Takeaway

God’s own tipple

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on December 28, 2019 Published on December 26, 2019

Heady affairs: The fermented milky white liquor is best had with fried fish and boiled tapioca   -  THE HINDU/H VIBHU

You can always drink toddy from a bottle in Kerala. But it’s nothing like having neeru, the unfermented sap, straight from a tapper’s jug

If you are a foodie, a mandatory part of the Kerala experience is a trip to a toddy shop for kallu, a fermented coconut liquor, which is served with helpings of fried fish and boiled tapioca.

However, for a truly authentic toddy experience, it’s best to go to the source: To watch the neeru (unfermented sap) being tapped from the coconut palm and drink it fresh off the tree. Toddy is tapped twice a day. The first round is before 8 am; the next is around sunset. There are many patrons of the sundowner ritual, but I choose the morning drink.

Sharp at six o’clock, I report at the boat jetty of Grand Hyatt at Kochi’s Bolgatty Island. Here, Aizon Cyril, in whose house by the sea we are going to witness the toddy tapping and have breakfast, is ready with a boat, complete with thatched roof.

 

From the treetop to the table

Toddy is not just a potent drink but also an integral part of Kerala cuisine. The fluffy pancake kallu appam, for instance, is made with rice and fermented toddy.

Grand Hyatt’s Chef Latha, widely known as Kerala’s first professional woman chef, vouches for the uses of coconut vinegar, which is prepared by storing toddy in a drum for several weeks. Coconut vinegar is said to have medical benefits and Chef Latha uses it to pickle vegetables. It’s also used in Goan cuisine to make vindaloo and xacuti.

 

We cruise alongside the Mulavakadu Island, better known as Bolgatty Island after the palace situated on its southern tip. It is unbelievably tranquil on the waters — we seem to be the only boat out this early. As we move further, we see women with pots tied to their waist diving into the water. They are catching fish with their bare hands, and filling the pots with it.

Aizon is an entertaining guide. He tells us about his parents, who had an interfaith marriage. The couple started their life together with just two gold bangles. His father sold one of those to buy a boat and made good. Now the entire family is involved in tourism. “We take people to villages to show our local culture — our food, traditional crafts such as coir matting and so on,” Aizon says. His mother Rama Devi is a home chef who rustles up traditional meals for visitors.

Aizon also points out the interesting islands that make up the city of Kochi. One of them is Ramanthuruth, a mangrove-filled island which is also a bird sanctuary. “There are all of five families living there and it has just 19 voters,” he says.

As we inch closer to the Cyril residence, a technical snag in the boat leaves us stranded midwater. While the crew gets busy with repairs, the intrepid guide makes a few phone calls. Very soon, we see his brother Stalin row towards us in another boat with our breakfast: Puttu, kadala, papadam, steamed banana, coffee and tea.

Toddy tapper Vijay Kumar

 

The boat is fixed by the time we finish breakfast and we head to the house. Here, we meet the lithe toddy tapper Vijay Kumar, who has the tools of his trade strapped around his body. A black jug is slung around his back and a couple of knives and a large bone — the femur bone of a deer — are tied around the waist.

We watch in awe as he climbs a tree with the agility of a cat. Coir ropes tied around the trunk of the coconut palm serve as footholds. Right near the top, he slits open a bud of the palm flower. He then hammers on the stalk with the bone to make the liquid ooze out while attaching a pot to it. The vessel is left overnight on the tree for the morning collection, which is about 600 ml from a single bud. Kumar then turns his attention to the pots he had left behind the previous day, fills his jug and climbs down.

The life of a toddy tapper is full of risks. He operates without safety nets and has no protection from hazards such as wasp attacks. The sweetness of the sap attracts many insects: We find ants swirling in the portion that Kumar has just fetched. Stalin sieves the milky liquid and offers us a drink. It is sweet and refreshing, and I ask for seconds. The morning sap turns sour and potent by noon, Aizon says. In the short time that Kumar has taken to fetch the neeru, Aizon’s mother has fried fish caught off the waters in front of the house.

We learn that Kumar belongs to the Thiyya community of toddy tappers. There is a mythical folklore around how the Thiyyas got involved in the activity. It is said that Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort, peeped down from heaven and saw a happy community of people frolicking in a green land. This was Kerala. She at once wanted to visit the place, and she and Shiva walked through the land. During the walk, Shiva felt thirsty and noticed bees buzzing around liquid oozing from the trunk of a coconut tree. He drank it and felt tipsy. To prevent her husband from drinking more, Parvati rubbed the trunk of the tree and sent the sweet sap to the top. Not to be deterred, Shiva created a man out of his thigh whom he trained to fetch the sap. The Thiyyas are said to be descendants of that tapper.

And that’s why toddy is said to be god’s own offering. (The writer was in Kochi at the invitation of Grand Hyatt)

    Published on December 26, 2019
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