By Nishiraj A. Baruah
This sweltering summer eating out in Dilli Haat, the ethnic craft, culture, clothes and culinary melting pot in south side of Delhi, will no longer be a sweaty, sizzling affair. With the launch of the first AC restaurant/eatery/outlet (whatever you call it), it is going to be one chilled-out experience literally. Not just that, even the cuisine served there is refreshingly different.
Just walk across the brick broad-ways right up to the end of Dilli Haat where the Amphitheatre/stage is and there it is, to your left, shining bright the signage that announces the presence of LookActEast in full fluorescent glory. Yes, that is the tongue-twister of a name of this new eatery, launched just about three months ago.
I would not have known about the place if there wasn’t a happy co-incidence. Two months ago, while in Dibrugarh (Assam), I got a call from a foodie friend. It was Chanakya on the line. “You know what, I am calling you from Dilli Haat and guess who am I with?” he quizzed. “Here, talk to him,” he said, passing the phone to someone.
It was my long lost batch mate/hostel mate from Cotton college, Guwahati, Dinesh Singh. Oh my god! Chanakya was at this new restaurant for dinner where he met its owner Dinesh. Two of them got talking and that’s how my name cropped up and Chanakya dialled my number to connect me with him.
It was an exciting phonecon – you know how it is when long lost friends reconnect – as I heard him give me a lowdown on his life. After twenty one years in the army – he was a part of the mechanized infantry – Dinesh, originally from Imphal, has just given up his post of Joint Director in the Ministry of Defence to launch a Manipuri restaurant in Dilli Haat.
“Look at east, is it?” I asked.
“No, LookAct East!” he corrected.
“Oh, got it, Look that east?” I said wondering what kind of a name is that, still unable to figure the name out correctly.
“So when are you coming, buddy?” he asked.
“Soon, soon,” I said, “Looking forward!”
Back in Delhi, I landed there one evening to meet and eat, the mandatory tight hugs followed, and was delighted to see his happy little bright place with both indoor and outdoor seating.
From military man to being a man-about-meals, how did that transformation happen? Enter Jeena Sorokhaibam, his wife. A post-graduate in Bio-Sciences, she, as an army wife, travelled across the length and breath of the country. Along the way, she had managed the Army Officers’ Mess with her culinary expertise and was also instrumental in organising parties/events at various forums. The passion for cooking led her to open up a small outlet serving ethnic cuisines in Dwarka. After about three years of R&D and fine-tuning the menu and loads of entrepreneurial challenges, LookActEast took shape, the ribbon-cutting done by none other than Mary Kom, the boxing legend from his home state Manipur. But why such a complicated name? “Complicated names are good for brand recall,” he says. Which may be true, for once you are able to get the name right, you are unlikely to forget. After all you put in a bit of effort to remember it correctly.
Of course, it wasn’t easy setting up a place in Dilli Hatt, a government initiative mired in bureaucratic red tape. On top of it, Dinesh wanted his eatery to be air-conditioned – something never done in Dilli Haat built on the concept of eco-friendly, natural, and open environment. Finally, the powers that be gave in to his logic: Dilli Haat will never attract enough people in the scorching summer if you don’t make them comfortable. Why would anyone come to have a meal, especially during the day, only to be roasted alive?
Dinesh, on his part, never intended to break the basic principle on which Dilli Haat was founded. Which is why, his eatery has an ambience that’s a beautiful blend of ethnic and the contemporary. If there are glass enclosures, there are also hay, jute ropes, bamboo and cane furniture that reinforce the ethnic ethos of Dilli Haat.
Right next to the outlet, you have a hay and bamboo gazebo on an elevated platform with table settings for two families. That looked very inviting as we shifted there for our meal, enjoying a side view of a dance programme on the stage nearby.
And then there is the food, which is as ethnic as it can get. If Dilli Haat showcases regional cuisine, LookActEast sure scores. It is about Manipuri cuisine in all its authenticity. Really, have you ever heard of any Manipuri restaurant in Delhi? No, not me.
And that itself is a tempting proposition. With foodies all for experimentation these days, this exotic cuisine, yet to be explored by mainstream India, is a surefire attraction.
Yes, Manipuri food is a lot about pork and fermented dry fish, but it is also about Keli Chana, a stir-fried starter with dried yellow chick-peas; about Nga Ataoba which is deep-fried fresh water rohu; about Angouba, deep fried chicken liver with chilly-onion; and about Singju, a spicy Manipuri salad made from indigenous herbs flown in all the way from Manipur.
There are Bose speaker systems to play you electronic lounge in air conditioned indoors. But with a live pre-holi programme on stage, the gazebo was the right place to be, even as we dug into Paknam, a pan-cake wrapped in turmeric leaves!
As for pork (it’s natural to expect pork from a north-eastern outlet), there is no dearth of it. There is air-fried pork with special condiments, pork-ribs stir fried with traditional herbs, pork curry cooked with traditional organic herbs, and so on.
And oh, how can you forget bamboo shoot, so essential for Manipuri food! Try bamboo-shoot iromba (Rs 160) which is about boiled/steamed mashed vegetables with lot of fresh chillies and fish, flavoured up with steamed tender bamboo-shoots. You may also have fish, chicken and pork curry with generous amount of bamboo shoot (Rs 350); and if you like it, you may pick a bottle of bamboo shoot pickle for Rs 150.
The names of the dishes themselves are exotic: Hawai Thongba (Manipuri style dal curry); Yen Thongba (Manipuri style chicken curry); Sagol Hawai Thongba (urad-dal with fermented fish); Kaangsoi Thongba (stew of seasonal vegetables with onions and fish); and Mangan Ooty (typical Manipuri dish made from peas).
“Manipuri food is gingerly spicy and strongly aromatic with tingly taste,” says Dinesh. However, I agree when Dinesh says north Indians may not like the strong flavours and aroma of fermented fish, bamboo shoot and bhoot jolokia (ghost pepper). So best is to play safe – just order a thali – pork, chicken, vegetarian or fish – that comes with as many as 10 items, enough to give you a good idea about the cuisine. At Rs 390, the thali is a total value for money.
At the end you want your desserts and that’s when you would like to try kheer made with black rice. Called Chakhao Kheer (Rs 170), this was as yummy as Madhurjan Thongba – basically sweet dumplings in milk. Oh, you may also try Khamen-Ashinba-Athumba-Thongba. Now what the hell is that? The menu offers no explanation. “Guess this one and get a prize!” that’s what the menu suggests.
There are discounts too. For army personal and for those from FMS and IIM, there is a 10 per cent discount. Why? Well, “that’s my way of paying back for what I had learnt there,” Dinesh says.
Eating done? Great. Now why not pick up some bottled stuff that will keep the Manipuri flavours linger on your tongue? How about mushroom pickle (Rs 150); Tamarand candy (Rs 60); fish pickle (Rs 250) and King chilli pickle (Rs 150)?
Don’t like Manipuri? You can still come here to eat your usual Chinese – and that includes paneer and pork momos. Mocktails include Virgin Mary; and hot beverages include Darjeeling tea and Cappucino.
So what next? “I am fighting for a license to serve alcohol, particularly local wines from Manipur. How can you run a place without drinks?” he wonders aloud.
If that happens – and in all likelihood that would given his dogged persuasion, Dilli Hatt would be one hell of a place to eat and entertain.
Meanwhile, enjoy your Manipuri dishes and if coming all the way to Dill Haat looks like work, why not order online trough platforms like Swiggy! You may also check out their site LookActEast.com.