‘Zaikaana’: Where food and love stories come alive

D. Krishna Prasad
·9-min read

Nishant and Asambhava met through a common friend and got connected through a common route of love for stories. 

It all began with the discussion about listening to Neelesh Misra’s Yaadon ka Idiot Box on 92.7 RED FM back when they were in college. They believed that if somebody has got an interesting food story, they ought to have an amazing life story to share as well as what their idea speaks.

Now, this applies to so many Indian households as well, where the awesome stories from the kitchen are only celebrated over the dining table and not beyond. That’s when the seeds of Zaikaana were sowed somewhere around both of their unspoken wishes to create a little world of stories and nurturing them with love. And this was a total passion project and it continues to be.

Zaikaana team with Suresh, a wildlife photographer
Zaikaana team with Suresh, a wildlife photographer

How did Zaikaana start?

Started by a couple, Asambhava Shubha, a Computer Science graduate from KIIT Bhubaneswar, who’s currently working as an educator with an MNC, and Nishant Kumar Gupta, a Chemical engineer with an M.Tech in Nuclear engineering from IIT Kanpur and currently works as a Technical Lead in a startup named Zetwerk, where both have the love for stories and food.

Asambhava, also a cinematic narrator, goes around different places in Bangalore for her live storytelling performances, writing about peoples’ journeys and their life stories, got talking about this with Nishant, explaining how people are not living their passion even though being talented. And somehow they felt that food is the connecting thread that brings joy.

So one evening, in April 2019, when Nishant and Asambhava were sauntering to a café in Bangalore, they met a waiter who was not happy with his night shifts and looking forward to going back to his home to prepare the marinated fish in a papaya bed. That left the couple intrigued about the dish and the happiness it brought to the waiter.

“We wanted to bring such stories to life and celebrate such superstars. That night, we came back and sat at 2 AM to chalk out the next steps. We said we want to put a name to our feelings and then go hunt for stories. By the next morning, we found Zaikaana, as primarily suggested by Nishant, and it truly captured the flavours we wanted to project”, said the couple.

Asambhava also shares an interesting thing here on what gave her the calling to start the idea, saying, “For all the growing up years and working, every time I would write a poem or a story and would perform it before people. I have wished there was a way to include those people in the story to celebrate their spirits. That thought always existed and meeting Nishant and discussing these ideas sort of laid the foundation of how too we wanted to tell stories.”

What’s behind the name?

As they were on a hunt for a name to represent themselves through stories, it turned out that the couple’s favourite song happens to be “Qaafirana', which is about nomads on a go.

While the song turns out to be their special one, the 2 AM conversations for a unique name kept them looking for something in a novel direction. Then there was this wish they had in mind to have a name with a Hindi or Urdu connotation because of both their love for the languages.

Asambhava-Chandrima shooting a story about her music teacher
Asambhava-Chandrima shooting a story about her music teacher

“We began with words in Hindi or Urdu that mean “flavour” and so Zaika. But only Zaika would feel like a food blog or channel so something more generic which says that we are trying to tell stories. Nishant suddenly goes: “How about Zaikaana? Let us do a combination of our song Qaafirana and Zaika.” I was floored with the way Zaikaana sounded. And there it was”, laughs the couple.

Kind Of Stories They Cover

So far, on purpose, as the couple says, they haven’t labeled the kind of stories they cover. All they do is start meeting people and if there’s a certain aspect of them that feels inspiring or want to know a little more about it, they talk to them. Once things go well, they make a story of your journey.

In the October of 2019, they did an offline event called ‘Tagey’(an Urdu word for thread) where they got together all their features, an artist community, and made it a musical, celebratory evening with poetry, art, music, and of course, food. Over 120 people showed up at the event. They shared glimpses of stories from each of the features along with their experiences as well.

Recently, they also covered the story of a drag artist who’s been on the cover of Vogue. His name is Alex Mathew, aged 34 years old, and goes by the pseudonym Maya. He’s a performer, TEDx speaker, and an ex-manager with the Lalit Group of Hotels. 

They also featured an ex-navy veteran, Prakash, 55 years old, who is helping reimagine farming in India.

