A scene in Anubhavangal Palichakal, the 1971 Malayalam film, is a tutorial on how to drink kallu, the coconut inflorescence wine with the nauseating scent that Kerala calls its signature alcoholic beverage. Sathyan and Prem Nazir, Malayalam cinema’s original superstars, portray day labourers who head to the nearest kallushaap (toddy bar) to unwind after a hard day’s work. “Oroo kuppi moothathu (A bottle each of the strong variety),” Nazir tells the boy at the shop, adding, “Naakelu vekkan vallathum konduva (Bring something to eat as well).” Sathyan pours the toddy into a glass, flicks the dirt off its frothy top, and gulps it down in one go, spitting out the dregs at the end. Without missing a beat, he picks up some food and chows it down. The procedure is as routine to a seasoned toddy drinker as the smelling, swirling and spitting of wine for an oenophile.
The first stop on the toddy trail in Kochi is Mullapanthal kallushaap, situated on the route to Udayamperoor, some 10 km from the Vyttila junction in Kochi. Arguably Kerala’s most famous toddy bar, Mullapanthal offers a slightly more comfortable version of the authentic toddy shop experience. The front of the shaap retains the traditional design with its dimly-lit setting and wooden desks and benches. The expanded rear section is painted in cheerful yellow and green with plastic chairs and tables.
Shaap manager Shanmughan NS, known to all here as Ponnan, says the toddy industry, too, was hit hard by the 1996 ban on arrack or country liquor. “Until the ban by the Antony government, local tipplers consumed both arrack and toddy. After the ban, everyone moved to Indian-made foreign liquor because it’s stronger than toddy. And the younger generation doesn’t care much for dingy toddy shops either,” says Ponnan. But Mullapanthal shaap is leading a revival of toddy’s popularity among tourists and a young crowd, if not with hardcore drinkers.
Kerala consumes every kind of alcoholic beverage with a side dish of shame and guilt, and toddy bars are traditionally exclusively male spaces; few women dare to set foot inside their dingy, sweaty interiors. But the women sipping toddy at Mullapanthal appear to have missed the memo. Today, the tourist fascination with toddy has made shaaps like Mullapanthal a safe space for women. A female traveller from Bangalore sums it up in her online review of the shaap: “Toddy is a beverage that is not easy for a woman to get her hands on. One has to sit in dingy little dens and get stared at constantly, so if you’re a female traveller yearning to sip some fresh toddy, Mullapanthal Toddy Shop is the place to go.” Establishments such as Mullapanthal also market their food, making it socially acceptable for women to be seen in the fancier outlets. On a Sunday afternoon, they’ve turned out in full force with their husbands, friends, and even toddlers. The solo woman traveller is still a rare sight, though. “Are you coming to the shaap?” the security guard asks before showing me a parking spot, unable to hide his amusement.
The most expensive item on the menu at Rs 250 a plate is the star dish — Karimeen pollichathu. Radha CK, Mullapanthal’s 59-year-old head chef, demonstrates the preparation. A whole Karimeen (pearl spot fish) is cleaned and marinated after cuts are made along either side to allow the spices to seep in. A masala mix of tomatoes and onions is kept ready. When a customer orders the dish, Radha wraps the masala curry around the fish and packs it tightly in plantain leaf, which is quickly fried in hot oil. One Karimeen pollichathu ready! The light cooking ensures that the taste of the fish is not overpowered by the spice, while the plantain leaf packaging lends a unique aroma to the dish. The preparation is the perfect accompaniment to a main course of tapioca or puttu. All the food at Mullapanthal is prepared on traditional open hearths. “The smoke is important for the flavour of the food. That’s why we’ve stuck to the old stove,” says Radha. The cashier Chandra Bose calculates my bill the traditional way too, with a piece of chalk on a wooden table. Including Rs 100 for a bottle of toddy, a meal for two with the Karimeen pollichathu will easily come under Rs 400.
If you like a scenic view to go with your kallu and kappa, the Nettoor toddy bar is the place to be. The shaap is situated by the backwaters right next to a small country boat dock. Kerala Tourism’s postcard image of green backwaters, blue skies, and the craning necks of coconut palms is on display, the wind lulling you into a calm swifter than the mildly alcoholic kallu. The dish to watch out for here is the beef liver fry, costing only about Rs 60 a plate. The beef is fried in coconut oil with chunks of sweet coconut and curry leaves balancing out the spices. The crab, with its slightly sweet flesh stewing in a fiery red gravy, is an excellent accompaniment to the tapioca boiled with turmeric.
You’ll find a similar crowd at the Kadamakkudy toddy bar, situated 10 km from High Court junction in Kochi. The single narrow broken-down road in Kadamakkudy will take you to the toddy shop. The fish served here is caught locally. The price and variety of fish served, therefore, varies, depending on the catch and the daily prices. A plate of fish curry averages between Rs 150-200.
The Malayalee palate has always received foreign cuisines, just as well as the people have welcomed external cultural influences. These days, a regular meal out for a Keralite involves either a plate of the ubiquitous chicken biryani, the Middle Eastern shawarma, or the burger. But sometimes, one simply craves the familiar earthy flavour of tapioca and fresh sardines. And that’s when you head to your nearest kallushaap for a nostalgic meal that tastes of the coconut palms and the backwaters.
Nidhi Surendranath is a former journalist. She is currently based in Hyderabad.