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by Siddharth Kak March 10 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 20 secs

We’re thrilled to start the column ‘Zaikak’ with Siddharth Kak, author, documentary filmmaker, presenter, food critic and well-known for the unforgettable series Surabhi, the best television ever made on India’s culture and heritage.

In Kashmir, while Kak is a surname, it is also an affectionate term of respect. For instance, a person called Nanda Lal Kaul , might be respectfully referred to as Nandakak. So in my case the word is a double entendre. Not only is it a play on the word Zaika and Kak but Zaikak also denotes a Kak from Kashmir who has devoted his life to flavours. Every kind of flavour from stir fried morning glory Chinese style, to red ant chutney with garlic and onions, Bastar style.

Vinta Nanda who runs The Daily Eye suggested I do a food review on her channel and even suggested the brilliant title Zaikak!

But Zaikak is not a food review. It does explore flavours though, unfolding with its experiences and the art of living, the memories and yearnings of people and places of unexpected revelations from a cooking pot.

Zaikak offers stories of life through food. It is a smoking sigree of creativity.

Let me begin with the story of a place I first discovered 3 decades ago, when I would spend weekends at a little cottage I had acquired in Lonavala, the popular hill station less than an hour and a half from Mumbai. It was a comparatively quiet hill station in those days.

Near our cottage was the impressive Bhushi Dam, an engineering marvel from the colonial era. The lake formed by the Dam would dry up every summer, becoming a joyful playground for our dogs and playful crows (kaks in Sanskrit) as we walked across the dry lake bed. On the shore line the trees erupted with pink blossoms. Dung Cakes for village home fires hardened in the sun.

During the rainy season, the lake would swell into a shimmering expanse fed by countless streams running down from the hills. Within days the lake was teeming with minnows and tadpoles, with raucous waterbirds feeding greedily.

Twenty years ago, the drive round the lake past the Lonavala Waterfalls to INS Shivaji was an event in itself. A steep drive up to the secluded forested hills beyond was an adventure particularly after sunset. Turning a corner one night I saw a panther in the headlights, leaping across the road into the dark recesses of the jungle. With a shiver, I turned the car around, driving back as fast as I could. For years, keeping a dog in a Khandala or Lonavala bungalow was fraught with risk, attracting panthers from the forest, who would carry off the unfortunate animals in the dead of night.

The open air spaces in Lonavala and adjoining Khandala, famous for the “Atee kya Khandala“ song of Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherji in Ghulam, were ideal for outdoor barbeques.

We had created a small barbeque on our cottage lawn. It was a do it yourself affair with brick walls, two layers of wire grill; the lower to hold burning embers and the upper for barbecuing. It was a whole day ritual, or more accurately, a love affair with Lonavala each time we visited. First the early morning pilgrimage to the Lavate poultry farm near INS Shivaji for selecting the broilers, then crisscrossing back to procure coal and kerosene for the barbecue grille from the Lonavala market, finally preparing the curd and tandoori masala marinade in the afternoon and slapping it on all the ingredients for the tandoori feast and rubbing the leftover marinade on the thickly buttered bread or brun obtained fresh in the evening from Willrow, the Lonavala bakery, famous also for its macaroons with their seductive soft centre.

By 8 PM, family and friends would gather around the barbecue. A continuous flow of deliciously crisp roasted chicken pieces, potatoes, paneer, bread, and sometimes marinated fish would begin coming off the grill in a conveyor belt of flavours, punctuated by drinks for the thirsty. Everybody wanted a chance to turn the skewers and it became a gloriously enjoyable family picnic under the stars, clearly visible in the Lonavala sky unlike Mumbai. If we were lucky, it might be the Jugnu or firefly season and the valley around would be twinkling with millions of little glow worms. Sometimes entire trees populated with jugnus, would switch on and off in synchrony, like Diwali lights.

What does all of this have to do with Sunny da Dhaba?

The wilderness around Lonavala was both an attraction and a handicap. There was no nightlife or exciting place to eat, unless one drove all the way to Pune to sample Dhansak and Chicken Farcha at Dorabjees, or Sharks Fin Soup, now extinct, at the Chinese Room, or to buy Shrewsbury Biscuits wholesale from the Parsi bakery in the Camp area. This we often did, braving the speeding traffic on the single lane highway of the Old Bombay Pune road. It was a dangerous drive particularly at night.

This was twenty five years ago: I found Sharad Wadhwani’s Sunny da Dhaba precisely 11 kms away from Lonavala while featuring a story on paragliding in Kamshet nearby. Housed in a spacious shed by the roadside, with ample parking and hearty tandoori cuisine, I fell in love with the place there and then. So much so, we even celebrated our New Year’s Eve at Sunny da Dhaba on a few occasions. The tandoori food was excellent.

Sharad, because of his Chef‘s experience, imagined a more sophisticated menu. The Kebab Festivals that he advertised attracted new chefs. The Dhaba became famous. People drove up from Mumbai to experience the Festivals. “From then on there was no looking back” says Sharad.

This then is the secret of Sunny da Dhaba’s popularity. But straight out, I must assert that I am now commenting on the food I sampled there only recently, twenty years later. Good vegetarian food is available here as in any decent dhaba I’m told by Amit, Sharad’s gregarious son who actively looks after the dhaba he has inherited from his father. Sharad meanwhile sits quietly at a corner table networking and keeping an eye on the accounts. Lasooni Palak is apparently a vegetarian favourite Amit assures me. But I am not holding a brief for it. I haven’t tasted it. Yes I was a professional food critic before. But now I am more interested in the context and experience of food. To my mind, it is the difference between a gourmand and a glutton. Between flavours and fast food.

So how come I returned to Sunny da Dhaba twenty years later…bees saal baad??!

