by Zinnara Ratnayake
For years Beethoven’s sound has meant bread in Sri Lanka. Now, years after the island’s mobile bread vendors disappeared, they are being revived to help during the pandemic.
I was young when I first heard music. He was coming from the dirt road outside where a man was selling bread in a tuk tuk. Unlike other colorful three-wheeled vehicles, the back of this one contained a glass display case filled with neatly stacked baked goods. “It’s the choon paan man,” my father told me.
“Choon paan” loosely translates to “musical bread” in Sinhalese. During my childhood, the freshly baked kimbula (“crocodile”) bun that we bought from the choon paan man for evening tea brought me happiness. This beautifully fluffy and buttery homemade bun was dusted with sugar and twisted into a slender shape resembling a crocodile. Half was for me, the other half for my father.
Twice a day from 6:30 a.m., choon paan trucks drove along the dusty road near the rice paddies of my family’s rural village in Kurunegala, 120 km northeast of Colombo, selling loaves of bread. Early in the morning, the men circled the roads with fish rolls and sausage rolls made in small bakeries. They reappeared in the afternoon around 4:00 p.m., bringing buns for tea. Some were round buttery buns sprinkled with raisins. Others were stuffed with jam or sprinkled with sugar.
For us who grew up on the tropical island, Beethoven meant bread
For years, these little trucks all played the same recorded music. When I heard the faint hum of bread in the distance, I ran towards the dusty path and called my father. Years later, during music lessons at school, I realized that that familiar melody that we Sri Lankans simply called “choon paan music” was actually Beethoven’s 1810 classic Für Elise.
So how did this classic composition written in Austria come to symbolize freshly baked sweets in Sri Lanka?
When tuk tuks became increasingly popular in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, many bakers used the three-wheeled vehicles to transport their bun business on the road and sell in remote neighborhoods and villages. This was also when cell phones became popular. Just as the jingle of an ice cream truck alerts residents that it is approaching, these mobile bakers began playing their cell phone ringtones through a horn speaker to let residents know that the truck is chooning. paan was near.
Of course, one of the most popular ringtones of the early 2000s was Beethoven’s iconic masterpiece, Für Elise. So whenever people in Sri Lanka heard it, we would go out and wait for the musical bread truck to arrive. Since then, for us who grew up on the tropical island, Beethoven was synonymous with bread.
After moving to Kandy city for high school, I still heard Für Elise every day. Even when I was already late for class, with my school tie around my neck and my hair braided in half with white ribbons, I ran after the choon paan truck to grab it for buns at the morning fish. Stuffed with canned fish, spiced potatoes and chopped vegetables, they were a treat with a piping hot cup of ginger tea.
Six years ago, I moved again to the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo. In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve rarely seen a choon paan truck or heard the familiar tune I grew up with.
Sri Lanka’s famous musical bread trucks have made a comeback, thanks to an unlikely reason: the coronavirus pandemic
According to Colombo baker Padmini Marasinghe, this is because it has recently become much more fashionable – and even a status symbol – to be able to buy baked goods in a traditional bakery than buying bread in a truck. As a result, the once ubiquitous musical bread trucks in Sri Lanka have now largely disappeared.
As Marasinghe explained, many city dwellers were convinced that the breads from the chain bakeries were of better quality than those from the mobile trucks. “But choon paan products come from home bakers. They are better than mass-produced foods from big bakeries,” Marasinghe said.
She also added that people complained that choon paan products were too expensive given their small mobile operation. “They cut prices and cut quality to make marginal profits. There was less filling in a fish bun or a bit of butter in a kimbula bun, so they lost their clientele,” Marasinghe said.
Then, in 2017, the former government banned loud music in mobile bakeries, leading to their demise. Some trucks circled the roads without music but did not make a profit. Without Beethoven warning the neighborhood that bread was coming, it seemed like the locals wouldn’t be rushing to the streets.
In recent years, cities and tourist towns have also seen an increase in door-to-door delivery services. “People prefer to order fish rolls from a high-end bakery on Uber Eats,” Marasinghe said. “It put choon paan out of business.”
Marasinghe admits that the idea of starting a choon paan truck had always seemed tempting to her, but by the time she started her small bakery in 2019, almost all bread trucks were gone.
Yet in recent months, Sri Lanka’s famous musical bread trucks have made a comeback, thanks to an unlikely reason: the coronavirus pandemic.
As the virus began to spread in Asia, Sri Lanka imposed an island-wide curfew to slow its spread. The government has ordered the closure of restaurants, bakeries and all “non-essential” businesses. Marasinghe also had to close his business. However, the government has authorized door-to-door sales of baked goods.
Many of these mobile bakeries are now back on the streets of Sri Lanka, with residents listening to the familiar ringtones of Für Elise
“Having no way to pay my bakery staff, I decided to start a choon paan truck as home delivery of baked goods [was] labeled as an ‘essential service,'” she said.
Unable to find a tuk tuk, Marasinghe’s husband borrowed a friend’s mini-truck and converted it into a makeshift choon paan truck to operate in Hanwella, about 30 km from Colombo. “We played Für Elise to send the message: the choon paan man is back! said Marasinghe.
She is not alone. Many of these mobile bakeries are now back on the streets of Sri Lanka, with residents listening to the familiar bells of Für Elise and rushing to their doors for loaves of bread. In fact, almost overnight, bakers dusted off their old choon paan trucks and created a tuk tuk bread delivery network to ensure confined islanders could get their buns.
“They found a new appreciation,” said Amalini De Sayrah, a Colombo-based journalist. “Maybe we didn’t realize how valuable it was, but now stuck at home with no way out, people are realizing the value of choon paan.”
Arul Kogilan, a volunteer doctor with a Covid-19 prevention task force, appreciates the return of choon paan drivers as essential service providers. “With baked goods delivered to their doorsteps, people can stay home without the risk,” he said. “But we have to recognize that they are putting themselves in danger for us.”
While the curfew was eased at the end of last month, islanders are advised to stay at home except for compulsory work.
Now that I take refuge in my home where I grew up, around 07:00 every morning, I wake up to the sound of choon paan. The truck drives past our house as Fur Elise finally turns into a faint whistle. When I get up, my father has already bought bread. At the end of the afternoon, when I hear Fur Elise from afar, I shout at my father.
It’s like I’m young again, waiting for the classic chime and simple joy of a sugar-dusted choon paan kimbula bun.
One half for me, the other for my father.