What happens in a toddy shop should be shared with all. A food story from Kerala.

Chitoor toddy shop lunch mwnu


Food for the gods

Let me tell you about an unforgettable experience that I had at Kochi In Kerala when I went there for Christmas a couple of weeks back.

The experience was an unplanned one and yet possibly the highlight of what was a trip of many culinary delights and discoveries. It featured a meal that made me question every notion that I had held of Keralite or Malayali food till then. In a good way. It was an experience that refreshed and rejuvenated me at the end of year even more than the loveliest of spa experiences could. 

I am talking of my visit to the Chitoor toddy shop in Kochi. Which led to what was definitely one of my most memorable meals of 2019.

The Grand Hyatt Kochi toddy tapping experience


Mr Vijayan gets down the pots in which the toddy is being tapped. Just as he has for the
past 43 years


It all started when Shana Susan Ninan from the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty took me on the toddy tapping experience that the hotel offers to its guests.

We got on to a ferry boat from the hotel’s jetty and went down the backwaters, past the Bolgatty Palace, the skyscrapers of what is called ‘the city,' Chinese fishing nets (more mechanical than manual now) hoisted on mini islands in the middle of the water and a billion coconut trees, till we reached the yard where Mr Vijayan. He has been a toddy tapper for the last 43 years and showed us how he climbs up and then brings down the preferred nectar of the land from the pots in which the fermented toddy is collected. This is normally done early in the morning but I guess they make exceptions for lazy tourists like me. As someone who has grown up in Kolkata in the 80s, seeing someone climb up a palm or a coconut tree with just a rope to help him was a rather familiar sight for me. However, the maturity of age has made me realise how much skill goes into this and has given birth to a sense of respect in me for such talent and hard work that is on display throughout our country. Made me realise that we should not take this for granted.

The thing about toddy, I learnt, is that it has a very short shelf life and does not last beyond a day. Which is why, you need to go to Kerala to savour it. I tried a couple of sips and found it to be a tad tangy and rather refreshing. I am told that people have a few jugs of this milky coloured ambrosia at a go. Through the day! I decided not to try to emulate them as I do not drink much these days.

Bolgatty Palace

The backwaters

The city

Chinese fishing net

Going off the radar


“Do you want to go to a toddy shop,” asked Shana after she consulted Mr Balu from the local travel agency who had arranged the trip. This is possibly not part of the usual Grand Hyatt ‘toddy tapping experience’ I guess, but by then Shana realised that I was craving for a taste of the local food scene and felt that this would be worth doing.

I immediately agreed and we got back into the ferry, chugged on till a bit further down the backwaters and then got off at a jetty. We walked past a number of young men sitting listlessly at the jetty, glued to their phones, got on to an auto rickshaw and then headed to the Chitoor toddy shop.  The road that we took, the shops around it and the pace of the life visible reminded me of suburban Bansdroni across the Tolly nullah in Kolkata.

What is the name of the shop that we went to, you ask? There is no name as such from what I gather, each locality has a toddy shop that services the whole locality and is run by members of a union. The shops are known by the place they are located at.




I broke into a smile the moment I walked in to the toddy shop. The place was Spartan as Spartan gets. There were wooden tables and benches on which men were sitting and having toddy and eating. The food was served by men from the kitchen. I did not see any women there though folks were nonplussed when Shana came in. The mood was languorous as you can imagine.

Balu, who loves eating at toddy shops, cautioned me from trying the toddy. “Go for the food,” he said. “It’s spicy but it’s great.”

He was not sure if I would be handle the toddy as I am not used to it. I was not planning to try to prove him wrong. The aromas of the food on offer and the colour of the dishes had held me in a psychedelic spell by then. I did not need toddy to further enhance the trip. Pun intended.

With Shana and Balu at the start of what was going to be one of my most memorable meals of 2019


‘Which community does the food here belong to,” I asked Shana. “Does the food belong to those following any specific religion.”

“Not at all,” replied Shana. “The food here is ‘hyper-local.' Reflects what locals like and what is available locally. There could be more of seafood based dishes near the backwaters and the sea and more of meat in the hills. Everyone eats what's on offer.”






As I learnt during the course of my short trip to Kochi, food has no religion in what they call ‘God’s own country.’ I guess that it is the subliminal effect of the current political atmosphere in the country that made me ask this question but in Kerala, they clearly believed in the spirit of 'unity in diversity' that was espoused by the founding fathers of our nation.

The people who frequent toddy shops are largely blue collar workers and local shop owners, said Shana. However, the more well heeled crowd would also drop in at times. It is part of their 'bucket list,' Shana explained wryly. Instagram-worthy too, as I realised. Shana herself has been to toddy shops before though this was her first time at the Chittoor one.

The core rice plate


The food in a toddy shop is spicy, I was told. That is the sort of food that goes best with toddy.

