In Kerala, where I am from, the well-intended “Don’t talk to a stranger” rule had many variations, especially back at my grandparents’ village, tucked away in the heart of south Kerala. Among the “Don’t sit next to the moustachioed man on the bus” rule and the “Dress appropriately for the temple” rule, there was a mysterious one, which I was longing to disregard for years. This was the “Don’t go to a kallu shaap” rule. I had already ventured into the forbidden territories of the local chayakadas (tea stalls), but the kallu was turning out to be a tough nut to crack. Or should I say tough coconut to tap!
If you’re ever travelling on Kerala’s roads, keep your eyes peeled for a distinct black and white signboard. There will three big, bold characters at the centre, spelling out the word “Kallu” in Malayalam. In smaller lettering in the corner is a serial number: this probably refers to the shop number. If you don’t spot these boards (but I’m confident you will), then just ask any passer by. They would be only too glad to point you towards the right direction.
So, what is kallu you ask, and why is it such a big deal?
Kallu—or toddy—is an alcoholic beverage (now you know why it’s taboo for kids and women) tapped from palm trees, and needless to say it’s delicious. But not all toddy is alcoholic—well, not at the beginning at least. Right after it’s tapped from the palm tree early in the morning, toddy is mild (called neera at this stage), and somewhat sweet, reminiscent of the colour of watery milk. But, a few hours later (they say exactly at noon), the neera will “turn”, slowly fermenting into toddy, a strong alcoholic drink by the evening.
I didn’t dare venture into a kallu shop for a great many years. But boy, wasn’t I curious. I’d hear my aunts and uncles talk, in hush hush tones, about a cousin who’d often need to be picked up from a toddy shop after a night of revelry! Then there was my friend from Kottayam, Mary, who would tell me elaborate tales about the “heavenly” food served in a particular kallu shop in south Kerala. For toddy shops don’t just serve toddy, they do a plethora of other dishes (ranging from fish to pork to beef) typically Kerala, typically tantalizing. Mary told me about the different kind of toddy shops, and how only a veteran kallu shop goer could tell them apart: the ones which were “gourmet”, the ones which wouldn’t earn you too many suspicious looks, the ones which had the best neera and the ones which used the freshest of ingredients.
In the evenings, the crowds got particularly boisterous (when the toddy would turn, so would the kind of clientele), and Mary would send in her driver to pick up the food. Anything for a plate of meen puli, the tangy and spicy sardine fish curry from Kuttettan’s shaap! For the longest time, the quintessential toddy shop was typically dominated by men. In fact, it still is. And, for a woman, it’s perhaps not the most comfortable outing in Kerala. However, the bigger and more touristy toddy shops do see a fair number of women visitors these days.
I finally got to actually visit a toddy shop last summer. A friend was visiting Kerala, and Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, the resort he was staying at, had organised a kallu shop visit for its guests. And I was only too happy to chaperone. The resort is on the edge of Lake Vembanad, and we (my friend, our tour guide, Shajimon and myself) gathered around the jetty at ten in the morning. We strapped on our life jackets, and set off in the motorboat, into the backwaters. We whizzed past one scenic landscape after the other (a fisherman floating slowly on his boat, a bird in mid flight), eliciting several “oohs” and “aahs” from my enamoured friend. The kallu shop was in the middle of a small island lined with hundreds of coconut trees. Thatched and nondescript, with wooden benches and tables — so here I was, finally overstepping the kallu shop rule!
It was around eleven, and as we seated ourselves on the rickety benches, three glasses of fresh toddy reached our table. Around us, a few local men, in their mundus looked at us rather curiously. “Either they are hardcore drinkers, or they just like being here for the conversation,” Shajimon tells us in an undertone. For the real drinkers come to the kallu shop only in the evening after work, when a glass or two (or three) of toddy is the only antidote to a tiring day of work.
Shajimon recommends what food we should order. “It’s not just the toddy people come here for. The food is as celebrated, as popular,” he tells us. We order kappa and meen kari (mashed tapioca and fish curry), kakka erachi (crab curry), karimeen porichathu (fried pearl spots, a type of fish fresh from the backwaters) and some flaky Malabar parottas as a side. “Not for the faint-hearted, is it?” Shajimon looks at my friend, and smiles. He had gone pink in the face, and I must admit I was doing my best to hide how breathless I had become. The food was delicious, but very spicy. I had to keep returning to my tumbler of kallu after every fiery bite. The kallu, which had just been tapped an hour earlier, was at the mild neera stage. “By evening, this will be a completely different drink,” Shajimon says. It was cool, light and sweet—and combined with the spicy food, the concoction tasted slightly heady! Perfect for a hot summer’s day.
Shajimon tells us how there are several hundred “toddy tappers” in Kerala. These skilled men shimmy up and down tall coconut trees, tapping and collecting the sap from the flower clusters of the palms, delivering them to various shops and businesses around the state. “It can’t be that difficult, can it?” my friend asks looking at a towering coconut tree, right outside the shop window. “Well, you need to be particularly strong, muscular…and daring,” Shajimon replies.
“And of course,” my friend adds, “a lover of toddy.”
kallu: an alcoholic drink made by fermenting sap of palm trees
neera: freshly tapped toddy, which is mild and non-alcoholic
meen puli: sardine fish curry
mundus: a sarong like garment worn around the waist in Kerala
kappa: mashed tapioca
meen kari: fish curry
kakka erachi: crab curry
karimeen porichathu: fried fish (pearl spots)
parotta: Kerala style flat bread
shaap: as in shop