Burma Bazaar is the place for Burmese food. After all, it is where many Tamil refugees returned, and set up homes and businesses, after their deportation to India.
While on my way there, the man who rode the share auto with me briefed me about the history of the place. In 1964, large-scale expulsion of Indians in Burma under the order of General Ne Win saw the return of many of the Tamil populace to Chennai. The Government of Tamil Nadu set aside land for these refugees and Burma Bazaar was set up in 1969 to improve their condition.
Armed with this information, I tried to sniff out the traditional fare of the region once I got down from the share auto. After a lot of walking around, I knew I’d found the right place when I heard a man yell, “One plate Atho, parcel.”
Two roadside stalls stood close to each other, with customers crowding around and digging into plates of noodles. I stood there for a while observing the place, when the friendly owner of one of the stalls engaged me in conversation. He introduced himself as A. Shahul Hameed, the son of a refugee from Burma. He sells the popular dishes available in all the other stalls in the area— Atho, Bejo, Mohinga, egg noodles and masala egg, which is partly cut open and stuffed with fried onion and garlic oil. Shahul proudly claimed that he catered for a particular scene in the Tamil movie Nanban , spending three days with the crew of the movie that included actor Vijay, Srikanth, Jiiva, Ileana D’Cruz and director S. Shankar.
Atho, which is noodles tossed in garlic oil with cabbage, fried onion, tamarind juice, chilli powder and flavour-enhancing MSG (used if the customer wants it), and a dash of lime to balance the flavour, is popular street food in Burma. The plate he made me, however, didn’t meet expectations. The ingredients didn’t go well together and the dish was dry.
Before I could sample another dish, the heavens opened up with a heavy downpour, forcing me to hit pause on my food-tasting expedition and take shelter under the awning of an ATM. I assumed the stall owners would shut shop for the day, but to my surprise, and delight, they were equipped with make-shift tents to handle the situation. Even their business didn’t seem affected by the unexpected shower — customers kept pouring in to the stalls, even as the rain poured down on them.
With renewed vigour, I went to the next stall to sample another dish.
Mohinga is noodle soup generally eaten with chopsticks in Burma. But of course, nobody here even attempts to do so. “It is quite similar to the soup noodle that has been recently launched by many brands. It has been a Burmese dish for many centuries,” explained one of the regular customers at these stalls, revealing that he was a refugee from Burma who came to India years ago.
Bejo is a deep-fried Burmese preparation made with rice powder and Bengal gram, which is added to the Mohinga. The base mixture, made of noodles, vegetables, sauces and crumbled bejo, is given to customers, who can then add as much of the hot plantain-stem soup as they’d like from a huge earthen clay pot. The soup made for a soothing dish on a rainy evening, with the fried onions pairing particularly well with the broth.
As I walked to different stalls, sampling the dishes, I disappointedly realised that they all offer similar flavours. None of the dishes stood out; they were neither good nor bad.
There are at least a dozen such Burmese food stalls set up by immigrant Myanmarese during early 1970s but their business is still flourishing.
The stall keepers also shared stories about the struggles their parents faced during the immigration from Burma to Chennai; about how losing their hereditary business in Burma was painful.
My evening at Burma Bazaar proved to be an insightful experience. As I made my way out, though my stomach wasn’t content, my heart definitely was.
These stalls are located on 2nd Line Beach Road, and most of them are open from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. All items on the menu are priced below Rs. 50.