The Toddy Odyssey

In Kerala, ask for the "shaaaaaap" - the ubiquitous toddy shop. The best toddy, toddy that is fresh and untouched by base additives, should taste only marginally less mild than milk, with a slight sweetness, a faint note of ferment, and the occasional granule of coconut husk...


Image: Flickr/Joe AthialyIF YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF on a highway in the south Indian state of Kerala with an hour or five to spare, keep your eyes open for a distinctive black-and-white signboard by the side of the road. This board will have, in its centre, the single word "Kallu" in Malayalam, one of southern India’s four main languages, and above it, a legend like "T. S. No. 189," the number being subject to change. If a few kilometres go by and you spot no such board—which in itself would be remarkable—you should flag down the first passing male cyclist or pedestrian and say just one word with a questioning drawl: "Shaaaaaap?" If it is particularly early in the morning, throw in a sheepish smile for good measure.

You must note here that the drawl is everything. If you simply say "shop," you will get either an indifferent shrug or a vague gesture towards an establishment selling soap, toothbrushes and packets of potato chips. If, however, you get it right and say "Shaaaaaap?" —like "sharp" but without the burr—you will get an animated nod and detailed directions to the nearest toddy shop.

More often than not, you will then drive up to a walled-off compound that has one little structure easily identified as the kitchen, another little structure with bicycles parked outside it, and a number of individual little cabanas. There is, unfortunately, an explicit social code that kicks in at the shop’s gate. If you happen to look like a local or a paddy field worker, you will be led towards the common bar area; if you don’t, you will be requested, equally firmly, to take any of the cabanas that are free. Mixing is discouraged. If you insist on the common bar for yourself, you will get nothing more than a dirty look, but it will be a very dirty look indeed.

The best toddy, toddy that is fresh and untouched by base additives, should taste only marginally less mild than milk, with a slight sweetness, a faint note of ferment, and the occasional granule of coconut husk. When it is collected as sap from the palm tree, the toddy is entirely non-alcoholic, and it is thrown into ferment only when it picks up tiny residues of yeast from the air. Tapped early in the day or late the previous night, it would have barely begun to turn into alcohol, so stories of how, in the olden days, the rich owners of coconut groves would knock back five or six glasses every morning for their health seem entirely plausible. As much as it sounds like an invitation into dipsomania, the best toddy is to be had at around eleven in the morning.

By lunchtime, the toddy’s sweetness will begin to fade, and a few hours after that, questionable practices slip into operation like well-worked gears. A shaaaaaap owner will dump sugar into his toddy to make it more palatable. He will ramp up the kick of the drink, pouring in cheap vodka or dubious arrack or country liquor. Some owners, I was told, powder dried marijuana leaves, tie them into a bundle of thin cotton cloth, and soak the bundles in the toddy. Mahesh Thampy, a friend living in Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital city, has heard even more horrific stories, of old batteries dropped into vats of toddy, for the acid to mix slowly with the alcohol.

"You have to remember, most of the people who go to these shops just want to get high as fast as possible and leave," said Thampy. "Nobody wants to sit around and drink the good stuff. Which is why there is so much bad liquor floating around, so many newspaper headlines of blindness or even death because of illicit "Suddenly there was a power cut, and the lights went out. In the silence, one agonised voice cried out: 'Oh my god! I’ve gone blind!'" 

The quintessential toddy shop in Kerala is still a male bastion—unsurprisingly, in a state that its residents say is still a deeply conservative one. But in the last few years, two elevating things have happened. The toddy shop, long a part of authentic Kerala, has now become a part of Authentic Kerala, the tourist-brochure version of the state, and visiting women will not be denied their right to sit in cabanas and order toddy and fried fish. Also, the subculture of toddy shop food has begun to be celebrated, and the food desired not merely as incendiary accompaniment to liquor but in its own right.

Enter, then, the toddy parlour. Even its nomenclature is such a far cry from that of the toddy shop that it deserves commentary. The toddy "shop" indicates the most basic of transactions, where money changes hands, a product is sold, and the customer heads for the exit. With toddy, the process is only slightly less rapid. Few of the paddy field workers, itinerant cyclists or other local drinkers wish to actually tarry in a toddy shop longer than it takes to knock back a few glasses, so that the alcohol can hot up the blood faster and cheaper. "parlour" comes from the French "parler," to talk, and a room thus dubbed becomes an open invitation to shoot the breeze. But the genteelness and almost Victorian delicacy we have come to associate with a parlour sits amiss with the grime and the focussed alcoholism of the toddy shop.

The two most famous specimens of these toddy parlours, known as far away as Cochin and Trivandrum, sit on the road between the towns of Kottayam and Pallom, barely a kilometre from each other. They are bitter rivals in court to boot. The original, Kariumpumkala, started life as a genuine toddy shop in 1958, and although it became known for its superior food, it held on to those roots. But in 2001, when the Kerala government suspended all toddy shop licenses in a brave, and vain, attempt to discourage drinking, Kariumpumkala won through that awful year solely on the strength of its food. When the licenses were restored, one year later, Kariumpumkala didn’t even try to apply for one; it had found its new direction.

