It’s amazing what the people here do with the Coconut Palm. In the Backwaters of Kerala it’s the basis for their whole economy. The husks are soaked in water for six months and then pounded to produce coir fibre for rope and boat building; The leaves are used to make shelters for animals and sometimes people; The white inside is grated for all sorts of local dishes; The sweet milk inside is drunk; and the they are also dried and pounded to extract the oil which is used for cooking and in some ayurvedic treatments. It really is a wonder plant for the area.
Beside all this – and for me the most interesting use, the flowers are tapped to extract a sweet sap which is then fermented to produce toddy. Toddy is the most popular alcoholic drink in the rural areas of Kerala and there are toddy shops all around. Many of them serve food and are almost like pubs in the UK.
I was quite excited about getting to try some when I was booking a backwater canoe trip in Kollam, but the guy booking the tour told me I wouldn’t see any on the trip. I was a little disappointed, but this changed when halfway through the trip the guide asked if we wanted to try some. ‘Yes’ was my instant answer.
So off we traipsed through the Coco Plantation to a lean to shack in the middle of some rice paddies, where a very cheery man was sitting amongst some random plastic containers. For INR60 he filled up my water bottle with some freshly tapped Toddy, but I couldn’t drink it straight away
– Not Ready. Drink tomorrow morning, he told me
Not really up for getting drunk first thing I asked – What about tonight
– Tonight not strong. Tomorrow Strong, he insisted
Oh well tomorrow morning it is. He bid us farewell by saying
– Me toddy Tapper, and beating his chest at the same time.
The toddy was a live science experiment in my hands. It kept fizzing and lightening in colour as the sugar changed to alcohol. I tasted the brew at various times through the process and found its flavour changing quite rapidly. The only problem was it was warm. I can’t drink warm beer, never mind warm coconut moonshine. So it sat. And next morning I couldn’t really face it, and it sat some more. By night time when I felt like trying it again it was gone bad. That’s the thing about toddy, it doesn’t keep. 24 hours and it’s turning to vinegar.
So my first foray into toddy didn’t go to well, but a couple of days later and I’m outside Mantancherry Palace, in Cochin, I see a sign saying ‘TODDY’. I was a bit hesitant but I went in anyway. Inside they were selling Ice cold toddy – much more up my street. And it was great, almost like a coconut cider, refreshing with a kind of sherbet fizz. The barman handed me some tapioca with mustard seeds and curry leaves to try. I’d never tried tapioca on its own but the starchy texture was a perfect accompaniment to the cold toddy.
I’m glad in the end, after hearing so much about it, that toddy is after all a fine product of the coconut palm.