When you hear ‘street food’, you probably are drooling over Pani Puris or Bondas from hole-in-the-wall shops in your mind. But here’s an infamous street food, widely known in North Chennai and to a selected few souls in South Chennai. It’s a food that reflects the history of the Tamil people and one that has developed a cult following of its own.
Not everybody likes Atho the first time they try it, like a new A.R. Rahman song.
The first time you listen to the song, it sounds like complete chaos. But you take another chance and eventually find yourself coming back for more. You can’t stop yourself and before you know it, you are already addicted. So, don’t be disappointed if the Burmese cuisine doesn’t please you. You need to experience it twice to confirm and find yourself coming to the Atho shop every other day.
The savoury dish called Atho is authentic to the streets of Chennai and can be found nowhere else. Still, the people in Chennai aren’t acquainted with Atho well enough to guide you to the nearest Atho shop. But you know an Atho shop when you see it:
Look for the large round pan filled with the thick, yellow or orange-coloured noodles with the vendor scrambling the eggs right in the middle of the same pan, either in a pushcart or a hole-in-the-wall shop. The guy, tanned from the high-flaming stove, is seen serving the egg noodles in bowls while pouring the soup from a huge vessel unto the half-eaten bowls of noodles at the same time. This tiny stall is surrounded by a bunch of customers who don’t seem to mind the heat or the limited space despite having had a tired day at work, most of whom are vegans.
At Parry’s corner, you will find these Atho shops crowded with lawyers still wearing their coats gulping down what looks like stuffed boiled eggs. Voila, you are here!
Welcome to the infamous Atho shop! You are welcome, Google Maps.
Now, let’s dissect the food in the shop.
The thick noodles cooked just right is tossed with shredded cabbage, onions, tamarind water, chilli flakes, chickpea flour for the thickness and a generous amount of garlic oil in a large bowl. This hand-mixed goodness is topped with crumbled Bejo or rice fritters to add crunchiness to the soft noodles.
Take a spoonful of the scrumptious Atho and the diversity of the ingredients are sure going to stimulate your senses making you deeply bewildered. You can’t wrap your head around it to decide if it’s the tanginess of the tamarind water or the crunchiness of the Bejo that compliments the soft noodles.
You find yourself eating the Atho from a bowl. Which the Burmese and the Chennaites consider a perfectly reasonable thing to do at 7 pm on a weekday and frankly you cannot agree with them more. But remember to eat it with your heart and mouth, not your head.
In a world where the banana stem is slowly disappearing with its health benefits, the banana stem soup is mandatory in every Atho shop. The soup is served in the end unlike conventional practise and is a major part of the meal. It complements the Atho and gives you a whole new gastronomical experience.
Ask for the soup only after you have tasted a spoonful of Atho in its purest form. Atho with the soup brings about a whole different taste. Don’t shy away if you run out of it in the bowl ‘cause the soup is unlimited! Normally, the plantain soup is had in a large quantity towards the end and can also be consumed separately.
Its nothing but boiled egg slit in the middle and stuffed with fried onions, chilli flakes, a tiny amount of the sweet and sour tamarind water and garlic oil poured on top for the final touch just before it is served. The vendor pours the garlic oil enough to get your hands oily and slightly dripping from your lips as you gulp it down. Just like how you gulp down a Pani-Puri but tastes nothing like it.
This is definitely not a dish for the faint-hearted as it demands the complete dexterity of your hands and working of your jaw muscles to truly enjoy it in one gulp.
Don’t wait for another second. Hold it a little longer and watch your Mutta masala crumble and fall from your hands and die a slow death on the floor. You really don’t want to offend the true Atho connoisseur eating somewhere in the corner. There’s at least one of them in every shop who spent all his day dreaming about Atho at work or during the boring lecture. Straight from hand to mouth after the vendor hands it down to you as if it were some precious property.
As your mouth takes the shape of the egg trying to accommodate it and consume at the same time, all your taste buds are awakened. Each taste is defined making all your taste buds busy in one go. It’s not just a mind but a mouth-blowing food, quite literally.
The Not-So-Boring-but-Inspiring History
Unlike other street foods, Atho represents the Indo-Burma relations, the war and the survival of the Burmese refugees. This is a food that reminds you of the freedom struggle of the people who travelled all the way from Burma to Chennai on their foot. These immigrants settled in places the government allocated for them in Chennai after which they started working to support themselves.
A typical day in the lives of these daily-wage earners begins with a simple breakfast. Lunch is skipped and instead, Atho is the early dinner to their tired and hungry minds. It might be your budget bite but for them, it is an economical second meal for their tired bodies.
The idea was simple. When the Burmese Tamil refugees settled down in the parts of Chennai, they opened these Atho shops to feed their community; especially the daily-wage earners who were too tired to cook on their own.
Now their own descendants are catering to hundreds of customers each day in every corner of North Chennai and selective parts of South Chennai. As time passed, the city-dwellers tasted this everyday dish of theirs and today, Atho is a food that brings these people together uniting everybody.
Just like how Burma rebranded its name to Myanmar, the Atho also has rebranded it’s recipe across generations to accustom to the needs of the people. The Atho you taste today is the recipe passed down across generations tailored to the taste of the growing populace.
It’s not just a mere street food but a food that stayed despite the course of time.
This soulful food is found in every corner of North Chennai, especially in the famous Burma Bazaar. It’s found in selective places of South Chennai like Choolaimedu where the vendor, a Burmese descendant, comes all the way from Ennore to serve the young crowd.
As you eat this Burmese street food as a traveller in Chennai, remind yourself that this food is a tribute to the history of Chennai welcoming the refugees with open arms, the same way it welcomed you.
It is a food that fills your stomach and heart at the same time reflecting the hardships of the survivors who brought the food all the way from Burma. Atho is not your average crowd-favourite or people-pleaser dish! It’s food for the soul.