In Kerala, a tropical slice of a state that runs along India’s southwestern coast, people use every part of the coconut tree. The bark is used as firewood. The leaves and husks become mats and rope. The fruit, of course, features heavily in curries, chutneys and stews. The sweet sap can be used to make palm sugar. Or, left to ferment, it can be transformed into a special, mildly alcoholic brew called toddy.
Early each morning — almost exactly as they have been doing for hundreds of years — nearly 30,000 toddy tappers across the state risk their lives to clamber up coconut trees. Sometimes they walk from treetop to treetop on crude tightropes in search of budding flower stalks. They slice these stalks open and use terracotta pots to catch the milky liquid that oozes out, which almost immediately begins to ferment, thanks to natural yeasts in the air.
Every day, the tappers load up their caravans, vans and trucks and rush their pots full of sap to thousands of toddy shops or shaaps, the Keralan equivalent of countryside taverns, where day laborers and government employees, local families and tourists gather to experience what a Keralan friend describes as “the true, original taste of Kerala.”
My favorite is Chungam, an unassuming, whitewashed concrete cube, tucked into a narrow, winding road along the backwaters. Enter, and you’ll find a small room at the front, with a handful of plastic seats, mainly occupied by men who’ve come on their own. Larger groups are led back into a living room, where yellow-green geckos dart in and out from behind framed family photos on the walls and where you can choose to leave the TV on or off.
There’s no menu. Kaumari, who has been running Chungam out of her family home for nearly five decades, cooks up whatever’s fresh and in season.
During a visit in mid-April, at the very beginning of mango season, that meant three kinds of pickle made from tender, tangy baby mangoes. Plus a salad of sardines tossed with red chiles, turmeric, lime and freshly grated coconut flesh; peppery roasted prawns and a fiery red fish curry. The spices scorch, so you’re compelled to buy more and more of the slightly sweet, slightly tart toddy to douse the heat.
“Everyone asks me why I have been doing this for so many years,” says Kaumari, who runs the kitchen, while her husband, son and daughter-in-law serve customers. “Mostly it’s for the compliments,” she says with a chuckle. The compliments are addictive.
Her patrons, many of them 9-to-5ers who take extra-long lunch breaks and drive half an hour out of the nearest city for her food, pay her enough praise to ensure she won’t retire anytime soon, but not too loudly, or publicly and definitely not via Google or Yelp.
Even without a social media presence, it’s hard to score a table at lunchtime, especially since toddy shops are having a bit of a revival lately.
Although toddy is in the name, the most popular shaaps are famous for their food. “Ten, 15 years ago, most toddy shops would not be known to anyone outside of rural Kerala,” says Keralan chef Aji Joseph, who has worked in high-end restaurants across India during his 20-year career, but still gets nostalgic for his hometown shaaps.
He credits the Internet and Instagram with popularizing these spots beyond rural Kerala. “So not just in urban Kerala, but also people in Delhi or New York are seeing how good this food looks … and they want to try it for themselves.”
And they should, Joseph says. “The cuisine is completely unique.” Shaap specialties include karimeen pollichathu — spiced freshwater fish that’s wrapped inside plantain leaves, and fried in coconut oil — served with a side of kappa, steamed tapioca. There’s duck mappas, shredded duck meat slow-cooked in a spiced coconut sauce; kakka or freshwater clams, roasted with spice and coconut shavings; and meen thala curry, made with fish heads and coconut milk.
Coconut features in absolutely every dish. Kerala, in the region’s Malayalam language, literally means “land of coconuts,” and toddy shops are very much an ode to that land, as well as the waterways that permeate and surround it.
“Everything is made from local ingredients found within a few kilometers of the shop,” Joseph says. “And whatever they cook in the morning, that’s it. They sell that until it’s finished. They don’t have a fridge or freezer, they don’t keep anything for the next day.”
The toddy that accompanies all of that is equally ephemeral. Coconut sap ferments fast — within a few hours of collection, it transforms from a sugary syrup into an effervescent alcoholic drink. Within 24 hours, it further ferments into a vinegar that can be used to make pickles — but is pretty unpleasant to drink. It’s brief lifespan means that it’s never bottled, or exported.
It’s a specialty of rural villages — not just in south India, but also Sri Lanka, and southeast Asia, where people have been tapping and drinking toddy for centuries, says J. Devika, a historian at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
And while the younger generations in agricultural communities across India are increasingly seeking higher-paid work in cities, there doesn’t seem to be any perceptible shortage of toddy tappers, suppliers, or drinkers in Kerala.
Still, there’s not much written down about toddy history. Devika says, “simply because toddy has been so much a part of everyday life for so long, no one has really thought to study it.” Devika says there has long been a stigma against women drinking alcohol in many parts of Keralan society, but up until the 1940s, Devika says, both men and women used to frequent toddy shops after work.
At its peak, toddy is about as alcoholic as beer — containing between 3 and 6 percent alcohol. It’s not the most effective way to get drunk. But in the 1940s came a trend of spiking or fortifying toddy, or distilling it into a rum-like spirit. Toddy shops became associated with violent, drunk men, Devika says.
But the majority of toddy shops were unaffected by those restrictions, which made an exception for the indigenous drink, though tappers and shaap owners are still petitioning a new government rule that prevents them from selling toddy near highways.
One result of the recent focus on alcoholism is that the state government has been monitoring toddy tapping and sales more stringently over the past three years.
That, perhaps, has helped wipe clean toddy shops’ seedy reputation, says Chef Joseph.
Or perhaps, more people are just catching onto the fact that shaaps serve some of the best food in Kerala, says Vijayakumar, whose family has been running Mullapanthal, one of the best-known toddy shops in Kerala, for three generations.
“People come mainly for the food,” he says. All which is cooked on traditional stoves — fueled, of course, by coconut wood.