The Perfect Pairing: Toddy And Seafood In Kerala

After spending around two months exploring the beautiful state of Kerala, I realised the nature and the calmness one can experience in Kerala is second to none. From the dense and ecologically blessed wilderness to the pristine soul-touching backwaters, from beautiful and calm beaches to some of the finest waterfalls, Exploring Kerala and this coastal state's culinary and cultural aspects comfortably absorbed me in the divine gastronomical journey of exploring God’s own country. 

Food and nature are complementary, and in Kerala, it is hard to separate one from the other. Experiencing the local cuisine of Kerala, one is constantly amazed by the natural and fresh ingredients used in cooking. Seafood is always fresh, spices are the finest, coconut trees are always in sight, and the culinary skills of Keralites have their unique might. Thus, spending time in Kerala has been one of the most enriching and exciting times of my journey across India, which gave me many memorable experiences of a lifetime. One such fantastic experience was visiting the Small culinary gems called the Toddy Shops across the state. 

Rather than spending big bucks in a bar or a pub, one can try the local fermented Palm wine called Toddy, or ‘Kallu, at the Toddy Shops, or as they say in Malayalam, ‘Kallu Sap’. Toddy shops are licensed shops registered under the Excise department, usually extended with a dining space, which is always a trusted place to enjoy spicy and authentic local cuisine. Toddy Shops, where one can enjoy chilled glasses of mildly intoxicating and sweet toddy, is also known for its seafood. Diners enjoy a good spicy meal, as it complements the toddy perfectly. The variety of seafood depends on the daily catch. Fishes like Karimeen (Pearlspot), Tilapia, Nethili (Anchovies), Ayila (Mackerel), Pomfrets, Matthi (Sardines), Squids (Kanava), Crabs (Njandu), Prawns (Konju) etc. are almost always available in different styles of preparation, be it fry, roast, or curry. The flavours and taste of food are addictive, and the cheap, delicious, natural and smooth intoxicating beverage like toddy to sip along as you admire the beauty of nature gives you the experience to remember. 

During my visit, I visited Alleppey’s best-known Shop, Subhash Hotel, located alongside the backwater canal. The canal was calm; however, the scene at the Subhash Hotel was far away from it. The place was packed with people ordering their choice of dishes on every table, some eagerly awaited their food, and those served couldn’t wait any longer before they gobbled up their portions. We got a lovely table and ordered a few chilled glasses of toddy and fish fry. As we bit into the crispy tilapia and took a big gulp from the steel glasses full of toddy, the Kerala experience was at its peak. My companion was my Dutch friend Bram who complimented the perfectness of the combination, the beverage, the food, the nature, the spices, and the sheer rawness of the local Kerala experience a toddy shop visit gives you. The locals on the next table recommended we try some prawns and squids, and Subhash Chettan (owner of Subhash Hotel) was already on the table with a portion of fresh plumpy prawns in a hot masala and a portion of squids done as a dry fry. Just the right dishes to enjoy the Kerala flavours and in perfect harmony with the few glasses of toddy we reordered. Chit-chatting with friends and local patrons of Subhash hotel, appreciating the excellent quality of refreshing toddy and the delicious prawns we were enjoying, time passed by. The repeats were swift and went well with the squids. 

The fish curry meals are the highlight of toddy shop food, as is true with most authentic dining places in Kerala. Fish curry and rice, some fried anchovies, pickle, Thoran, and fish fry or tawa fish of your choice. Duck curry cooked in coconut milk, Beef roast, or Prawn roast, there is a lot of variety to choose from, and we thoroughly enjoyed the flavours of the spread. A few glasses of toddy worked well on the appetite; as we happily overate, we couldn’t help but agree with the hype around Subhash hotel, its famed toddy, food, and hospitality. 

Subhash Chettan’s father, Rajapalam ji, is always at the restaurant's cash counter, the operating desk. While his wife, Subhash’s mother, is the head of the kitchen. I had the pleasure of meeting her and taking her blessings. The entire family is involved in operating the hotel. And each one assists as per their role. Seeing Subhash ji actively serving the guests with his broad smile was heart-warming. And the loving mother carefully presides over the kitchen operations, ensuring that the dishes are cooked to perfection, and I am confident that food never gets wrong under her watchful eyes. The love of their patrons and the satisfaction we felt, in the eyes of all the other diners, assured us of the perfection of such gastronomical offerings. 

I have had toddy at many places in Kerala, Kochi, Wayanad, Varkala, and many other places. Toddy is smooth and sweet when fresh; as it rests, it ferments more and turns slightly sour and more potent. On most days, fresh toddy is better, especially along with a meal, like we enjoyed at Subhash Hotel, and on some days, the slightly more fermented and stronger toddy makes for a lovely evening tipple. The alcoholic content is close to a light beer (4-5 %), and upon refrigeration, it can be stored a little longer, but no more than a day, for best results. 

During my stay in Kerala, visiting toddy shops was an exciting affair that I always looked forward to, as it only meant fun and pleasurable times. Kerala is full of such experiences; Alleppey is known for its wonderful toddy shops. The countryside is adorned with many authentic toddy shops, and each one can surprise you with its good food and toddy, and for this reason, I never say no to a Toddy. 

Keep Exploring! 

Sidharth Bhan Gupta, Founder of 361 Degrees Hospitality, is a Hospitality / Food and Beverage / Restaurant Consultant, Travelling across India on a Cultural and Culinary Exploration.