Everyone in Chennai knows about Burma Bazaar. It's a long row of road-facing stalls either side of Chennai Beach station. The market was set up in the late 1960s for Tamils who had been forced out of Burma and made the journey back across the Bay of Bengal.
These days the market has a reputation - whether deserved or not, I cannot say - for dodgy phones and electrical items, There's very little apart from the name to link the place to Burma (now Myanmar of course) or the Tamil refugees who set up the bazaar.
But just across the road - and rather less well-known - there's an enduring aspect of the links between Madras and Rangoon (both cities have changed their names - they are now Chennai and Yangon) - two fast food stalls selling Burmese-style noodles and run by families which were part of the exodus from Burma more than fifty years ago.
The stalls are fairly anonymous - there's nothing to tell the passer-by that these are part of the once vibrant trading and cultural links between South India and Burma. The food is certainly popular and some come from quite a distance for the freshly cooked noodles and salad, the mild curry sauce, the stuffed eggs and other choice items on sale..
The stall worker you see here, Khwaja Mohammad, told me (he was speaking in Tamil and one of his customers kindly translated) that he moved from Burma in 1964. He was then five years old. I was told that the older men on this stall still speak Burmese - but I can't vouch for that.
Between the wars, Indians ran much of Burma's economy. In 1931, people of Indian origin made up more than half of Rangoon's population. The historian Sunil Amrith in his excellent book Crossing the Bay of Bengal has explained how the migration routes to-and-fro between South India on the one hand and Burma and Malaya on the other were among the busiest in the world at that time.
The Second World War and its aftermath changed all that. When the Japanese invaded Burma, many Indians in Rangoon fled. The rich could afford to pay for passage on a steamer back to Madras or other ports on the Indian coast.. Many others faced the arduous and perilous land journey up through the hill of northern Burma and into Assam.
Among those who made the trek was a four-year-old Burma-born girl who came to be a big Bollywood film star, known on screen simply as Helen. She has recounted how her mother miscarried on the journey, and her brother died of smallpox shortly after reaching Calcutta.
Those Indians who remained in Burma faced further upheaval when, after a military government came to power in 1962, many were forced out in what was clearly akin to ethnic cleansing. This is the migration from which Burma Bazaar - and the food stalls - were born.
There remain about a million people of Indian descent in Burma - approaching 2% of the population - but the community (Hindu, Muslim - Tamil, Telugu, Bengali) is no longer as powerful as it once was.
And the food that's served in the stalls? The most popular dish is atho, a noodle salad - that's what I'm eating in the selfie. This foodie website describes atho as: 'made with grated carrots, cabbage, fried onions combined with garlic oil, chilli powder and lime juice. The orange noodles are mixed with these vegetables (almost always by hand) and the Atho gets its crunch from the addition of bejo, a crispy deep-fried snack crafted with rice flour and a sprinkling of peanuts'.
And you can help yourself to a ladle full of sauce - a soup made with banana stem. It's good!
You can accompany that with masala eggs, you can see them in the next photo. These are boiled eggs with the yolk removed and replaced with spicy fried onions.
I'm leaving that until next time ...
There are quite a few Burmese restaurants and atho joints in Chennai - but these food stalls have the mark of authenticity. And they are also a vibrant remnant of the Burma-returned refugees who made their homes in this part of the inner city, close to Parry's Corner, in the 1960s.
If you are trying to find the stalls, this map may help. They are on Errabalu Street and at its junction with Jahangir Street aka Beach Road. That's not quite where the red marker is shown - it's closer to the bus stop just south of Chennai Beach station. Good luck!
LATER: I went back to the Burmese food stalls a couple of weeks later, had another bowl of atho and met up again with Khwaja Mohammed. We spoke briefly - in Hindi. He said all those who worked on the same food stall as him were from families that were forced out of Burma in 1964 (he was very definite about the date) - but they weren't from the same family. He was a Muslim but others on the stall were Hindus and Christians. At home, he said, Tamil, Hindi and Burmese are all spoken.
In total, he said, there were seven Burmese atho stalls in the area. The others are a littlle further north along Jehangir Street/Second Line Beach Road. I found them, also doing good business. At a couple I found young guys working on the stalls with some English - they both explained that their grandfathers were from Burma. Neither spoke any Burmese.
Here are a few pictures of these other stalls.
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