The Shappu Transcendence

Written by Nihal Hasan

If you ever visit Kerala, especially the parts of central Kerala which revolve around the backwaters, you tend to notice small makeshift houses or huts with boards that direct you to a Toddy shop (Kallu shappu). These shops serve indigenous palm wine which is made by fermenting the sugars extracted from coconut tree saps. This transforms into a mildly alcoholic drink called toddy which is consumed extensively in Kerala’s countryside. It has an alcohol content of around 8-10 percent. The foreign tourists who usually visit these shops in large numbers went on to term this indigenous drink “coconut vodka”. Visits to these toddy shops are considered to be very eventful and engaging. At least that is how toddy shops are portrayed in the Mollywood industry. Men wearing colorful lungis lying dead asleep outside these huts, another group of men might be throwing abuses at one another. There would also be a group of people singing native songs (naadan pattu) and reminiscing themselves in bottled poetry and the alcoholic transcendence that unleashes their poetic potential. The few instances given above are some visual experiences of the shappu most Malayali’s have through the Malayalam cinema. 

But is this all that these toddy shops have to offer? Is it just a place to come and drain away your sorrows and stress? There is another reason why these places became hotspots for foreign tourists. Other than the coconut vodka, what equally matters is the lip-smacking delicacies of various fish and meat dishes these shops serve along with the toddy. Usually tangy and flavorsome, it is for the reason to neutralize the extreme sourness of the toddy that these dishes are made extremely spicy. Fish head curry (meen thala) is the most important dish the shappu has to offer—you pay 90 rupees and you will get a fish head soaked in a spicy reddish-orange curry and once you start digging in along with a rice dish, there is no going back. Green chromide fish (karimeen) is another star on the menu. Being a freshwater fish it costs much more than the other fishes in the market, but it is considered to be the king of all freshwater fish and it is never leftover once you start to dwell in with it. Usually fried or served as a steamed masala fry in a banana leaf (pollichathu), Karimeen is the star dish in these toddy shops and it is a must-try delicacy. Crab (nand), squid (koonthal), clam meat (kakka erachi), prawns (chemmeen), beef, duck (tharavu), and chicken (kozhi) are some other commonly ordered dishes. At certain toddy shops there are certain specials within the menu like rabbit and pork meat too. But these are high in demand and they sell out faster than the other delicacies—and usually served with rice dishes like puttu, velleppam, and idiyappam. Tapioca (kappa) on the other hand is also an important side dish that sells out in large numbers because of the awe-inspiring love story it shares with a plate of spicy fish curry. 

Now, you must be wondering what the vegans would do if they enter a toddy shop which is exclusively non-vegetarian. Well, there is nothing they can do in regards of eating. But here’s a heads up. If you are a person who discovers a new place through its food, it’s better if you don’t step foot on “God’s own country”.

Tourists and foreigners used to visit these toddy shops in large numbers while enjoying the backwater countryside of Kerala. It was a space where you sit and mingle as a collective, irrespective of your class and caste. However, there were certain societal stereotypes which were associated with a shappu.

People who had a very good family name or class respect in society didn’t usually access these toddy shops as it was considered a space for local village drunks (kudiyanmaaru) to waste away their days. For this very reason many high caste privileged men in society used to make the person who harnesses the wine from the sap deliver the toddy directly to their homes rather than accessing it from the shappu.  The urban class also rarely visited the countryside toddy shops because of issues related to comfort and the possible mingling which ought to take place with people from a rural makeup. The place was also a quintessential male space.

However, there has been a surfacing commercialization of these toddy shops from the 2000s. Toddy shops were being reconstructed in a manner where women and children could now savor the spicy food these places have to offer. Private rooms and individual tables for families were being made available for people to spend an entire evening thereby contrasting from the idea of a collective space in an original shappu.  The extent to which the toddy could be ordered was also kept within a limit so that there wouldn’t be any chaotic circumstances in a modern familial space where a family can have their own good time and have good food. This profit-making venture has given direct access for people from an urban background to the delicacies of a shappu and also induced a complete makeover of the shappu from a quintessential male space to a familial space.

The toddy shop is still considered to be a negatively portrayed space in popular imagery. I wouldn’t say that this isn’t true for the reason that it isn’t a space that can be visited as a family for moral and ethical reasons. But a place that exhibits great potential in traditional and indigenous food delicacies should not be demeaned in just a negative pathing. The shappu has however broken down these negative narratives through its commercializing process. It is true that the shappu induces a quest for transcendence but it is up to the person on whether he wants to receive it from the toddy or the spicy traditional food.

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Nihal Hasan

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