What is the one thing that is constant in the streets of Chennai? Well, food. Akila Kannadasan probes a little and finds that many of our street-food options come with interesting stories. Here are some…

Atho

Mohammed Ibrahim’s customers do not like to talk. Not when they are eating off ceramic plates piled high with an orange mass — the famous Burmese atho of Second Line Beach Road, George Town. This concoction of cabbage, noodles, and onions, has been attracting people from the city for over three decades.

We watch as Ibrahim’s son Noor mixes the ingredients in a huge silver basin. As he stands on a raised wooden platform surrounded by masalas and vegetables, he looks like a magician performing a trick. Noor sprinkles a little bit of this and a little bit of that, mixes the mass, scoops it on to a plate, and hands it over to the hungry customer.

“I was born in 1962 at the gymkhana hospital in Burma. My father drove boats for a living,” recalls Mohammed. After he came to India in 1969, Mohammed’s mother taught him to make the Burmese delicacy. It has been 32 years since he set up shop.

So, what’s in the atho? The dish consists of noodles, shredded cabbage, onions, coriander leaves, split channa flour, chilli powder, oil, tamarind and lime juice, which are mixed by hand and served with a sprinkling of fried onions and garlic. There are around seven atho shops in the area. These also serve masala eggs (slit boiled eggs stuffed with a chilli-based masala) and atho fry (atho simmered on a tawa with scrambled eggs). Though Mohammed’s customers are predominantly men, he also gets families who stop by for take-away. But the best way to enjoy atho is to eat it on the street, taking in the flavours as vehicles trundle past.

Sweet bondas

Tea kadais are little wonders that serve the best quick snacks. These shops have character — the streets of Chennai are full of them. The piping hot tea, served in thick glass tumblers, is sweet and thick. Every tea shop serves samosas and masala vadais, but it’s the sweet bonda that won my heart. Golden brown with a smooth exterior, it is round and a little bigger than an egg. One bonda costs Rs. 5.

It’s soft, with a tinge of sugar, and does not drip oil, despite being deep-fried. Wash it down with tea and you are pepped enough to fly. The bondas are cooked in masses, alongside other tea shop snacks in units in Vannarapettai. Salesmen pick them up much before dawn and deliver them at tea shops in the city.

Vettri is among them. A native of Tiruvenveli, his day begins at 4 a.m. He cycles to Vannarapettai from Adyar and delivers samosas and bondas to the tea kadais in T. Nagar and Pondy Bazaar — his day ends at 3 p.m. “The bonda is made of maida and sugar. Yeast is added and the mix is set aside for five hours and is then deep fried,” he informs. Vetri is always racing against time when on duty. He flatly refuses to be photographed. “I can’t slow down. I have to keep moving…” he says as he pedals away.

Keerai vadai

Its 3 p.m. and the residents of Peialwar Veedhi, a narrow street abutting the Triplicane Parthasarathy temple, are having their afternoon snooze. But work has just begun at the bommai chathiram. Amulu stands alone in the chathiram’s dining hall, making keerai vadais. Kolu dolls peep out from the loft as she mixes the urad batter, greens, and coconut slices. “This place belonged to my grandmother Navaneethammal. It was built in 1960 — there was a time when it was a famous wedding hall. During the Navaratri season, we sell dolls here; this is how the place came to be known as bommai chathiram.”

Amulu’s keerai vadais are well-known in the area. She serves it with a generous helping of sambar and chutney. She makes around 30 every evening, which get sold off as soon as she opens her hotel on the ground floor. Amulu also makes bondas and puris for dinner — but it’s the vadais that are sought-after. The best thing about the keerai vadai experience is the feeling that you are eating at a place where hundreds of weddings took place once upon a time.

Seempal

It looks like a piece of the moon. Zahir Hussain slices a bit of it and hands it over, egging me to try it. It’s soft, moist, and mildly sweet — for a moment, I forget that I am on the bustling Usman Road. It’s a taste that brings to the mind green fields and grandmother’s food. Who would’ve thought that steamed seempal (cow’s first milk) was sold in T. Nagar? Zahir sells a slice for Rs.10.

A family in Minjur which has connections with farms at Madhavaram and Gummudipoondi, has been making the delicacy for several years. Salesmen such as Zahir pay around Rs.1, 500 for a five kg cake of steamed seempal and sell it at crowded locations in the city and during temple festivals. “Elaichi, white sugar, or palm sugar is added to the milk which is steamed similar to idli,” explains Zahir. He adds that the exact method of preparation, however, is a closely-guarded secret.

Kavuni arisi puttu

Traditionally, kavuni arisi or black rice is served for a girl as soon as she attains puberty. Known to be extremely nutritious, a puttu made with the rice is available for just Rs. 10 in the city. Ibrahim makes it at home every morning and sells it at market places with a sprinkling of grated coconut and sugar. The deep red puttu with a dash of white is absolutely delicious. You can find Ibrahim on Usman Road and Ranganathan Street from 1.30 p.m. to 10 p.m.