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With Speed and Spice, MasterChef Takes on Pakistan's TV Realm

In a country where bombs and partisan politics are TV's bread and butter, cooking hit MasterChef is betting viewers are hungry for something more.
Image: MasterChef Pakistan
MasterChef PakistanMasterChef Pakistan via Facebook

At a sound studio in Karachi, a hijab-wearing Pakistani housewife and shaggy haired male college student high-five over their barbecuing prowess.

This is MasterChef Pakistan - and this unlikely pair have made it to the next round.

In a country where bombings and partisan politics are the bread and butter of cable television, global cooking hit MasterChef is betting that viewers are hungry for something more.

“A place like Pakistan has a lot of news,” said Ahmer Khan, the 31-year-old executive producer of MasterChef Pakistan. "Pakistanis are bored of the usual bombs and drone strikes.”

Image: MasterChef Pakistan
MasterChef PakistanMasterChef Pakistan via Facebook

Khan said combining two popular Pakistani pastimes – food and TV – has particular appeal in the Islamic country.

“There are no pubs and clubs here,” she told NBC News. “Food and TV are nightlife in Pakistan.”

That message resonates with 60-year-old Iffat Jahan, who told NBC News that if given the choice between watching “vulgar Indian music videos” or cooking shows, she “would obviously choose the cooking.”

“We are an Islamic country, aren’t we?,” she said.

While competition in the cooking-show realm is stiff – Pakistan has three dedicated food networks – Khan and the MasterChef team think they’ve found a winning recipe to add some sizzle to the scene with a different approach.

The show is running on Urdu1 – a network already known for innovation, having built its audiences with a steady diet of steamy Turkish soap operas packed with miniskirts and plunging necklines.

It also features a few more unusual ingredients, serving up speed and surprises. In a country where sophisticated curries can take several hours, contestants have just an hour to speedily plate their tandoori and curries. One episode saw contestants sprinting across a cricket ground, vying to get the best ingredients from a freezer. The show's male contestants - ten out of 30 in the first-round bootcamp - add spice to the mix, surprising viewers accustomed to seeing only women in the culinary domain.

Presentation also earns points - a factor not typically emphasized in Pakistani cooking.

While ratings figures were not immediately available, the show's producers claim that more than 800,000 registrations to audition demonstrate the show's appeal.

There has been no shortage of tears - from onion chopping and elimination. High drama has played out as contestants struggle to plate sour-cream Afghan tikkas with American-style grilled vegetables and stumble over how to cut the perfect French fry.

Producers are confident the show is a hit; but viewers and contestants say there have been a few hiccups with the judging and the level of competition.

While “it’s good to see Pakistan as part of the celebrated show,” said 24-year-old viewer Nadia Saeed, “it seems there is a lack of experience.”

Lamaam Malik, who made beef medallions with balsamic jus and hollandaise sauce, was eliminated in the bootcamp round.

Malik told NBC News he felt his dismissal was “not justified” since, he said, judges missed his excellent onion chopping and focused on his French fries in a two-part challenge. Plus, he said, the judge was rude.

“MasterChef is never supposed to be brutal, humiliating or rude,” he said. “If I was eliminated because of some flaws in my dish, I would have happily accepted the judgment.”

While Malik said he thought the judging was aggressive, some viewers say they lack spice.

Seher Ahmad – a self-described “big fan” of MasterChef Australia and MasterChef U.S. – said his initial excitement over the show's new franchise quickly turned to disappointment.

“I really want to support MasterChef but it is so boring,” he told NBC News. “The judges, they have no personality.” Ahmad said he’ll give the show another chance, and “hope it gets more interesting.”

Sahar Hussain, 23, acknowledged that a new show might have “some teething problems,” but said she had a “mini heart attack” when one of the judges appeared not to know what a Bechamel sauce was.

“I'm no chef, but anyone who's made a basic white sauce pasta must have heard or read that word in a recipe somewhere,” she said.