Recently the late actor Om Puri’s wife, author Nandita Puri, generously offered me their home in Khandala to celebrate my daughter Antara‘s birthday, and give her three doggy daughters, Ms Miggy, Ms Woofie and Ms Masti, an opportunity to gambol on their terraced lawns. Two days later, Nandita and Vinta Nanda of The Daily Eye, surprised us all with a visit to Khandala to celebrate together. We decided to drive out to Sunny da Dhaba 11 km away. I was initially sceptical but Nandita confidently assured me that she frequented it each time and the food was still excellent. And so it was.

As we drove out to the Dhaba, I found that now a two lane highway existed between it and Lonavala. It was much, much safer than in my time, when trucks and buses thundered past on a narrow single lane. It was even more dangerous as I said, after a few drinks at night. But there was now a strategic U-turn, which made the cross over to the other side easier. Twenty years earlier one risked being bashed in from behind or crashed head-on as one negotiated a momentary pause in the traffic to turn into the dhaba.

Nandita is the high priestess of Feasts. She was busy on the phone booking the Brain Masala that we both love, as we drove. I had no idea of its popularity. Apparently if you don’t book it, you don’t get it, because mostly brains are in short supply! Not Nandita’s though. Surprisingly, it is the number one speciality of Sunny da Dhaba, and I soon found out why. It is simply spiced, just lots of black pepper and salt. Served dry it tastes different from any over spiced restaurant version I have tasted. It is not very aesthetically presented I will admit, but the taste is piquant for brainy lovers. Its perfection is in its simplicity.

It was a weekday so the restaurant was not crowded. The dhaba offers fancy charpoys but I prefer a comfortable back rest. A delightful cool breeze blew across the open dhaba. The service was brisk, beginning with their in-house speciality called Roomali Papad. I may be thought of as an ageing dinosaur, because I don’t recall having had this kind of a papad before, which only reflects my conservative travel tastes today. It is an impressively large baked Roomali roti, dressed with onions, tomatoes and chillies, overflowing its small basket container. The trick is to break it from the centre so that it all falls inside the wicker basket, not onto the table.

The absolute number one popular nonvegetarian dish, Sharad’s son Amit assures me, is their butter chicken. This butter is better, but it is far from utterly butterly. Antara and Pujita loved it though. Vinta, who is a butter chicken junkie, swears by it. I may be unpopular for my opinion, but I hazard to suggest that the butter chicken is not all it is buttered up to be. Yes it wasn’t oppressively sweet as most butter chicken drowned in tomato puree is, but I felt the marinade had not fully penetrated the slices of probably boiled chicken. Unlike the famous original butter chicken of the Moti Mahal of yore in Daryaganj Delhi, which featured tandoori chicken pieces cooked painstakingly for hours with fresh tomatoes and cream, this appears a victim of the fast food syndrome. Perhaps it is too perfect an ideal to emulate today. I felt the prawn kebabs too were middling in their marination. They may be popular at Sunny da Dhaba but you have been warned.
What to me, was magical, was the tender, full of flavours, mutton chaamp, just melting off the bone. Add to that hot naans fresh from the griddle and you have the recipe for a perfect Sunday afternoon drive with a happy ending.

Perhaps this review, if you read it, may encourage you to go beyond Sunny da Dhaba and explore the contemporary attractions of the Old Bombay Road. New eating places and garden resorts, coffee shops and pizza stations have sprung up in bewildering profusion.

Far from closing down as I had feared, after the Expressway bypassed the hill stations, Lonavala and Khandala have blossomed into popular getaways for the young and old alike. Wax museums, water parks and iconic coffee shops like Starbucks, jostle with temples and chikki outlets. The exclusive Hilton Spa and the exquisite Machan Tree house resort nestle in the forests above INS Shivaji, or at any rate what’s left of them.

This is the season for pink guavas in the traditional Lonavala market. After a visit to the famous halwai in the Lonavala market centre, to pick up moong dal wadas, you may innovate as Nandita did, to make a delicious kadhi pakori at home. She tells me it was Om Puri’s brainwave. Soak the mung magoris or wadas in hot water to make them tender. Give them a gentle squeeze and place them in piping hot Punjabi kadhi. In 15 minutes you have a hearty kadhi pakodi to serve hungry guests with minimum effort. That is the mark of a true food adventurer. Antara also took a chance, combining leftover besan flour marinade with creamy dahi from Chitales full fat milk freely available in Lonavala, to make a delicious version of Dahi kadhi.

Our help, Sunita, to our surprise, summoned memories from the interior of her hometown in Jharkhand, to add the spices and soft pakodis to the kadhi, which when poured onto soft rice, became a feast unto themselves. Chitale Bandhus milk and bakarwadis (crisp deep fried sweet and spicy snacks) are popular in Pune too, but surprisingly not available in Mumbai. Certainly the milk is not.

Khandala and Lonavala are exciting places to visit. Even today you can experience a paragliding adventure at a nearby Kamshet plateau. On the other hand this is where the old Muslim bhatiyaras with their gigantic biryani utensils, still serve traditional biryani on order, in the back-lanes of Lonavala.

But in the meantime while an Espresso bar has appeared, the panthers have disappeared. The dogs of Lonavala and Khandala are finally safe but the secluded forests have thinned. People gather fearlessly now at Sunset Point in the hills above INS Shivaji every evening where a fast food paradise has erupted with momos and misal pav, batata vada and burgers, with attendant overflowing trash bins. Travel to the hill station yourself. Any hill station. Share your opinions, flavours and discoveries with other ‘The Daily Eye’ readers, good or bad. Awareness has a piquant flavour.
Zaikak says, “You may gain some. You may lose some. Even to lose some is to gain some.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.