KOCHI: Kallu shap — the very uttering of the word invokes memories of much revelry, great spicy food, unbridled conversations, and of course, that sweet fermented drink by which the shop takes its name — kallu or toddy.
While shaps were dens of hooliganism only a few decades ago, many now look upon them with a rose-tinted lens. Indeed, these shops, serving fresh fish curries, scrumptious tapioca, mouth-watering seafood and more, have become a favourite haunt of foodies.
The fact that many of these establishments are far-flung from the cities and in idyllic pockets of the countryside has also added to their allure, especially for families who love a little getaway. “The food is amazing. The shap kitchen is very liberal with spices, and the hot flavours perfectly match the sweet toddy. That is why people, including families, love visiting shap,” says Teenu Terrence, a food blogger from Kochi.
Her last visit to a shap was on Sunday, and according to her, the place was filled with families and youngsters alike. “And there was a party going on. Around 20 people made up that group, and surprisingly, not many were ordering a lot of toddy. But food kept going to their table,” says Teenu.
However, the noted food blogger strongly believes toddy can be for Kerala what the drink feni is for Goa. “Toddy is our indigenous drink. Promoting it will boost our agriculture and tourism. So why are we reluctant,” Teenu asks.
Balram Menon, a travel blogger, echoes similar sentiments. “Look at Sri Lanka. Toddy is available everywhere there — in restaurants, traditional toddy shops, and even as a bottled drink. Kerala, which leans heavily on the tourism industry, too, must tap into the demand for toddy. It should also be made available in five-star restaurants and resorts to combat the poor image associated with the drink — that it is inferior to hard liquor or beer and wine,” Balram says.
“I have read somewhere that Kerala’s toddy tastes better. Apparently, Kerala’s soil is especially good for coconut farming and thereby lends a unique taste to toddy. So why not? With proper marketing, it will boost our agricultural sector and help both the farmers and the labourers,” Balram adds.
Official bodies, too, had been clamouring for a liberal liquor policy which promotes toddy. According to Sanjay Sahadevan, the advisor to Varkala Tourism Development Association, “The government should permit toddy tapping and not restrict it to resorts or hotels alone. There is immense potential. After all, toddy is our heritage drink.”
“Who wouldn’t want to unwind and relax with a chilled glass of beer or wine, or even toddy, if it’s available? Rather than importing liquor from other states, it makes sense to promote our own drink,” says Jose Dominic, the MD and CEO of CGH Earth Hotels.
Thankfully, their question won’t stay unanswered for long. The Kerala government’s new liquor policy aims to take toddy to a new level, something which the tourism and restaurant industry wholeheartedly welcomes.
‘To liven up tourism’
A liberal liquor policy has been one of the long-standing demands of the tourism industry for years. In fact, its long absence is one of two things blamed for dampening the state’s growth as a top tourist location, says Jose, an industry veteran. “Only a liberal liquor policy will take us there,” he says.
Now, as if prayers have been heard, the state government is set to introduce a new policy.
Though this imminent arrival has brought much cheer to the stakeholders, there are several quarters in the industry where the policy was met with only a lukewarm response. According to some parties, this is likely on account of there being not much clarity on how the said policy will impact the hospitality sector. “We are still in the dark about the new rules, but one thing is clear, it’s definitely going to help the tourism industry, especially MICE (tourism that accompanies Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions),” says a senior official.
Owing to unceasing demand, key tourist destinations, including Varkala and Kovalam in the capital, were forced to make liquor available, despite the hefty charges. “Liquor is being served even now at eateries, restaurants, and resorts at tourist destinations in the state. I feel the government is aiming to mint these revenue sources,” says G Sudheish Kumar, patron of Kerala Hotels and Restaurants Association.
He says as per the new policy, licences will be granted to hoteliers on a seasonal basis. “We are yet to get more details. It will be better if the licence is granted on a yearly basis and at the same fees as that of beer and wine parlours. The fee should be affordable,” Sudheish adds. Many have also voiced their concerns about stringent policies.
According to Sanjay, there is no point if the licence is only available for a few restaurants. “There are over 30 sea-facing restaurants in Varkala. Many are small properties. If the norms are unrealistic, many of them won’t be able to secure the licence. I also hope the government gives licences at a nominal fee,” Sanjay says.
Since 2009, the toddy tapping process has been part of tours that gave a glimpse of the rural life experience. There are around 110 toddy tappers registered under the Responsible Tourism Mission. “Over two lakh visitors have experienced the toddy tapping process till now. But they can only see as there was no provision to serve toddy to them as it is against the rules. The new policy will definitely change this,” says Rupesh Kumar, director of the mission. Bhagat Singh P S, the Kottayam district coordinator of Responsible Tourism, says many tourists do steal a visit to local toddy shaps after their tour. “If the government promotes toddy, the potential is huge!” Bhagat adds.
Pope and a chilled glass of beer
To further stress this point, Jose recounts an incident when Pope John Paul II visited Kerala. “Due to the hot, humid climate here, the Pope, on reaching the hotel, asked for a chilled glass of beer to cool down. Later, at a lunch event with bishops and others, when he was served fish curry, his immediate query was - ‘What wine will go well with the fish? Casual drinking to relax or pairing a wine with lunch and dinner etc are part of the culture in many countries. That is why it is imperative to liberalise our liquor policy,” Jose says. “Anyway, the bishops won’t support the Marxist party. Then, why not just liberalise the liquor policy and boost tourism,” he laughs.