Tap around for toddy

Zac O Yeah | Updated on June 22, 2018

Heady duty Model Toddy Parlour is the perfect place for a toddy-themed pilgrimage; (below) a clay pot of kallu (Malayalam for toddy) at the same bar images: zac o’yeah   -  ZAC OYEAH

Thalassery in Kerala is holy ground for lovers of fermented sap and fiery seafood

I’d heard that the best imaginable seafood is to be had in the toddy shops of Kerala, particularly in the area of Thalassery, which is something of a food hub. But no substantial information about rustic pub grub could be fished out from the internet and no specific toddy shop was hailed as key gourmet destination. So the solution was a reality check.

Thalassery turns out to be full of coffee houses, but seafood bars are rarer. I check into the smallish, but splendid Victoria Hotel, which used to be a British club before being taken over in the 1930s by a Mr Kanaran, whose descendants run it. It has been a popular hangout for ages, with its clifftop location and gazebos overlooking the ocean — affording dramatic views at sunset. Unfortunately it turns out that the bar is shut, so no cocktails, and the restaurant is under renovation, so no food either. With nothing else to do, I end up roaming the town’s charming streets lined by quaint bakeries and flashy boutiques. Although I don’t find ‘palm-wine’, I pick up pertinent souvenirs such as 400g jars of pickled mussels (₹235) from the well-stocked Jayabharathi Sweets in MG Road.

In this nightlife-less town I find that I’ve timed my visit poorly with the monsoon setting in and the fishing season almost over. In the end I make do with a nondescript air-conditioned restaurant where north Indian kitchen staff drown the delicate Kerala seafood with greasy masalas, according to their death-by-gravy çooking methods. But the jolly waiter is proud of his menu so I pretend to enjoy, while cautiously asking where to sample authentic fare.


A clay pot of kallu (Malayalam for toddy)   -  ZAC O’YEAH



“You must eat in kallu shaaps. They serve the best food. Avoid the shaap to the south of town, because they mix chemicals in their toddy. Only go to the one on the north side,” he says knowledgeably.

Address to tell auto driver?

“Pen drive!” he exclaims.

I’m sure he’s pulling my leg, but later, while sipping on musk-melon juice in a fancy café called Tellistory, the owner’s friend, a handsome chap, sidles up and asks me if I am that food writer. I admit I might be ‘that one’. He mentions some article I wrote about Kerala seafood ages ago and introduces himself as Biju Aravind, a tourism consultant who hopes to put Thalassery on the map with his website www.exploretellicherry.com. I ask him about a toddy shop called ‘pen drive’ and it turns out to be well-known to him, a born and bred local.

“Yes, Pinarayi has the best toddy shop. I’ll take you there for lunch.”

So we meet next day at the apparel showroom where he is a managing partner and, as we drive, he points out various sights. Finally, some seven km north of town, on the way to Pinarayi, at a point where the road follows the broad Anjarakkandi river through a hamlet called Kaliyil, a fish shop stands on the riverbank among scattered oyster shells, and across from it is the Model Toddy Parlour. It is an unpretentious whitewashed establishment with a prominent ‘non-smoking’ sign outside, while the interiors are squeaky-clean, spacious, airy and — at least in the daytime — very bright.

It is an extremely picturesque location for a bar more quintessential than any I’ve seen. The kind you’d want to simply spend your life in — like the rest of the customers seem to be doing, for although it is rather early on a Monday the shack is full of dining drunkards. There is no menu as such, but to check what’s cooking we peek into the kitchen, where a multitasking lady attends to pots of boiling fish curry, squid masala and mashed kappa — the typical Kerala-style spiced-up cassava root purée. In another chamber a huge clay pot is filled to the brim with frothy toddy, known as kallu in Malayalam.

We order plates of everything from the bare-chested, mundu-clad maître d’hôtel. I am told that the beverage is harvested every morning at 4.30 am by expert toddy-tappers, from the palm trees that grow in abundance. Apparently the toddy industry provides employment to over 50,000 people; and if all shops were like this Model Toddy Parlour then it should be a good thing—– for although alcoholism may be injurious to health, the 100 per cent natural palm-wine seems an organic and wholesome alternative to industrially distilled hard liquor. The fermented sap has a slightly sour flavour, like that of buttermilk, and is mildly intoxicating, complementing the fiery food perfectly — tawa-roasted prawns redolent with coconut oil and curry leaves, explosively peppery squid masala, and tangy fish curry. Including two huge bottles of toddy, the bill comes to ₹510; and the fuller I get, the better I understand why toddy shops are the stuff of food legend.

Zac O’Yeah   -  BLink


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on June 22, 2018

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