After ages we finally have a reality cooking show which is unique to India, and not lifted off or syndicated from a foreign show. That in itself gives ‘Foodistan’ big brownie points. The latest food show on NDTV Good Times is a face-off between 16 professional chefs from India and Pakistan. The 16 chefs are slaving over a hot stove for an all-expense-paid trip to three international destinations of their choice, a book publishing deal and the title of the king or queen of ‘The Republic of Foodistan’ – and the glory of their nation. And this is where the problem lies. It’s bad enough that there’s enough animosity between the two countries, without the jingoism being played up by a food programme. But this is pretty much the only bone of contention I have with the show.
The nationalistic theme seems to be aimed at merely getting people to watch the show. Going by the loud promos which exalt patriotism and hype up the inherent hatred between the two countries, I had expected a lot of sound and fury and drama. The show actually manages to stay far away from jingoistic behaviour and speeches. It would have been far nicer if the teams had been a mixed bag of chefs from both India and Pakistan instead of being divided by country but once the show gets rolling it is clear that these are professional chefs who seem totally focused on simply cooking fabulous food instead of giving into histrionics or chasing each other with cleavers in the name of their country.
Once you brave the opening sequence, which uses very poor animation reminiscent of the Prince of Persia computer game, the producers test your aesthetic skills again by creating a set which looks like a discotheque in one of Madhur Bhandarkar’s films avec strobe lights and garish colours and TV screens with the Foodistan logo. All that’s left is for Yana Gupta to come skipping down the stairs. Which actually wouldn’t be that odd going by the fact that she just released a book on her eating habits.
But on to the good part. Once you’re past the opening shots and the set, you can’t not enjoy the show. Especially if you enjoy cooking. The show is a tad reminiscent of Top Chef with its trio of judges – one good looking, one chef and one food critic. So instead of Tia Carrere/Padma Lakshmi we have Pakistani actress Sonya Jehan, Tom Colichio has been replaced by British chef Merrilees Parker and food critic Gail Simmons by Vir Sanghvi. That is in addition to the two hosts. So all in all, by the 10th episode there could be more judges and hosts than contestants.
The two hosts are Aly Khan, who we last saw in Don 2 as the wicked wicked bank CEO, and Ira Dubey. They do have a tendency to shout out their lines like they’re acting on stage. Aly Khan needs to learn how to pronounce ‘fillet’. It is not ‘feelay’. But the two seem to have a vast vocabulary of cooking techniques.
The first episodes I saw had the chefs take part in team challenges where they had two hours to prepare a curry, kebab and biryani menu. The first challenge was won by the Indian team headed by Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent fame. And the second was won by the Pakistan team headed by Mohammed Iqram. The dishes were decidedly delicious looking with the India team cooking a bhindi kebab called bhindi do rukha, a dahi aur tamatar ka maas and a murgh koftey ki biryani followed by a trio of firni. The Pakistan team veered away from making mutton biryani and cooked a Kholdaar Machli Biryani (lobster biryani) and lamb shanks called Chinioti Mutton Machili (named so because the lamb cuts are slightly fish-shaped) and Golden Rasmalai.
The last episode I saw had the winners of the team challenge competing to cook two appetisers and two main courses without using any electrical appliances. Three of the dishes had to contain lamb. The chefs came up with dishes like hare matter ki kabab, chapli kebab, nihaari. The judges suddenly started awarding scores with decimal points, just to make things more interesting for both the chefs as well as math-challenged viewers.
What is fun to watch is the kitchen dynamics of these professional chefs who pull each other’s legs and burst into song, while all the time calmly preparing their dishes . Kitchen duties are divided with minimum discussion – with one taking on mise-en-place, another cooking the mains and the others plating and extending a helping hand around the kitchen. The first episode I saw had running commentary from ‘feelay’ boy, Aly Khan which was a little grating because you’d rather hear the conversation amongst the chefs.
Luckily because we’ve been spared the usual sob stories about each contestant chef’s past – how poor they are, how many parents have died, and so on – you tend to appreciate the contestants more than usual. They are amazingly unassuming. You wouldn’t think when looking at them that they are extremely successful chefs at the top of their game. Their reaction to winning is measured, they simply nod in acceptance. They seem embarrassed when Merrillee tells them that it just didn’t impress her enough or Vir says that there’s enough oil in the food to fly a jumbo jet. And the joy on their faces when Sonya Jehan tells them that their biryani or curry reminds her walking through the streets of Karachi with her father, will almost make you teary-eyed.
From the next episode the solo challenges begin. Going by the last few episodes, Foodistan holds a lot of promise. I for one, plan on wearing my dark glasses through the opening montage in the knowledge that the remainder of each episode will be worth the effort.
Foodistan is on every Monday to Wednesday at 9.30pm on NDTV Good Times.
Rajyasree Sen is an erstwhile restaurateur, TV connoisseur and unsolicited opinion-giver. You can order some delicious food from her at www.foodforthoughtindia.blogspot.com or follow her at @rajyasree