Atho – The Burma Connection in Chennai

Atho in Chennai

During the rule of the British in the 19th century. Indians especially Tamilians, were quite the backbone of the civil administration in Burma and were quite influential in Burmese society. The Chettiar community from Tamil Nadu had established themselves as prominent businessmen and civil servants in Burma during the earlier days of the British raj. It was during the civil unrest of the 60′s in Burma that many Indians were forced to leave the country. Many of the Tamil populace came back to Chennai and settled in and around the north of Chennai. Burma Bazaar consisted of traders who’d come from Burma. And in the old days was known as a grey market for electronics. Not everyone was a trader and some of the Tamilians brought back atho and other interesting Burmese street food and setup stalls

Atho – An interesting street food story 

Kauk Swe Thoke’s a popular street food dish in Burma. Roundish-thick noodles tossed with cabbage, gravy, fried onion and an assortment of condiments. Atho is possibly a corrupted short form of this dish. A few years ago, I was directed to Broadway by my friend Thiagarajan Kumararaja. He told me about this street there where one can find Burmese street style noodles.

I’d never gone to North Chennai before. And it took me a good hour and a half before I figured that the Burmese style noodles called ‘Atho’ is available on a street called 2nd Line Beach road, parallel to Rajaji Salai. The first couple of Atho I had from different street vendors were disappointing. But each of these stalls had a crowd in front of them. So I asked a neighbouring shopkeeper on where to find the best Atho and he pointed me to a noodle stall that wasn’t in this lane. But just off the parallel Rajaji Salai. ‘Avalada best taste’ (there’s the best tasting noodles) is what he told me.

Origin of Atho noodles in Chennai

Abdul Aziz’s Noodle and Egg Bejo Stall

So the guy’s name’s Abdul Aziz. His noodles were decent and better than the others. I thought to myself that a little bit of shrimp paste would do wonders to dish. But the dynamics of Indian street food work differently. So I decided to also try the eggs that he was offering. The way the boiled eggs were stacked on top on another. And fried onion stuffed in from the top. It looked interesting. Aziz bhai put an egg into a soup bowl. Cut it up. Added some flavoured oil. Salt water. Tamarind extract. And a bit of pounded red chilly. He then filled the bowl with a soup, which tasted some what like chicken but didn’t have the same richness. Abdul Aziz then told me that this was completely vegetarian. Made from banana stem. I was taken completely by surprise. Wasn’t expecting a vegetarian soup to taste so rich.

Egg Bejo in Chennai

The soup which I later got to know is called Egg Bejo soup, had ginger, pepper, coconut ‘n flavoured with banana stem. The result was quite outstanding. I’ve never had anything like this on the street. The noodles very decent. But the Egg Bejo soup was exceptional. Atho, I guess grows on you or possibly I didn’t go to the right places. It’s been around for many years and fairly popular with the locals.

Happy hunting and chowder-on!