Is it just me or have you also noticed that every second lifestyle programme on television is a food show these days? If song-'n-dance contests were the rage five years ago, everyone's now dishing out food shows that seem incredibly the same no matter who the host is.
They come in three broad categories: food-'n-travel, cooking and contests. Viewers have their preferences, but to the regular resident couch aloo bhonda, all three can blur into one khichdi.
Food 'n' travel shows
These are the friendliest format for TV. The host brings the viewer closer to exotic places through the filter of eating experiences. TLC and sometimes BBC Entertainment, channels with generous budgets, consistently make enjoyable shows. The best, like Anthony Bourdain's 'No Reservations', go beyond food. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's visit in 2010 to India's northeast, aired last month on TLC in 'Gordon's Great Escape', shed light on Nagaland and Assam's culinary practices and culture.
Indian productions don't have the same budgets, which shows. But what really makes them abysmal are scripts, which generally consist of "mmm" and "delicious." Which is why NDTV Good Times' 'Highway On My Plate', hosted by Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma, is a treat. The hosts don't step out of the food zone, but their witty scripts and natural zaniness makes the show fun and informative: You learn about places where you can find good meals.
Most are pointless. Take 'Nigella's Christmas Kitchen', which TLC has been mysteriously airing in early August. (It's not Christmas even in Australia!) Everything, including host Nigella Lawson and the gleaming veggies she rips out of plastic bags, is lush. When she looks into the viewer's eyes and says, "I love to add a spicy depth to my mince pies," something happens inside that has nothing to do with food. With the sax playing in the background and the buns still in the oven, we are watching soft-focus food porn.
In NDTV Good Times' 'Love Bites With Joey', we have the low-kitch version of Nigella's show. Here 'supermodel' Joey Matthew tells us, as she makes salmon goujons with mayonnaise, "At lunch time, tea time, any time" in a 'sexy voice' that would have been more natural coming from an automatic telephone reply machine. If Padma Lakshmi is her role model, Ms Lakshmi should sue.
Kylie Kwong's 'Cooking With Heart and Soul' on TLC is one show that looks good and is useful, without sounding like a boring UGC lecture.
The runaway master of this format has to be 'Master Chef Australia', which is in its fourth season on Star World every weekday at 9 pm. It's really the song-'n-dance reality contest turned into a high-ladle battle of 'ordinary' cooks, with three gluttons who know their food judging their dishes. What keeps the washed masses hooked is the drama that accompanies each episode -- the tears, the damning put-downs, the joyous recognition of 'genius', the rat-like rivalry between contestants.
Indian viewers love the show's pass-fail aspect, which tells us next to nothing about the dishes.
The mish-mashes: If there's genuine freshness in any food show, it has to be in those that mix a bit of all the three genres. One of my favourites is 'Come Dine With Me' on BBC Entertainment. Three 'ordinary folks', in Britain, host dinner parties at their homes. The one voted the best by fellow contestants wins. As always, there are some hilarious situations in which contestants hate each other's guts while trying to maintain decorum. Food here is again incidental. My favourite episode involved an arrogant Scotsman taking a shine to a transvestite that the gay host had arranged as dinner entertainment.
On a similar level of hilarity, but packed with genuine foodie information and enthusiasm, there's Bikramjeet Ray. In 'Secret Kitchen' on CNN-IBN, he brought to our screen the best food places off and on the map to hog out at. I hear that television's most natural food show host will now be back from August 18, this time on NDTV Good Times, with 'Fat Man and 13 Brides'. Bikramjeet will go into 13 households from 13 different Indian communities to taste and judge the regional cooking skills of 13 potential 'Mrs Rays'. Fat Man Ray knows his food and wears his knowledge lightly. Which usually is the perfect concoction for food on television.
The fact, however, remains: There are simply too many food programmes on TV. It's high time that many, if not most of them, regurgitating the same old formats, are binned. If for nothing else, to make space for the better stuff on the menu.