kochi on a plate featured
August 2013
#Kochi , 5405 Views
Kochi, on a plate

By: Ann Dominic

The ubiquitous toddy shop and its spicy food is Kerala at its vintage best. Mullapandhal, or “jasmine pavilion”, in Kochi is an oddly named archetype of the popular genre, where the toddy is sweet, and food is fiery.

When I headed to Mullapandhal, it was inspired by stories of my father and his cronies singing with drunken abandon at its tables 40 years ago. Tucked away in a sleepy by-lane in Tripunithura, a suburb of Kochi, the 87-year-old shop even now maintains its reputation of the sweetest toddy served with the spiciest freshest bar food as only Kerala knows how. As soon as I reached the reason for its name became apparent—a huge ancient jasmine vine or ‘mulla’ tree protectively sheltered the little yellow and green shop. The heady fragrance of flowers in bloom hung
in the air.

Inside, I was greeted by a genial, rotund man wearing a saffron lungi and a rosary. Salil, as I would come to know him, ushered me to my seat with all the cordiality one would show a long-lost friend. I felt a cozy warmth of friendship flowing through even though I hadn’t had a sip of toddy yet.

At the entrance were two long wooden tables and accompanying benches. Salil told me these were permanently booked for the old regulars, not for big city girls wanting to check out rustic toddy shops. For the rest of us, they had a large airy semi-open area, which was fully packed to capacity with 200 odd people. There was such an air of relaxed well-being that you did not mind the utilitarian décor. People were chatting, catching up, laughing while the regulars sat in front meditating on life with their jugs of toddy. An excited young crowd, couple by couple, trooped in and out, lonely others managed with fish and toddy for company. “It is the weekend,” the waiter explained with a smile.

He pointed me to the menu on the wall. The choices on offer were long and over-whelming and after considering its full implication on my stomach, I settled for a plate of Kappa (steamed spiced
tapioca), a plate of Masala Prawns, one Karimeen Pollichathu (freshly caught pearl spot fish steamed in a banana leaf), a bowl of Karimeen Mappas (pearl spot fish with tomatoes and coconut gravy) and, after sending up a prayer for forgiveness from my kids, Rabbit Fry. All to be washed down with a jug of fresh sweet toddy.

The service was prompt and the food, when it arrived, spicy but outstanding. As I dug in, I remembered that I am partaking in a meal that in a curious way, cuts across all communities and economic divides in Kerala. ‘Shaap’ food, as the fare in Kerala’s
toddy shops is called, is the hearty, authentic kind everyone loves to love. Despite its heat and gastric stress, people here love the white ceramic platters of what is called ‘touchings’ to go along with
the liquor. Which probably explains the sense of satisfaction with a job well done that everyone, from the cook in charge of Mullapandhal kitchen, Radha-chechi, to the staff who served us, to even the guy who hauled in the day’s consignment of toddy in huge vats from the trucks parked outside, emanated. Clearly, they were proud of being part of an establishment that customers loved. “We all feel like we are part of one big family,” the man who served us told me. He mentioned that he had perks and benefits, and would be drawing a pension, just like his father and grandfather did.

Most of Mullapandhal’s employees remain for decades. Radha-chechi, for instance, had been here for 27 years. She remembers how back in her early days, the local toddy shop was the only place
to hang out after a long day of work where men would drink, talk, laugh and rue. Eventually someone would start thumping a tune on the long tables and the singing sessions would begin. Things have changed somewhat now. The neighbours don’t like the nightly racket of 50 drunken men belting out old cinema and drama songs.

Some believe that a ‘shaap’ is also not that cool anymore to hang out in but I find that difficult to believe, considering how many of the hipster set seemed to be filing in as I waited for my bill.

When we parted, Radha-chechi and her compatriots were kind enough to share with me the recipe of her specialty Rabbit Olarthiyathu (rabbit spiced with freshly ground masalas and shallots, and sautéed in coconut oil). I knew I would never prepare it at home. Instead, I will take the time and trouble to find my way back here. Where else can I get this happy mix of smells,
flavours and stories?

kochi on a plate 01
A self-explanatory recipe for ‘shaap’ speciality Rabbit Olarthiyathu.
kochi on a plate 02
The kitchen; the cook; and the cashier, who keeps tabs on orders with a chalk on his desk.