Even through the dense sheets of heavy rain, the tall vertical white sign is unmistakable. It says ‘Toddy’ in both Malayalam and English, inviting passersby at one of the many busy roads in Udayamperoor, Ernakulam district.
But it might as well have been an item of adornment because five minutes after crossing the sign we are hopelessly lost and stop an old, lungi-clad man for directions to the toddy shop, locally known as kallu shap (‘kallu’ is liquor in Malayalam). It is tough to read his expression: it wavers between astonishment and disgust at having been stopped by a seemingly desperate woman who wants to get to the nearest liquor shop in broad daylight.
After several bends in the road, misleading signs and judgemental old men, we pull over at the Mullapandal toddy shop, where we wait for a good ten minutes before we can find parking space. And once inside, we jostle for standing space with drunk men, who loudly object to our taking pictures before calming down with more toddy. Clearly, nothing can be a deterrent once a Malayali makes up his mind to get sloshed.
In the kallu kitchen
The shap has both a common area and private rooms, each with a few chairs and a table thrown together, where a group or even a family can eat. Earlier, the kallu shap was mainly a blue collar hangout joint, but now it attracts all kinds, from college students to celebs.
It's the small office room in the shap where customers head for their takeaways. Here, a rickety old wooden table doubles up as a cash counter and the shap manager Subramanium’s computer. When we meet, Subramanium is busy scrawling the day’s accounts on the wooden table with a white chalk as and when an order is placed. “I am too used to this,” he smiles sheepishly, when he sees us staring at the desk. He readily agrees to let us pop into his kitchen and instructs a worker to lead us there.
The heady smell of toddy is slowly replaced by the scintillating aroma of raw spices, freshly grated coconut, cooked meat and fish curry as we approach the kitchen. Six to seven women are hard at work, bending over massive aluminium vessels, stirring curries and squinting through the smoke. Unlike hotels and restaurants, kallu shaps have women running the kitchen just like in most Kerala homes. These ladies start work at 8am, and make more than 20 different dishes in sufficient quantities to feed more than 300 people every day.
The head cook is Radha, who has been working at kallu shaps for more than 15 years, churning out karimeen fry, kappa (tapioca), kakka (mussles) fry, karimeen polichadu, prawns, crab, fish head curry, rabbit meat, duck meat and pork, with generous infusions of chillies, kuru mulaku (pepper) and coconut. So does she make all this yummy spicy stuff at her home too? “It never turns out the same at home. At the kallu shap, we have so many ingredients. And because we make it in large quantities, the frying happens in a lot more oil than we use at home,” says Radha.
At Radha’s behest, we order a plate of prawns fry, karimeen polichadu, kappa and fish curry. For karimeen polichadu, pearl spot is first soaked in turmeric water and then marinated in a peppery masala ground with ginger, garlic and shallots. Five hours later, the fish is fried in coconut oil, then wrapped in a plantain leaf and steamed.
At our table, a seductive smell of coconut oil, spices and fried onions emanate from our karimeen fry. Once we open the banana leaf, the aroma hits us in full force, leaving us momentarily stunned. The flavours of the spice mixture, coconut and karimeen come together like a symphony, thanks to the long marination. While the prawns have a balanced taste of tamarind, red chilli, coconut and cashewnut, the curry is so spicy that it makes our eyes water.
Why is the taste of this food almost impossible to replicate at other restaurants and hotels? For one, all dishes are still prepared on wood stoves. The women grind and prepare their own masala mixtures. The men at the shap buy meat, vegetables and other provisions everyday in just the required quantities, so that they never have to use stored items. Also, as Radha shyly points out, a woman’s hand can make a dish extra delicious.
A rabbit in the curry
Some 15 kilometers from Kochi city is the Nettoor Toddy Bar, strategically built to face the backwaters. Here, rabbit meat is the house speciality, says Padmini, who runs the kitchen with one other woman. The toddy shop also used to serve crane meat, before it got banned.
“Rabbit meat is the hardest to cook,” says Padmini. “You have to cook the meat for almost three hours before you can use it.” Crushed ginger, onions, spices, coconut and water are cooked together in an aluminium vessel till it reaches a semi-solid consistency (called vazhattiyathu). The rabbit is then added to this mixture.
Padmini opens one of the spice tins and invites us to smell her specially grounded curry powder. One whiff is all it takes to leave us salivating.
On its own, kallu shap food might seem too spicy but when coupled with toddy, essentially a sweet drink, the combination is tough to beat, we are told. And so, we sit down with a plate of puttu (rice cake), fish curry and a glass of toddy to put the theory to test. Sure enough, the fish curry is so spicy that we are tempted to gulp down the toddy like water. But the alcoholic drink’s inherent sweetness puts the fire out, helping the meal strike a delightful spicy-sweet balance throughout.
“Fish curry that is a day old tastes the best,” explains Rameshan, one of the helpers at the shap. “It gives the tamarind and all the other spices time to mingle and settle down, giving the curry a very powerful flavour. Customers specifically ask for fish curry that is a day old.”
Two days later while dining at an upscale hotel in Kovalam, we order the karimeen polichadu, hoping to revisit some of that mind-blowing flavour. It 's a damp squib, devoid of salt, or any other distinctive flavour for that matter. It seems a very bland version of the kallu shap’s karimeen polichadu. That's when it hit us. The kallu shap has spoilt us, probably for life.