The sound of Beethoven’s Für Elise means one thing in Sri Lanka: bread.
Several times a day, a shrill, electronic version of this classic is broadcast loudly from the small trucks and tuk tuks (also known in Sri Lanka as three-wheelers) that circle the streets selling bread and other baked goods.
The sound is so central to their business, the vendors are referred to as choon paan – or tune bread – sellers.
From small villages to the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s bustling capital, choon paan vendors are a fixture of daily life.
The vendors set off from bakeries to begin their rounds before the sun, circling from as early as 5.30 in the morning. The back of the vehicles are converted into glass display cabinets, and lined with baked goods and snacks.
Households wait for thick slabs of roast paan, a village-style white bread used to mop up dhal or curries, eaten with a spicy coconut sambol or spread with sweet jams.
Along with high-top loaves, the shelves hold savoury ‘short eats’, or snacks, many of them egg-washed, yeasty white rolls that look innocent enough to the uninitiated, but are stuffed full of fiery fillings. Breakfast on the go might be a seeni sambol bun, filled with a spicy caramelised onion sambol, or malu paan, bread with a dry fish curry inside. There’s often stuffed godamba roti, encasing a curried filling, deep-fried options such as vadai (savoury doughnuts) or pan rolls (often a spicy mutton or chicken filling rolled up in a pancake, battered and fried), and more still.
In the afternoon, the vendors do a second round, this time doing a roaring trade in sweet afternoon treats, such as sticky jam buns, doughnuts and kimbula bunnis, a croissant-shaped bread covered in sugar and best eaten with tea.
Tourists on Sri Lanka’s south coast usually anticipate an ice-cream van to come around the corner instead, the sound much like an approaching Mr Whippy truck, but locals know that the ice-cream man comes with a different tune again (the Wall’s Ice-cream theme song).
While Für Elise is the song of choice for choon paan sellers, it’s not used exclusively, and some opt for Christmas carols, It’s a Small World, or other equally ubiquitous tunes.
For many Sri Lankans, the convenience of buying bread in their nightwear doesn’t outweigh this racket. Complaining about the noise made by choon paan men is a unifying pastime – and in areas were multiple vendors compete in the pre-dawn hours, some see them as a menace.
It hasn’t always been the case – three-wheelers only began to appear in Sri Lanka in the early 1990s, and the widespread use of them to sell bread, with music, is even more recent. As their numbers grow, noise complaints have filled newspaper columns, and there have been calls to better police existing noise pollution laws, which require the music to be kept below a certain decibel.
But the familiar strains are unlikely to disappear entirely any time soon. Along with the crying of crows, the barking of dogs and the tooting of horns, the music is now part of the soundscape of modern Sri Lanka.
If only Beethoven knew that his 1810 masterpiece, written for Elise, would one day be for the choon paan men.
Similar to Indian Naan, just lighter and flakier (and in my opinion yummier), taftan is a hearth-baked flatbread from Persia and Pakistan. It is often flavoured with saffron – as this one is – which gives it a striking golden hue and alluring flavour perfect to serve alongside curries and soups (although don’t discount just nibbling it on its own).
Non is the flatbread that is made the length and breadth of Central Asia. It is usually baked by being slapped onto the searingly hot clay walls of a tandoor oven. At home, using a pizza stone and the oven cranked to maximum is the best way to achieve the characteristic chewy elastic texture.
Injera is a staple for most Ethiopians. The unleavened bread is traditionally made from teff, a tiny round khaki-coloured grain. Teff can be found in some health food stores, but, alternatively, you can use wheat or cornflour. It might take a couple of attempts to perfect it, but your patience will be rewarded.