India and Pakistan will go to war next week. And thousands of foodies from across South Asia will tune in to watch.
Neatly bringing together two national pastimes of eating and regional rivalry, the reality cooking show Foodistan will pitch a team of professional Pakistani chefs against a team from India. Three nights a week, viewers will be able to see the two sides compete in the kitchen, in both team and individual contests.
"India and Pakistan are two nations who share a common passion for good food," said Smeeta Chakrabarti, the CEO of NDTV Lifestyle, which is broadcasting the show in India. "And this love for food is something that binds the two nations, despite the numerous differences." The producers of the show, filmed over three weeks in Delhi, are tapping into a growing appetite among the region's upper-middle class for food, fashion and "lifestyle" products. In India especially, television programmes about food and travel are increasingly popular.
India recently completed the second series of its franchise of MasterChef, and Australian MasterChef, shown on Star World, is said to have been one of the most successful imports. In Pakistan, the show will be broadcast on Geo TV.
One of the Pakistani chefs taking part in the series, Poppy Agha, has her own culinary institute in Karachi and a show on Pakistani television, A Taste of Fusion. She said of her time in India: "I made some fantastic friends. There is a rivalry, but in this programme we all came together. I learned so much."
There are clear and obvious similarities between the cuisine of north India and that of Pakistan. But Ms Agha said she had been surprised by the variety of Indian food, especially the styles from the south of India, where many of the recipes are vegetarian, a traditional that does not really exist in Pakistan. "As Pakistanis we know nothing about south Indian food," she said.
Among the chefs representing India is Manish Mehrotra, executive chef at the Indian Accent restaurant in Delhi, celebrated for its "modern Indian" menu. He said: "From the Pakistanis, we learned a lot about their treatment of meat. They do it very nicely. We do things with meat, but there it is done in a different way, with different techniques."
To avoid any cultural controversy, the cooking contests involve neither beef nor pork. The chefs have also been sworn not to reveal the eventual winner. However, thanks to the blog of one of the judges, audiences have already been fed an appetiser of some of the dramas they can expect – a Pakistani chef walking out halfway through because he felt the judges did not fully understand the true flavours of his country, another Pakistani chef winning over the crew by singing Bollywood film songs as he cooks, and a famed Indian chef cracking under pressure and "more or less spontaneously" combusting on camera.
The panel of judges is made up of British chef Merrilees Parker, actress Sonya Jehan, who is of Pakistani-French origin, and Indian journalist, broadcaster and restaurant critic Vir Sanghvi. It was his blog that has provided the juicy titbits in advance.