‘Girls from good families don’t go to Toddy shops’. These were the words that my Keralite friend Divya heard from her granny and she never went to one. Toddy shops in India are considered manly establishments, where male patrons come for a jug of palm wine called Toddy or Kallu and a snack. What I was told about those places that the food served there was spicy and full of flavour. Divya learnt that after she had some parcels delivered home by her friends.
As for me being a foreigner and not having to adhere to the local norms gave me an advantage and Toddy shops sounded like a great opportunity to experience the authentic flavours of Kerala countryside.
Finding the right places
The locals will confirm that the best Toddy shops – both in terms of food and drink – can be found in the countryside, nowhere near developed urban areas. The first Toddy shop that I stepped into was an hour cab ride from Fort Cochin. As soon as I tried the food my taste buds started dancing and it didn’t take me long to decide that I have to do a thorough investigation on Toddy shop fare. That’s how I set myself on a mission to explore as many of those shops as I can along the way.
A few more visits followed to some bigger and smaller establishments in Aleppey area, which is famous for Toddy shops. Most of them were not listed in any travel guides nor shown in online maps, so rickshaw drivers were the ones I had to rely on to be taken to the right places. I trained my eye to spot white road signs written in local language with a number on them denoting a Toddy shop.
While a couple of these restaurants were established in proper houses and even had separate rooms for family lunching or dining, the most authentic Toddy shops were shacks built from scraps in the middle of nowhere with very basic (to say the least) amenities and decor. One of the most delicious dishes that I had while sitting on a wobbly plastic chair was cooked and served to me in a mere shed on the side of a country road. Ducks were clucking just outside of it, one of them had already assumed the shape of delicious curry in my plate.
Palm wine toddy
Toddy is naturally sweet, usually mildly alcoholic beverage made of coconut palm sap and can be classified as wine. It is collected by professional toddy tappers who climb palm trees twice a day – early morning and evening, make a cut in a coconut flower bud and attach clay vessels for the sap to drip into.
After the sap is collected, it gets delivered straight to a toddy shop as the shelf life of this drink is very short – fermentation eventually turns it into vinegar. Fresh unfermented Toddy version is called Elam. It is on the sweeter side and has very little amount of alcohol. The longer it stays in the jugs, the more it ferments thus increasing its sourness and content of alcohol. You can tell that Toddy has been fermented by milky white colour in comparison to the fresh one.
Some places sell Toddy by glass, but by default it comes to the table in an approximately one litre clay jug. Sometimes a strainer is provided so small particles of palm chips get eliminated when pouring it into a glass.
Toddy shop food
Spicy meat, fish and seafood dishes are served as accompaniments to Toddy. Usually they are prepared two ways – fried or roasted in a thick gravy. The most popular dish is fish curry, but seeking for a variety of food or something specific, such as duck or crab curry (that were my personal favourites, even though a bit hard to find), rickshaw drivers are the best people to talk to as long as they understand what you want. However, things can get tricky due to language barrier: I did a fair share of touring just to be taken to some small places where they offered only some fish and chapati.
Written menus are non-existent in Toddy shops and orders can be placed by simply naming preferred type of meat or fish. The chances staff would speak good English are rather slim, so if you coming over armed with the basic vocabulary of Toddy shop fare would make ordering of food much easier.
When I visited my first Toddy shop I didn’t have any notes handy, so after asking too many questions I was taken on a tour to the kitchen. Huge bowls of curries and fries were lined up there and I was lucky enough to be given to try just about every dish they had available. A couple of weeks later and a few more Toddy shops visited I already had a list of food items in the local language and was ordering Njand (crab) or Taravu (duck) with a breeze.
Meen Curry – red curry with big chunks of fish in it. Every Toddy shop would have it as it is a signature dish of these establishments.
Meen Polichattu – masala marinated fish fried and then grilled in a banana leaf. The leaf parcel lets the fish steam inside that makes it tender and juicy.
Chemeen – prawn stew.
Koondal – squid.
Kakka – backwater shellfish.
Njand – crab stewed in a fragrant red curry with lots of chili peppers.
Nadan Kozhi – free range countryside chicken.
Kaada – black quail cooked in gravy.
Panni – fried pork cubes.
Muyal – rabbit stew.
Pothirachi – beef fry.
Taravu – duck stew with allspice, ginger and onion. The meat is chopped up in small pieces with bones.
Kappa Puzhangiyathu – tapioca, that has been cut into cubes and steamed. It is a staple dish eaten with curry.
Appam – a type of pancake made of fermented rice batter and coconut milk. It is similar to idly and does not have much of flavour on its own, but soaks up sauce or curry well and is perfect with duck or mutton curry.
Puttu – red rice bread that serves as a sponge to soak up curries. Puttus are made of ground roasted rice dough, that is rolled into small logs and then steamed. The logs are then cut into cylinder shaped pieces and dabbed with fresh grated coconut at both ends. Traditionally Puttus are eaten for breakfast with chickpea curry or banana, but they make a good accompaniment to meat curries too.
Tips for visiting a Toddy shop
- The best (and also the busiest) time to come to a Toddy shop is around lunch time, when all the food options are still available. However, if your are not very particular about the food, you can come in later in the day or even for late dinner when it is not so crowded.
- If you are a female traveller, you might want to sit in a family room, away from the curious eyes of local men. However, if you don’t mind being surrounded by exclusively male audience, settle down in the common area and soake up the real Toddy shop atmosphere.
- The servings of food are medium-sized, but along with the side dish it should be enough for a light eater. If you are really hungry or just adventurous, order two or more different options.
- Toddy shops are not for the faint hearted. If you are used to waiters asking you if you like it spicy, your needs will not be taken into consideration here as most of the food is prepared in large batches and it is at least medium spicy. Get some tissues ready for wiping your sweat and an odd tear when those chili peppers kick in. Wash the spiciness down with more Toddy – it works well as fire extinguisher.
- Don’t expect cutlery to be provided. Roll up your sleeves and use your fingers. Tapioca, Appam or Puttu serve the purpose of soaking up the sauces quite well.