Asambhava-Maya the Drag Queen story featured by Zaikaana
Asambhava-Maya the Drag Queen story featured by Zaikaana

Best of all, they covered the story of the Iron Lady, Shalini, 44 years old, who’s a single parent to two boys, has changed over 12 jobs throughout her career and decided to have her food truck. She employed the homeless, lives alone in a city, and would do a 5000km road trip over India with her boys.

To date, they have done about 20 stories. The one parameter they maintain in their stories is diversity. Expressing a bit more about it, the couple stated, “We are very clear that our boundaries are not defined by age, sexuality, religion, lifestyle choices, profession or colour”.

Growing further, their focus is to do a lot of inter-community collaborations like marital abuse, healthy lifestyle, photography, journaling, and further extending to life inside an army camp, wildlife exploration, transgenders and their professional ways of earning, senior citizens and their involvement in living a life post-retirement, millennials and their inventions which are uncanny and unique.

Tough At Times, But Happy Ending

The biggest challenge is meeting people and addressing us as a food channel or vlog. “It takes a while to explain the “WHY of Zaikaana” to people and it is slightly overwhelming at times when they do not bother to hear from us why we focus on the story part of it first before the food part,” says Nishant and Asambhava.

At times, they meet with people who would not open up about their story even though they have a great story to tell. Addressing the situation, Asambhava says, “It takes a while to break the ice sometimes. Most of our features have not faced the camera before. So, it was a task to get them to speak.” She also added, “it feels a bit disappointing because both Nishant and I are working professionals. And we have to plan our schedules for each story”.

Well, they also have their share of better moments, like they did a story on Mango Mulch, mango farms, and a homestay run by a couple in Karnataka in Dec 2019.

She kept going by sharing one of the happy moments, saying, “I remember a family telling me that they had booked a stay at Mango Mulch in Dec 2020 to check what the place had to offer. When they googled Mango Mulch, our Zaikaana story appeared on the top search. And that’s how they decided to go ahead with the booking. Little joys but feel super special. Overall, we are happy with all that this project brings in. It is a new learning every day, we are on our toes.”

Campaigns & Fundraising

Although COVID-19 affected, they picked a cause like the pandemic relief with her high school alumni group. The campaign was called ‘SFSJ Food for All’ and it helped feed the migrants in Bihar and Jharkhand.

They also did another online edition of ‘Tagey 2.0, Iss Baar Ghar Se’ where they planned for an online get-together of artists, musicians, Zaikaana features, poetry lovers, and storytellers and raised funds of Rs. 20000 which directly went to my high school Covid relief fund.

Shooting scenes of the Iron Lady Shalini
Shooting scenes of the Iron Lady Shalini

Both the editions of Tagey have seen people from within and outside of our circles. The offline edition was covered by LBB Bangalore and the online edition had 100+ participants from over 14 states joining in via Zoom.

What’s Forthcoming?

Down the line, the couple’s idea is to bring communities together and be the space for learning, connecting, and nurturing ideas in the future.

They shared their motto behind the project, saying, “We hope to be able to create a network so strong and reliable that we can collectively work on causes that matter to us, make dreams come true, tell people that they should not stop dreaming, bring awareness about hygiene, self-love, life choices and the new that the world has to offer.”

However, stories are the first step towards knowing where our society is and do something about changing the landscape. So, this year, they are trying to do a lot of conversations with the millennials and bring unique stories especially in the context of mental health and sustainability. They are also hoping to do some stories straight from the villages and jungles.

Tagey event at Bengaluru
Tagey event at Bengaluru

Moving forward, the couple wants to engage with the established platforms and communities towards connecting further to these groups and draw their attention beyond the regular. They also aim for the flavors to reach places through conversations that thrive on passion.

As the world started to look at the passion economy in a very unique way, Nishant and Asambhava have a few places in mind where they want to stay with the local communities of that particular region and capture some of their everyday living methods.

One of the epic things they hope is to do a story with M S Dhoni(one day, touchwood), as Asambhava and he went to the same school. And she quips, “I do want to tell the parts of his story unknown to the world”.

As we conclude, the couple says, “we have found a village in Karnataka where a friend of ours just launched an app to engage the farmers and the locals in e-commerce so they could sell their products without any intervention from the middlemen.”So ahead, they plan to do ground reporting/documentary with the community.

All the images are sourced with permission from Nishant andAsambhava.