The writer begins a whirlwind tour through the toddy shops in Kerala to savour the dishes which are fingerlickin’ good.
The cool wind blows. The waters of Valapattanam river lap on the marshy bank where a nondescript toddy shop stands, no, teeters on to one side. It is perfect for a snap, but for the blue tarpaulin spread out against the hot sky and a potbellied man, who reads to me the Commandments.
I feel the intense blue heat under the tarpaulin.
“No. Please go. We are not interested,” a middle aged man with a prominent belly, thick moustache bellows. He may not have heard me. “You know, I am a media person. I have come all the way from Trivandrum to do a story on you and your toddy shop,” I repeated. (Cummon… this is your last chance).
He doesn’t bat his eyelids. “That is why I told you, NO.”
No! No? This cannot happen to me. That too before my companions.
My friends come from the medical field and are fed from childhood with my fables of journalists as gods. And now a potbellied owner of a tiny toddy shop, in a remote village named Kali in Pinarayi, Kannur is dismissing me with a shake of his head, wounding me with a smirk on his face. I have already been forewarned by my friends in Trivandrum that Kannur is a tough place, and Pinarayi being the bastion of Marxist party is one of the toughest.
I am not cut, hacked, or stabbed but I feel myself like a waste bowl in a toddy shop, full of bruised flesh and wounded bones.
Doesn’t the potbellied man long for publicity? Isn’t he elated to find a journalist coming all the way from Trivandrum just to talk to him? Doesn’t he crave to pose before my gargantuan camera with a grin that would spill out of its viewfinder?
The cool wind blows. I sweat profusely like a swine with my friends breathing down on my back. “Chettah, it is for my website. I have come to write a story. Your toddy shop is very famous.,” I say this time with a smile tucked away on this side of my head away from my friends.
“I told you we are not interested. You can’t do a story on a toddy shop. That is just like giving publicity to alcohol. Against the rules.” Thank God, he also tones down his voice. So that is the point.
“I know that, chetta…(I didn’t know). We haven’t come for the toddy but for the food.” I touch his muscular shoulder with my timid hand.
The Mac Mohan line is soon drawn. We are not supposed to shoot the interiors, or the customers, or the toddy. Forget an interview, they wouldn’t even talk to one another before the camera. What is left is the river, and its banks on either side. Plus the road that lies before the toddy shop which connects Thallassery with Pinarayi.
“Can you serve outside?” our eyes are on the concrete embankment of the river.
The cool wind blows. The coconut trees bend over the river to preen their leaves in the wind, and to savour their beauty reflected on the water. A lone stork meditates on the other side.
The procession begins pretty soon. First comes the yellowish yellow kappa – swishy on the fingers, mushy in the mouth and cushy for the stomach. The oily membrane on the top is resplendent with mustards, curry leaves and a couple of burnt red chilies. Aji touches it. His fingers recoil, he thrusts them into his mouth to extinguish the yellow fire stuck on them.
We smile and join him to get burned.
Soon plates of fiery red curries arrive. The fragrance of finely ground masala and smoke eddy up, as we pour the curry on the gooey tapioca. A wash of red now drenches the bright yellow. Most of these freshwater fish are unheard of – Koyala, Thenda, Kethal. The sea is loudly and fierily represented by squid masala and thirandi curry.
The cool wind blows. Who listens?
The only sound around is the teeth crushing the shells of crabs to get into their soul and life’s savings. I try a couple and find that crabs are a no bite zone for the brittle bones in my mouth. I wish for the first time since I have begun this toddy-trip, my wife’s presence. She is magnanimous to forfeit the best part of her catch to her husband.
But here is war, among friends, a Darwinian struggle for survival. Even as your teeth negotiate with the hard shell of a crab, you should be grabbing the next couple of pieces with both your hands. You always wish for more of them – crabs and hands.
Prawns masala detonates all our taste buds in a sortie. Believe me; you will never taste prawns better than here at Kali Kallu shop, in Pinarayi.
All the conversation dies down along with the nature. The greenery on the banks, the babbling river, the music in the leaves all are wasted on the four of us wolfing down the best food spread we have had in recent years.
The curries blaze down leaving a trail of fire up to my stomach. A bottle of sweet toddy is perfect to put it down, but is against our resolution not to touch. Rivulets of sweat trickle down our face as we empty plates and plates of vellayappam, kappa and fish curry. And at last one by one we begin to crane our heads up, smile to become friends once again.
Will the bill kill the swell? We are into mental arithmetic as Sivan who is at the counter hastily jots down the details of the dishes we had, into a paper. Anything less than 800 bucks would be nothing short of magic.
“225…! You mean two hundred and twenty five rupees!!!” I ask, with my eyes, my mouth wide open. Sivan’s face darkens. “We served you more than seven items. That is why the amount has gone up.” Man, he says that with regret!
Here’s the detailed bill for my readers:
Crab – Rs. 30/- Koyala – Rs. 25/- Kethal – Rs. 25/- Thenda- Rs. 25/- Koyala fry – Rs. 25/- Kappa – 4 plates – Rs. 20/- Appam – 4 pieces – Rs.20/- Squid Masala – Rs.30/- Thirandi – Rs. 30/- Total=Rs. 225/-
“Don’t forget to drop in whenever you come to Kannur,” the potbellied man smiles through the grey moustache overhanging his mouth and extends his callous hand to see us off. People here are like him – thick outside, soft inside.
My fingers still burn with chilly and pepper. But I like this tingle, this sweet coolness when a breeze sodden with toddy washes over the tiny red bruises on my fingers.
(Photographs by Manu Remakant)