The toddy shop is as singular to Kerala as the bistro is to France. Over the centuries, the thatched huts of toddy bars that dot the idyll of God’s Own Country have evolved their own cuisine: mostly the poor man’s drinking snacks made from tapioca, fish and pork. The inaugural edition of the Toddy Shop Festival at Forte Kochi Hotel that continued over two months served both Indian and foreign patrons and guests the gastronomy of the countryside bars.
F&B Manager Harikrishnan Kaniyarakkal says, “The first edition of the festival was a hit among people. To cater to the variety of clientele we get - Europeans, Americans, Asians and North Indians - we decided to reduce the spices to suit everybody’s palate.”
Over 2,000 visitors came for their toddy tuck this year. Hotel manager Sajeesh Nadakhakath says, “A lot of guests here kept asking for local food. We decided to go for the basic.”
Before the feast came research. The senior staff went to Kuttanad and sampled dishes at several toddy shops. Two of the cooks were shortlisted to create recipes for the festival. The seity of toddy shop food is undeniable. It is mostly served in the toddy shops of Southern Kerala, especially around Kuttanad and Kottayam. Toddy shop pit stops during backwater tours are now a staple of the houseboat experience.
Kallu (toddy) shop food grabbed mass attention, thanks to YouTube uploads and other social media posts that led to a flurry of food articles in the mainstream media. In Kerala, where drinking is not usually considered part of the holistic dining experience, many families now drop in at these shops for tapioca and Karimeen.
Some of the most-popular dishes include Pothu curry (beef curry), Chemmeen Vattichathu (dried shrimp), Pork Varattiyathu (pork roast), Natholi Meen Peera (small fish fry), fried squid, beef fry, grilled seer fish, prawn roast, fried pork, scampi and crabs.
“These are usually paired with Kerala-style paranthas, boiled tapioca, rice and Kallappan (hoppers),” says Executive Sous Chef Gejo Joseph. The authentic items are cooked inside banana leaf pouches. “We place the prawn, beef or pork inside a banana leaf, and then close both its ends before cooking,” says Gejo. “The flavours of the leaf and spices form a unique taste once they mix.”
Charishma T, who visited the festival, says: “The Chemmeen Vazhayila Pidi Kizhi [prawn in banana leaf pouch] was my favourite. It’s a semi-dry, nice and spicy dish cooked with prawns. The sharp flavours were a pleasure to the tastebuds. Meen Manga curry (fish and mango curry), which came in a traditional earthen pot, was equally good. So was the tender seer fish, which was dunked in thick coconut gravy and raw mango pieces.”
Almost all the dishes had tamarind, ginger, garlic, cinnamon and cardamom as the main ingredients. A forgivable innovation was Kashmiri chillies.
“A reason for the high amount of spices in toddy shop food is that people eat after drinking a lot of toddy first. The spice makes it taste better,” says Gejo.
But there is no rest for the wickedly enthusiastic at the high table of low places. Says Harikrishnan, “We will be back with more innovative dishes and new additions on the menu for the second edition of the festival next year.” Hic hic hurray.