“Family room or fun room?” asked my waiter when I entered Mullapanthal, the best-known toddy shop in Ernakulam, Kerala, the southernmost state in India. “Fun room, please,” I said, and was seated in the center of the room with a tall glass of sparkling white coconut wine. Afternoons are slow at Mullapanthal, and moods are hot like the weather. Sizzling plates of food arrive in rapid succession.
I ordered cylinder-shaped puttu (rice flour soaked, dried, ground, and steamed with coconut), served with fish curry; the shop’s specialty duck roast, which is cooked for hours in a local variety of black pepper; and beef fry, a type of meat that's banned in the rest of India.
Toddy shops are small, family-run restaurants in which the region’s local liquor is sold, and Mullapanthal is one of Kerala’s most beloved. The state boasts high literacy rates, winding rivers with houseboats, and relative tranquility, compared to the more chaotic north. In the Indian popular imagination, it's known as “God’s Own Country.” Toddy shops, in turn, have a mythic reputation.
“My grandparents met at a toddy shop,” one of my friends told me. “When you order, they get the fish that instant, from the river,” said another. “Fried Fish. Fried Mussels. All the beef you can eat,” read a text from a different friend. In my head, these were small cottages in which locals streamed in nonchalantly, where the perfect expression of Kerala’s famed cuisine could be found.
But when my food arrived, I was told to take a selfie with it. “Remember to hashtag Mulla,” said my waiter as he left. “Or beef fry. Hashtag beef fry,” he suggested. “Best shaapu in Kerala,” said a group of young boys next to me, pointing to photos of the owner with local celebrities.
Even though my puttu was flawless, my fish was oiled to excess, and my duck was confusing. The kitchen is run primarily by women, but I didn’t see any of them in the dining room. I imagined they worked like machines. Mullapanthal didn’t strike me as a community affair. It's the Toddy Shop 2.0, a snazzy, revamped version of what used to be.
When I landed in Cochin earlier that trip, I excitedly told a man I’d met about my “toddy shop trail.” He replied: “You’re looking for a pipe dream. Real toddy shops don’t exist.”
"Toddy" is a British-coined term that refers to kallu, a liquid made from tapping the sap of a coconut or palm tree. After toddy is tapped, it's kept in tall jugs made from hollowed bamboo, where it ferments into alcohol. When toddy is fresh from the sap, it's sweet and non-alcoholic, but as it sits, in just six to seven hours, it turns into a beverage that gives its drinker an easy, woozy high. Although “tappers” from the state’s tribal communities make the toddy, the beverage is owned and circulated by the state.
Toddy shops used to be spaces in which men and sometimes women came to get an afternoon drink, but in the 1970s, they became bustling kitchens as well. Today, toddy shop food is its own sub-cuisine, with the requirements that all the ingredients need to be locally sourced and very spicy, so it complements the coconut wine. Thick, pungent and strong, toddy is hard to drink by itself. But when fish is fried in red chiles or prawns are tossed in curry leaves and coconut, the liquor finds its match.
“In the olden times, all the ingredients would come from the owner’s line of sight,” said Victor, a tour guide based in Cochin. “A shop owner could point them out with his index finger—toddy from that coconut, fish from that river, vegetables from that tree. But in the last decade, since the toddy bans, many disappeared. Those that survived, like Mullapanthal, became glitzy, branded, profit-making affairs.”
Victor was referring to the legislation and political conflicts that have surrounded the drink in the last two decades. In 1996, due to the state’s rampant alchoholism, which still persists today, chief minister A.K Antony increased the excise tax on domestically-produced liquor by 200% and shut down the state’s many liquor vendors; over 13,000 workers lost jobs. Once ubiquitous throughout Kerala, toddy shops began to disappear.
Since then, attempts to ban toddy have stopped and continued. In December 2017, another set of legislations was passed by the Supreme Court in Delhi, extending a ban on liquor to toddy shops near the highway. But these were revoked as soon as March 2018, in which the Kerala government argued that toddy was in fact “not liquor.”
While toddy could not be abolished, it did change form during the bans. The liquor became illegally smuggled, often mixed with foreign spirits and chemicals to heighten a high. “Mixed toddy can be very bad for health,” confirmed Victor. “It could make you blind.” Toddy went from being the beverage that locals were besotted with to a product of suspect.
On Victor’s recommendation, the next day, I visited Nettoor, a toddy shop outside Cochin. I was picked up by Manu Joseph, a friend and local, who insisted that the best time to visit a toddy shop was at sunset, when skies turned pink. As we walked along the backwaters, with the sharp smell of fresh fish everywhere, Nettoor appeared—a barren cottage with a small kitchen and brown benches lined on a wall.
