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Fresh Bread on Wheels: Sri Lanka’s Melodic Mobile Bakeries with Beethoven’s Touch

Bakers have a unique and charming way of announcing their arrival with fresh bread. In Goa, you’ll hear the distinct “Ponk Ponk” sound originating from a horn fixed to their cycle handlebar, while in Sri Lanka, it’s a musical flair as they use Beethoven’s iconic “Für Elise” to announce their presence, adding to the already enticing aroma of their freshly baked goods.

During my recent trip to Sri Lanka, finding a Choon Paan was on my bucket list after reading about it on a friend’s Facebook wall. I wasn’t disappointed, as these mobile bakeries, creatively fashioned from three-wheeled tuktuks (as rickshaws are commonly called in Sri Lanka), were a common sight in every town and village I cycled through.

Choon Paan, derived from “choon” meaning music and “paan” meaning bread in Sinhala, is a delightful fusion of sound and taste. As these mobile bakery carts roll through the streets, you can hear the iconic notes of Beethoven’s beloved 1810 classic, “Für Elise,” announcing their arrival to potential customers. Inside these colorful vehicles, you’ll find glass cabinets neatly stacked with an array of freshly-baked delights. From fluffy breads to sticky sugar-coated buns filled with an assortment of jams, rolls generously packed with chicken and cheese, and fish buns and sausage rolls, each treat carries the delicious richness of being baked to perfection in a wood-fired oven.

“Für Elise” is one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most popular compositions, and while its true inspiration remains a mystery, its emotional resonance is undeniable. The piece effortlessly carries listeners through a range of feelings, from idle daydreams to gentle passion, making it a cornerstone of various cultural works.

Interestingly, “Für Elise” has found its way into various aspects of modern culture. From being featured in commercials for popular brands like McDonald’s, Adidas, Doritos, and GMC Sierra, to appearing in TV episodes of The Closer, Modern Family, Futurama, and The Simpsons, its versatility knows no bounds. It was even the most-used melody for ringtones in the 1990s and became synonymous with elevator music in office buildings. In Taiwan, garbage trucks use it to signal their arrival for garbage collection.

The origin of Choon Paan’s use of “Für Elise” is a delightful coincidence. In the 1990s, vendors in Sri Lanka used their mobile phone ringtones as a means of alerting customers. At that time, “Für Elise” happened to be one of the most popular ringtones, prompting Choon Paan drivers to play the enchanting music through makeshift loudspeakers to attract hungry customers.

Despite facing a decline due to a government-imposed ban in 2000’s on playing music above a certain decibel level, Choon Paan saw a remarkable revival during the global COVID-19 pandemic. With people ordered to stay at home, these mobile bakeries became a lifeline for freshly-baked goods, once again drawing neighbors with the familiar and comforting sound of “Für Elise.”

During my unforgettable 2200km cycling journey across Sri Lanka, spanning two months, the melody of “Für Elise” became a reassuring signal that a Choon Paan was approaching. It was my cue to indulge myself in the mouthwatering delights of their jam-filled buns, adding a touch of joy and nostalgia to my adventure.





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