MANIPUR RARELY lives up to its name, which means ‘Land of Gems’. But this Northeast Indian State is perhaps the only place on earth where you can have Hawaii with a gem of a Yen.
Militancy-mauled Manipur often makes news for the wrong reasons. Unless, of course, the gun-toting guerrillas take a break to satisfy their yen for yen. Possibly with hawaii for a dash of simplistic variety.
No, hawaii without the (capitalized) H isn’t a typo. It’s the Meitei term for dal, preferably the reddish masur that yellows after the boil. And (italicized) yen is Manipuri for chicken, perhaps a shade less popular than fish and that scorcher of a fermented fish (ngari) dish with mashed vegetables – iromba.
Unlike militants who gulp on the run, the yen-hawaii combo is best relished leisurely – with the kind of sticky chaak (rice) that Manipur grows. And if you don’t have access to a Meitei home, the next best place is an unimpressive looking eatery on Mahatma Gandhi Avenue.
MG Avenue is where most of the better hotels in State capital Imphal are sited. The road is invariably crowded during daytime, and in the middle of madness is OK Hotel. It has no place to stay, like most chaalu eateries passing off as hotels across India.
Sixty-year-old Ngangom Megha probably thought of selling passable food when he opened his eatery 30 years ago. As it turned out, his fare was more than okay. It had many in Imphal and beyond hooked.
The sexagenarian had a good reason to be the best in his class; none other in Imphal – possibly elsewhere in the Northeast – sold a monotonous meal 12-13 hours a day (his business averages 200 days a year given the frequency of shutdowns in Manipur).
For three decades, the hungry and the gluttonous have had the same chaak-hawaii-yen combo at OK Hotel. With stir-fried dried red chillies and onion served on the house. And the yen on September 25, 1980 didn’t vary in taste from the one on September 25, 2009.
Megha has a straightforward answer to why he never tried to experiment with anything beyond his standardized combo: “No time!” His dozen-odd soldiers can barely cope with a steady stream of customers, some 50 at a time, often queuing up for their turn. He did mull ‘diversification’ when avian influenza hit Manipur a couple of years ago, but it was too short-lived to really be a challenge.
The only time OK Hotel added a bit of variety was when it began offering its OK Roll a decade ago. This roll isn’t a Frankie; its – you guessed it right – yen packed into a polythene tube. A drier avatar of the yen served with chaak and hawaii, but no less hot and spicy, OK Roll is an ‘eveninger’ popular with those who swear by yu, the explosive local liquor.
If yu are not the type to chicken out, go for this tubular yen. Otherwise, there’s the syrupy hawaii to dilute the hotness of the other yen with more gravy.