When our toddy arrived, it was sweet, fresh from the sap, and non-alcoholic. I noticed ants swimming around in my glass. As I stooped to take them out, Rameshwar, the shop’s owner, stopped me.
“No!” he said. “This is how you know it is the real stuff.”
We wanted to try the shop’s beloved prawn fry, which arrived perfectly timed and garnished with slivers of coconut, fried to a crisp. To end our meal, we ate fish head curry with steamed tapioca. At Nettoor, tapioca is steamed and cooked with mustard and curry leaves so it's a fluffy, flavorful supplement to fish, or in some cases, a meal by itself.
As Manu and I drank, old men nestled into tables; everything was quiet save for the sound oil sizzling in large pans. For the state’s young, the shops are trips into yesteryear, into old photographs and stories told by family elders. They are also spaces in which the food has retained a certain excitement for being spicy, adventurous, and filled with flavors that aren’t readily available in more regular, home-cooked food. Nettoor sells 90 liters of toddy per day—far less than Mullapanthal's 350 liters—so it's more intimate.
While I thought this was it, the best toddy shop I would see, Manu told me I'd barely scratched the surface.
“Go to old Kerala!” Manu urged, as we finished eating. “To Allepey. You’ll find exactly what you’re looking for.”
Allepey, not far from the state’s capital district, is filled with small villages by the sea. When I arrived, I was told that the toddy shops here, too, have turned to cafes, guesthouses, or “western food joints,” depending on the clientele.
“Who cares about toddy or shaap-food?” said Sunil, the son of a toddy shop owner in Allepey, who now owns a milkshake café. “It is finished, it is gone, no one wants those things anymore.”
Undeterred, I rode a motorcycle around, yelling “kallu?” at passers-by in broken Malayalam. Finally, a local journalist named Shahjahan pointed me in the direction of the town’s only living authentic toddy shop, a restaurant without signage. People called it “Subhash Restaurant,” after the owner.
“Karimeen fry, prawn curry, rice, fried sardines,” said Kaumari, Subhash’s mother, as she walked me around the kitchen. “I am the head chef here,” she grinned. “My daughters-in-law help me, and the neighbors’ girl, whom I trust.”
As Kaumari cooked for me, the others peeled and marinated mud crabs. Mud crabs are small and crunchy, served fried in plenty of chile as an appetizer; it’s a Kerala favorite. I'd not heard of them being served at toddy shops, but Kaumari believes in breaking the usual menus people adhere to.
“Eating is more important than drinking,” she says. “My husband’s toddy is one of the best, but if people come here, it is to eat.”
When Kaumari is finished, I'm brought a plate of the sardines, a full fried Karimeen—a local fish available only in Kerala’s backwaters—served with steamed tapioca, and daal made from lentils, carrots, and tamarind. This is one of the best meals I've ever eaten, with the comforts of my grandmother’s kitchen, but smells and textures that are unknown. Like all great Indian cooks, Kaumari is aware of the function of each spice; she gives all her dishes subtle, precise flavors, never adding anything for the sake of excess.
As I eat, the kitchen moves in perfect coordination; the peeling of shrimp, the gutting of fish, the tearing of large, ripe jackfruit. For dessert, bananas are fried. Kaumari is right—in this case, it's the toddy that is a supplement to the food, and not the other way around.
I realized that there are two kinds of toddy shops still alive in Kerala. Those that have turned to marketing themselves, to glitz, to glamour—like Mullapanthal—and those like Nettoor and Kaumari’s kitchen—mythical-but-real spaces that pop out of nowhere.
While my toddy shop trail was viewed by others (and sometimes myself) as a dubious, trivial quest, smells from Nettoor’s fresh coconut and the fish from Kaumari’s kitchen are steeped deep in my mind. The toddy shop is not perfect: women still feel unwelcome, the erratic legislations continue, and mixed toddy, as Victor said, is dangerous. But places like Subhash Restaurant ensure locals in Kerala have somewhere to go, outside their homes, to eat fresh, home-cooked cuisine.
"'Shaapilay, a word that means ‘in the toddy shop,’ is also used as a euphemism for the tranquility you feel after a meal and a glass of toddy,” said Manu during dinner at Nettoor. “It means content, happy, peaceful, present in the moment that you are in."
“That’s not so easy to find that these days,” he added. “So if we have to go looking far and wide for this feeling, why not?”
Ever visited a toddy shop? Let us know about it in the comments!