It’s Burns’ Night but there isn’t a haggis to be seen in Jangpura A Block, New Delhi. On the flip side, there is whiskey and stories to tell about Indian booze. I think Rabbie would approve.
Continuing on our culinary craziness across Kerala (alliteration or tongue twister?) our return journey to the homely shores of Fort Kochi was diverted in aid of quenching Jess’s thirst for sitting in a shack, drinking the local fermented palm sap, AKA Toddy, and eating the spiciest fish head curry on the planet. That’s why we love her. Since researching Anthony Bourdain’s adventures in India, Jess had been on the case of finding the ubiquitous Toddy Shop. I’d been asking various people in preparation and most responses to a white girl innocently asking ‘do you know a good toddy shop that sells fish eye curry?’ seemed to include a grimace, a laugh, maybe a pointed finger, a shake of the head, maybe a waggle and no useful information. Partly I think because it’s head not eye, but details, details. We were not deterred. The further we delved into Kerala, the more we asked and the more people grimly warned us of the den of iniquity that the toddy shop becomes later in the day. Apparently the older the day becomes, the stronger the fermented Toddy, the worse the behaviour and the riskier the men. Clearly we would not be stopped.
Where local knowledge led us astray, TripAdvisor saved the day. I must remember to start writing reviews and not poetry. We therefore embarked on a mission with our patient and amused driver to find the most recommended Toddy Shop in TripAdvisor town. Mullapanthal is about 45 minutes south of Fort Kochi and was the pedestrian option compared to the shacks we’d been spotting along the way. It’s big, it’s bright, it’s got private rooms for families and outside those rooms is packed with letchy looking toddy drinkers nursing their empty jugs and dribbling chilli oil. Slight dramatic license but they did stare.
We were ushered in to a sweaty room in the middle of the courtyard where we sat around a table and ordered everything we could. It was a Toddy lubricated feast of spice and protein – and tapioca/tomatoes for the veggie. The Toddy arrived, the Toddy was tasted. The Toddy for me was rank. The Toddy for Jess and Lu was weirdly digestible – which made the driver smirk and me feel very proud. Then the fish heads came, the flat river fish came, the other fish in banana leaf came and Jess proceeded to eat. And eat. When a foodie makes a pilgrimage it’s an incredibly satisfying sight. I’ve seen Jess devour plenty of food in weird and wonderful places. If I could share the mental image of her cracking a coconut with her bare 19-year-old hands on the dark shores of Fraser Island you’d all have a laugh (and be quite scared). But I’ll now never forget the intent on her face as Jess gorged on a fish head. Being a wimp I had a bit of tomato fry, some snippets of fish and a sip of Toddy. Lu filled her face with raw chilli oil and survived. The driver just sat and chuckled.
But before we left Toddy we had the pure privilege of seeing the kitchens of Mullapanthal. It’s rare in India to see women cooking in restaurants and this place is famous for it, though you have to seek them out. In this hot, smokey outbuilding on the way to the ‘loo’ a group of women slave over wooden fires and enormous steaming cauldrons of bubbling fat and fish. In a word, hot. But with the people, the smells, the charm and the smiles I have never been in such an atmospheric kitchen and absolutely loved it. As we stood there sweating and trying desperately to communicate nuff respect in English to Malayalam speakers (gesticulations and grins), these women looked amused and bemused and continued to stoke the fires and stir their vats of chilli.
Food tourism has a variety of perks but the experiences I’ve had tend to mean it’s rare to see the human aspect. I’m converted – kitchens of the world beware. I’ll be getting lost on the way to the loo more often. I may be a total Toddy embarrassment but the girlpower completely won me over.