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One unremarkable afternoon about 17 years ago, Zee TV started beaming a half-hour cookery show aimed at the Indian homemaker. It had a young chef from an ITDC hotel guiding viewers step by step through traditional Indian recipes, and a sprinkling of “New Age" specialities such as pastas and risottos. The chef’s chatty, easy-does-it style, as well as his dimpled smile, won over nervous new brides and doughty grandmothers alike, creating two of the most abiding brands on Indian television: Khana Khazana and Sanjeev Kapoor, each synonymous with the other.

The culinary television genre is now coming into its own, with both Zee Network and Kapoor launching rival 24x7 channels dedicated to food within weeks of each other. Zee has chosen to hark back to its trusted warhorse to pull its newest venture and named the channel—which went on air in December— Zee Khana Khazana, whereas Kapoor’s Food Food, a joint venture with the Malaysia based Astro All Asia Network, is set to go on air from Monday. More food channels are in the offing—notably, Alva Brothers’ Real Global Broadcasting Pvt. Ltd, which will launch Food First within the next couple of months.

“Food channels are very successful in western markets like the US," says Anurag Bedi, business head of Zee Khana Khazana. “The Indian consumer is also developing a taste for niche offerings and lifestyle channels." A view Manisha Tripathi, business head of Real Broadcasting shares. “If you look around, there are an increasing number of restaurants offering a wider range of cuisines today," she says. “Food as a category is growing and its time it got served on TV as well."

Lap it up: (left) Zee Khana Khazana’s The Hairy Bikers’ Cookbook; and Sanjeev Kapoor.

Significantly, both Bedi and Tripathi refer to their new offerings as a “lifestyle" channel, adding that food will be the unifying theme for the programming. “Whenever a viewer thinks food, wants to view food, he should be able to switch on Zee Khana Khazana and get to see a show on food and not, say, travel," says Bedi. “But if the show involves travelling for food, then it fits right in with our content line-up. In The Hairy Bikers’ Cookbook two British bikers ride around the world sampling local cuisine and then try their hands at cooking it."

The audience profile too has changed dramatically—from housewives looking to pick up a few recipes to add to their regular repertoire, it now includes men and even children. “My teenaged daughters were hooked to Masterchef Australia," says Kapoor. “They followed the participants, knew when they were making a mistake and had critical comments on the show."

The new viewer is what all three channels are banking on. Tripathi says their all-English Food First has its sights set on an audience of 18 and above, with high purchasing power. The channel has exclusive broadcast rights to content from international distributors such as Shine, Optomen and Cineflix. “These programmes feature some renowned personalities from the world of food, such as celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. We have a show with Gwyneth Paltrow, the Hollywood star. Not everyone knows she is a foodie," Tripathi adds. Bedi says about 30% of Zee Khana Khazana’s programming— which he describes as a Hinglish channel—will have international content.

Food Food, which will be the only Hindi channel, is betting solely on local content to win this cook-off. “All our content is locally produced. We have several big names from the food and showbiz industries," says Kapoor. “There’s a show I host, Sanjeev Kapoor’s Kitchen, and one by chef Rakesh Bedi. There’s Firangi Dhaba on foreign cuisines." The channel has also signed deals with the likes of Endemol and BBC for adaptations of internationally popular shows, such as Ready Steady Cook.

With the competition hotting up, the Indian foodie finally has something to watch. But whether these shows can invent a genre or brand which is uniquely Indian will depend on more than positioning food entertainment as aspirational.

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