During my formative years in a small backwater town in Kerala, there lived an electrician in our lane, who after work every day, got drunk silly at a local toddy shop and tried to climb the concrete electric poles. He failed every single time, upon which he went into a tirade, abusing the pole for refusing to help him. Sometime in the night, he would try to walk onward his house and pass out by the road.
Toddy shops were a trademark of Kerala making their appearance at almost every turn of the road, welcoming mundu-wearing local alcoholics like this electrician who would make their way into these palm frond miniature establishments as the dawn set in. They were hubs for interesting political discourses which, as the hours passed, would slip into inebriated singing of old Malayalam songs accompanied by drum beats on the wooden bench. “Sprit-lifting” is how a friend who has had a firsthand experience of these toddy shop calls it with”mirth making, singing, conversational crowd” milling about.
Malayalees’ legendary love for alcohol took an interesting turn somewhere in the millennium when these toddy shops (or “kallu shaap” in local parlance) got concretised to welcome not just the ubiquitous toddy lover but his wife and children as well. Perhaps as a result of somebody’s sharp business acumen who saw potential in merging the incomparable toddy shop experience with fine dining, “shaap restaurants” were conceived.
Made from the sap of the coconut tree, the milky white toddy is more of an acquired taste. Toddy tapping from the tree itself is an art which, my folks back home say, is slowly dying. Fresh from the tree, toddy is a sweet and non-alcoholic drink which can turn sour and alcoholic in a matter of hours when kept outside for the natural yeast to work on it.
Toddy shops are not just for toddy though; they serve some exceptionally good food that go by the nomenclature “touchings”. An assortment of fish and meat items are served in the quintessential toddy shop style (read spicy in bold letters) with Kerala breads like appam and puttu and various preparations of tapioca as well. Thanks to the amount of spice they come with, these touchings cannot be had more than a touch at a time.
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It was the strong stench of raw fish that greeted us as we made our way into one of the small family rooms at Mullapanthal in Kochi. On the wall hung a long list of food items with prices and toddy prices. While a litre of toddy costs Rs 110, a glass can be had at Rs 33. A litre of toddy comes in a mud pot with glasses to draw the milky white drink from it.
I never really appreciated toddy in the past because the toddy we got from the toddy shop to make “kallappams” (rice breads fermented with toddy) at home was too strong for me; it was thick and had a strong smell that can easily put you off if you’re not a seasoned drinker. But the toddy at Mullapanthal was different; fragrant and sweeter. We knew at once it was fresh from the tree and hasn’t sat enough outside for the sourness to build. It also looked refined perhaps to suit the needs of a clientele different from that of the original toddy shops.
The food at toddy shops is often fiery and Mullapanthal was no different. Served with extra doses of chilli powder and coconut oil, you could break out into a sweat at the very pungent smell of the fish and meat items. It could well be a business ploy—the spicier the food, the more the demand for toddy (the only drink available here) to wash it down.
Vidya Sreekumar who has been to Mullapanthal with an all-girls team finds the place to be as welcoming as any other restaurant in the city. She appreciates the truly finger-licking-good food at this place--boiled tapioca served with an onion-chilli preparation being her favourite. She likes the seafood items as well. She buys toddy from here to ferment her appams at home.
Apart from the usual hot favourites like chemmeen (shrimp) roast, karimeen pollichathu (pearl spot fried with masalas and baked in banana leaves), karimeen mappas (pearl spot cooked in coconut gravy), koonthal (squid) roast and other assortments of beef and pork, there was also boti or “potty”, as it is called in the state, a gravy made with the bowel and intestine of goat. It is a fine seller here. There’s also “Meen Thala”, a curry made with the head of the fish which is exclusive to toddy shops.
At Karimpumkala in Kottayam, easily one of the first toddy shop restaurants in Kerala, the interiors are better suited for families. While the trademark fish smell greets you here as well, it makes a conscious effort to embrace a more refined approach of restaurants while keeping their toddy shop jolliness alive. There’s also R Block in Kumarakom that’s doing brisk business.
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Since toddy shop food is that draws most crowd, some restaurants are focusing on that, minus the toddy. Shappu Curry near Marine Drive in Kochi is one such place that boasts of a regular clientele. Shappu Curry with its two other outlets in the city serves only lunch. Going by anecdotal evidence, if you are late for lunch, you might as well go hungry since the food, mostly Kerala style seafood, gets over in a jiffy.
Another big draw is the price point itself. A family of four can have a full meal at these places in Rs 1000. Even Karimeen Pollichathu which is a priced dish in other restaurants can be had here for Rs 350 a fish. Well, that’s what we call a real deal.
Things to try at toddy shop restaurants
A glass of toddy
Total cost: Rs 800 (approx)
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