Kariumpumkala today is a slightly ghastly brick-and-mortar structure, painted in shades of green and pink. Its top two storeys are air-conditioned, every floor is tiled, and the tabletops are made of granite. Over the billing counter is a shelf full of trophies that Kariumpumkala has won in something called the Philips Food Fest. But most heartbreaking of all is a perverse remembrance of times past—a sign that says ‘Smoking, alcohols strictly prohibited.’

Kariumpumkala’s present owner would talk of none of this. He was obsessed, instead, with his legal battle with Karimpinkala, the upstart establishment down the road that, he claimed, had stolen and only slightly modified his restaurant’s name. "That isn’t the real one," he said repeatedly. But Karimpinkala still serves toddy, and Kariumpumkala does not. That little edge makes all the difference in the sweeps to win Kerala’s hearts and minds.

In the leafy parking lot of Karimpinkala, a "Toddy Shop And A/c Family Restaurant," we found Maruti Swift cars and gleaming SUVs, and cabanas that were closer in size to mid-level dorm rooms. We sat under fans, on plastic chairs that skidded on the tiled floors, and drummed our fingers on a glass-topped table. We were handed a menu, laminated in clear plastic. Apart from the "Sweet and cold coconut toddy," we could have ordered Diet Coke, Fanta, the enigmatic "Soda B & S," or ice cream. We could even have asked for that most pan-Indian of dishes, Gobi Manchurian. As we sat staring a little disbelievingly at that menu, another SUV pulled up outside. A family dismounted—parents, little children, and even a grandmother—and stormed into one of the other cabanas. We were, most definitely, not in Kansas any more.

Karimpinkala’s toddy, served in small earthen jugs, was thick, faintly stale, and tasted of sediment. But its star turn came in the form of its karimeen polichchathu—fish that was steamed in its marinade rather than fried, wrapped in a banana leaf, and served under a canopy of curry leaves, onions and red pepper flakes. And so I finally managed to grasp the flavour of the pearl spot itself—a tart, citrusy tang, but warmed with the heat of spice, as delicious as a mildly sunny sky.

Jijin, our auto-rickshaw driver for the day, had by now cottoned on to our routine, and when we left Karimpinkala, he said: "But you should also try mundhiri kallu"—literally, raisin toddy—"because that’s a specialty here." Between the months of November and March, Jijin explained, toddy-shop owners slipped raisins into the evening toddy and served it the next morning, when the raisins had drunk their fill and "Although these days," he said, as he started to scour the sides of the road leading to Kumarakom, "people get cheap and just add grape juice to give it the same flavour."

We found no mundhiri kallu at our first stop, a whitewashed toddy shop set back so far from the road on its dusty little plot that it looked more like a Last Chance Saloon. By this time, it was noon, and hot outdoors, but the shop was dark and cool inside. The day’s toddy had lost some of its sweetness by then, and it was bubbling energetically as it fermented. We still managed a few glasses each, Jijin included —which may well have explained his subsequent, intemperate willingness to let us have a go at driving his auto-rickshaw in turns to the next toddy shop.

In our shack-cabana, we ordered a couple of bottles of mundhiri kallu, which turned out to be a pale pink concoction reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol. At the bottom of the bottles were thick layers of white sediment, and the swollen corpses of raisins bobbed in the toddy. It tasted, to my mind, just the same as regular toddy, although the raisins served as occasional happy surprises, bursting with a concentrated blast of sweetness.

"In the villages, the sediment is very important," Jijin said. "They add water to it and then mix it into the batter for appams (rice hoppers), to make the appams soft."

"I see," I said.

"So people come to the toddy shops and take this sediment away. In the cities, of course, they just buy yeast." Jijin paused here and mulled. "Yeast works too."

There was a further comfortable silence. Then Jijin, expounding further on the sediment, said: "They make a type of vinegar from it as well."

"How?" I asked.

It was the wrong question to ask. Jijin lapsed into deep thought, emerging only after many minutes to drink more mundhiri kallu. I drank more mundhiri kallu as well. At some later point, the three of us may or may not have sworn to each other to never forget this moment, and that we were all brothers, man, whatever our differences, we were all brothers, well, in a manner of speaking, and that it was important not to lose this—this, you know, this connection—never lose that, man. And then we tripped our way back towards the auto-rickshaw, and Jijin drove us to Kumarakom and bundled us onto the bus to Kochi.

Samanth Subramanian is deputy editor of special projects at Mint. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, Far Eastern Economic Review, Huffington Post, The National and The Hindu. This essay is excerpted from his book Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast
(Penguin Books India, 2010).