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Where else would you expect to find a fusion of Burmese and Tamil cuisines, but Burma Bazaar in Chennai? Situated close to the Chennai Port and the erstwhile old financial district of George Town, Burma Bazaar is quite the exotica in Chennai.
The market first came up around the Second World War, when Tamilians working in Burma fled the Japanese invasion. Subsequent political turmoil in the 60s fuelled the exodus and the statement government officially set up a refugee camp opposite the Chennai Beach railway station, which came to be known as Burma Bazaar.
Pre-liberalisation, the market was best known as the ‘Palika Bazaar of Chennai’, with grey market goods being smuggled from the nearby port and sold on the streets lining the beach station. What now remains is a long, winding row of shacks peddling pirated CDs and cheap electronics. Thankfully, however, the Burmese culinary traditions that the refugees bought have remained intact.
Hop over the road and enter the 2nd Beach lane to find a throng outside these ‘Atho stalls’. What’s on offer? Quite a few things you would not expect on the streets of South India!
Atho – the piece de resistance. Perhaps derived from the Burmese noodle salad khauk swè thoke, Atho is a mix of thick hand-made Burmese noodles, garlic oil, fried onions, cabbage, tamarind water and some ‘secret’ Burma masala that every hawker is quite tight-lipped about. It is a starchy salad with loud flavours, best enjoyed with a ravenous appetite. You can also get a version called Mutta (egg) Atho, where the salad is pan-fried with beaten eggs.
Mohinga – This is my favourite dish at an Atho cart. The Atho is prepared with a different variety of hand-made noodles, thinner and more springy. A bowl of noodles and condiments is topped with a savoury brittle called thattai, which adds great textural contrast. Finally, a plantain stem soup is ladled out from a huge cauldron into a bowl. The umami-rich broth adds a whole new dimension to the dish, and is one of the most satisfying bowls of street food I have ever had.
Mutta/stuffed egg: This is a boiled egg, slit and stuffed with garlic oil and fried onions. You have to eat it whole like a gol gappa. Simple. Delicious.