Just when I think I know all of Chennai's secrets, the city springs up another one and delights me all over again. I recently learnt of the existence of Burmese street food in Chennai. Deciding that it was time to sample the same, a few friends and I ventured into Chennai's underbelly. Led by a veteran foodie, we marched into the seedy lanes behind the Madras High Court.
As you walk into 2nd Line Beach Road it is impossible to miss the numerous food carts surrounded by hordes of people standing and wolfing down noodle-based dishes. We walked to the very end, right in front of Indian Bank, to visit what our host indicated was his favourite noodle cart.
Our stomachs indicated noisily that it was time to get eating and we were more than eager to comply. To begin with, we ordered the Atho. These consist of boiled noodles cooked with spices, shredded cabbage and onions. To give the dish a crunchy feel, pejio or otta vadai - a perforated, fried pappad type condiment is added to the noodles. The noodles were soggier than what I expected and a little bland but tasted good.
However, to truly relish the noodles have it with the soup. There is a steaming vat of soup from which you can serve yourself. Submerge the noodles in this hot, plantain stem soup and enjoy, very like a Khow Suey. While the soup is traditionally flavoured with dried fish, the vendors here have modified it to account for local tastes. They also serve fried noodles, simply referred to as Fry. The boiled white noodles or Moinju are fried with egg batter and spices. Shredded cabbage and other veggies are later added. It is spicier than the Atho. Again, try this with the plantain-stem soup.
The other interesting dish to try here consists of pani-puri type eggs. Boiled eggs are topped with fried onions, a little oil, salt and pepper. The eggs are to be eaten in a single gulp, quite like golgappas. It's definitely a novel way of having an otherwise common dish. The quantities are quite generous. Thankfully, the vendors give you the option of ordering a half portion.
Having satisfied the monsters in my tummy, I turned to ask the obvious question: How did traditional Burmese noodles find their way to street carts in faraway Madras? The answer takes us to pre-independent times. Many Tamils were settled in Burma then and slowly emigrated back here after Independence and the military coup of 1962(much to my surprise I discovered that my great grandparents made this journey too).
The street cart vendors say they are descendants of these Indian-Burmese who brought with them such culinary delights. Some of the vendors have been around for nearly 30 years while others have been in business only for a couple of years.
The next time you are in Georgetown and have a craving for the singular joy that only greasy street food can provide, I suggest you head down to 2nd Line Beach Road and sample some Atho. Those who are excessively worried about hygiene should give this the miss. The area is crowded and it may be best if you go here in a group.
The vendors are extremely friendly and will do their best to modify the dish to suit your personal preference. While you are here, also take a moment to admire the gorgeous view afforded by the lit-up High Court. It is quite breathtaking.