It’s being billed as an “epic battle” between India and Pakistan.
But instead of being fought on the battleground, it’s being fought in the kitchen.
The armies comprise eight professional chefs from each country, fighting to conquer the taste buds of judges.
This is Foodistan – a new show that begins on Indian television channel NDTV Good Times on Monday night.
The programme-makers say it’s a cook-off between “highly talented chefs from Asia’s two most culturally rich countries”.
“India and Pakistan are two nations which share a common passion for good food,” says Smeeta Chakrabarti, chief executive officer of NDTV Lifestyle.
“And this love for food is something that binds the two nations in spite of their numerous differences.”
Actress Ira Dubey, one of the hosts of the 26-part show filmed over 40 days in October and November, told the BBC: “The atmosphere on the sets was bubbling, quite literally.
“It’s an India-Pakistan show, so there was crazy competition, but there was also a crazy kind of brotherhood. There was great rivalry, but at the end of the day we are also brothers.”
The participants were all professional chefs with at least eight years of work experience and the food they were asked to cook was the sub-continental cuisine popularly known as Mughlai food.
Among the contestants was India’s Nimish Bhatia, who has been a chef for nearly a decade now.
“It was good fun to be part of this competition, it was very exciting, very enjoyable. It was also very nice to meet people from across the border. We have the same food, the same culture, but we are separated by this border.”
Mr Bhatia said there was a lot of bonhomie on the sets and it was not about winning or losing, but it was about having fun.
“There was competition in the kitchen, but it was not a competition between good and bad, it was a competition between good and good.”
Pakistan’s Mohammad Ikram is the chef de cuisine at the Dumpukht restaurant in Lahore. He says they were made to feel very welcome in India and were well looked after. “It felt like we never even left Pakistan,” he says.
“The judges appreciated my cooking a lot. They loved my ras malai (a milk dessert), my rice biriyani and my fish tikka.”But Mohd Ikram’s butter chicken, the staple in many Indian and Pakistani restaurants, didn’t go down well with the judges.
“The food in Pakistan is different from the food here,” he said.
“The Indian curry looks more colourful, whereas we fry our gravy a lot more so our butter chicken looks and tastes different. The judges are more used to eating the Indian variety so they didn’t much like what I cooked.”
Well-known Indian food critic Vir Sanghvi, one of the three judges on the show, said they tried as much as possible to level the playing field by asking the contestants to cook food that’s shared between the two countries.
But, he said, it was “like a competition between English and European cuisines”.
“Pakistani cuisine is essentially Punjabi with influences of Sindhi, Afghani and Balochi cooking. But the range and variety of Indian cuisine is more diverse. There are 26 different kinds of cuisines in India. Indian food uses coconut and tamarind and many other things which the Pakistani chefs have never used.”
Mr Sanghvi says there was a lot of bonhomie between the chefs from the two sides but once the action shifted to the kitchen, “it became incredibly competitive”.
“It was quite intense. Passions ran high and they fought to the last pinch of salt.
“We had chefs crying on several occasions, we even had one chef walk out of the set. One of the contestants was very dismissive of British judge Merrilees Parker; one Pakistani contestant accused Sonia Jehan (Pakistani actress and judge on the show) of not being patriotic enough.
“There was a lot of drama.”
With 16 chefs, three judges and two hosts, the “culinary encounter between India and Pakistan” promises to be “an exciting battle”.
The food fight has begun.
– Geeta Pandey, BBC News, Delhi