The way it works in a toddy shop is that one orders a rice plate which has matta rice dal, pickle and condiments and perhaps tiny fish fry or so and then one orders whatever side dishes that one wants. The side dishes are non-vegetarian.  Seafood, chicken, goat, pork, beef. Everything could be there.

You pour out the toddy from jugs kept on your table and are charged by glass. We skipped the toddy and made a beeline for the food.

We tried everything on offer. The rice plate had a pasty dried dal on it which felt very wholesome. It reminded me of the shukno dal of Bengal that my mother made and that I loved. There was a hot and tangy tomato gravy with anchovies in it on the plate and a fried anchovy and mango pickle and fried chillies too. The tempestuous fish curry was anything but like the mellow coconut milk based milk moilees of Kerala that we are acquainted with. I could quite imagine a sip of this waking one up from a toddy induced slumber.


Mussuls

We called for a plate of mussels. The mussels were finely chopped and the meat very tender. It was tossed in freshly grated coconut, curry leaves and chillies and was as 'south Indian' or 'west coast Indian' as it gets.

Chicken entrails


We tried a Parsi aleti paleti-like mixed entrails dish. Made with chicken offal though and not mutton unlike in the Parsi version. This too, like the dal earlier, reminded me of my childhood in Kolkata. Of a time when the ‘spare parts’ in the chicken curry at home were as coveted as the meaty bits. While the dish was made in coconut oil, the dominant flavours were that of the meaty offal and the spices used. This was a dish that could be at home in a dhaba anywhere in India and not just Kerala. It brought back memories of the dehati chicken that I had at the dhaabas in the Ranchi Jamshedpur highways in terms of the raw boldness of the dish and in terms of the how the texture of the meat had added to the body of the curry.

Pork


A contender for the showstopper of the afternoon along with the chicken entrails curry, would be the pork and yam dish that we had. It looked rather red like a Goan vindaloo or an East Indian sorpotel. The meat was cooked to tender submission and had chubby bits of fat in it. The porcelain plate that it was served in added to the Goan Catholic household meal feel and the dish was truly scrumptious and tasted very different from the chicken and the anchovy curries that I tried before this. I just did not want to stop after each bite that I took.

Kappa


Shana called for a plate of tapioca or kappa too as you have the side dishes with rice (which I loved) or the tapioca (which I did not take to). The next day, during Christmas lunch at the Grand Hyatt Kochi, the chefs mixed beef fry with the tapioca and served it as a mash and that is when I realised how one should actually enjoy tapioca. I was the only person using a spoon at the toddy shop and that is not good enough to do justice to the kappa. You need to mash it together with the meat as I realised the next day.

The one famous toddy shop dish that I did not get to have was the fish head curry which Balu was hoping would be on offer. It is more an Aleppy thing from what I learnt and toddy shops are hyper local, remember? I guess I now have to hope for an Aleppy trip to happen.



The food that I had that afternoon at the toddy shop was spicy and hot, as I had been warned it would be. Very spicy. The high pepper quotient and the resultant heat made me perspire. Made my hair frizz the way Monica's in FRIENDS did at Barbados. The fact that the weather was hot and humid added to this. Not that I minded. I was in paradise after all.

What I ate at the toddy shop was nothing like the docile stews, moilee and sadya that I had had in the past when it came to Keralite food. This was fiery stuff. The food of dragons.

The Chioor toddy shop price list. 24.12/19


Yet, it was so tasty. A bit like a love song. I kept eating that afternoon well after I wanted to stop and even though my mouth was burning from the heat. In retrospect, the fact that the heat came from the pepper more than from chillies (unlike in Telengana which has some really hot food too) perhaps made the food more palatable to me.

What I ate that afternoon made me come alive in a way that no glass of toddy could ever make me feel. Not that I tested this statement that afternoon.

My toddy shop high

Appendix:

This is the second part of my food stories from Kerala. You can click here to read about my Malayali breakfast discovery story from the Grand Hyatt Kochi and do keep checking this space for my story on Fort Kochi.

Do catch this video that I shot while at the toddy shop and please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more such videos:




Pictures from the Malabar Cafe at the Grand Hyatt Bolgatty on Christmas of how the beef and kappa are to be mixed and a video demo by chef Selvaraj too.


Beef on the bone and tapioca from the hills of Kerala at the Grand Hyatt, Kochi, on Christmas

Chef Selvaraj's lesson on how to eat tapioca



 I would like to thank our hospitality partner, Grand Hyatt Kochi, Bolgatty, for the experience. 

Comments

This is what I wanted to do so badly but couldn't when I visited Kerala last year. For now, toddy with spicy food remains in my bucket list. Food in the pics looks delicious Kalyan, so does your writing :)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
Thank you so much for your kinds words Kal. I am sure that there is a lot of time to finish and expand your bucket list :)