontinent. India and Pakistan remain as passionate about their cooking as their cricket.
Allowing for cultural and religious sensitivities, pork is banned for mainly Muslim Pakistan and beef for Hindus.
"Pakistanis understand meat - which cuts to use - and they are willing to use an entire animal," said Vir Sanghvi, an Indian food critic and one of the judges, referring to a challenge in an upcoming episode where the teams will be required to cook an entire goat.
"Indians have never cooked that way," he said. "There was a Hindu prissiness about this."
For the Pakistanis, the regional Indian cuisine was somewhat baffling.
"Some of the Pakistani chefs had never seen a dosa and had no idea what kokum was," said Mr Singhvi." Dosa is a savoury crepe from southern India. Kokum is a souring agent used in curries in western India.
Another judge is Pakistani Sonya Jehan, a Bollywood actress who also runs a restaurant in Karachi. Keeping the peace is British celebrity chef Merriless Parker.
Both teams focused on presenting dishes that were traditional in spirit but that added a twist of fusion.
The Pakistani chefs borrow from Iranian and Middle Eastern influences by using preserved apricots, olives and fish.
The Indians lean towards the West, serving up truffle cream and mushrooms with chicken tikka, or cutlets, and strawberry granita alongside a traditional phirni, or rice pudding.
For all, it's a kind of gastronomic trip down memory lane: a reminder of comfort food families shared around the dining table when they all may have lived on one side of the border.
Ms Jehan, inhaling the aroma of the meat biryani presented by the Indian chefs, said it reminded her of her childhood spent with her grandmother, the singer Noor Jehan, who was born in Punjab, now divided between India and Pakistan.
The cuisine of Pakistan is closely related to that of northern India, but do not try telling that to the contestants
"The Indians are mostly vegetarians," said Akhtar Rehman, a sous chef at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. "So I brought out some of Lahore's and Peshawar's most famous meat dishes that are not available in India."
But Pakistan considers India "a nation of butter chicken and dal makhani [butter daal]," said Madhumita Mohanta, the executive sous chef at the Claridges hotel in Surajkund in the Indian state of Haryana.
"But we have more experience with regional cuisines, mixing and matching it and doing justice to the motherland."
Off camera, while filming for the past two months in India, the chefs were less competitive.
"We thought the knives would come out," said Monica Narula, the vice president of programming with NDTV Good Times, in India.
"But they found a common enemy in the judges and ended up hanging out together, going to movies and swapping recipes."
The series will be shown on the popular Geo channel in Pakistan. The show will also be broadcast in the UAE.