Leaving behind another life, I am in Kerala. Here, now, all around, an all pervasive calm, in spite of the chatter of our motorboat. It really is very beautiful, far more than tourism hype can tell. Kerala in the time of the monsoon, green, green and wet, a season for solitude and contemplation.
We’ve been here a few days now exploring the Alleppey region. Today the backwaters beckon. We chug past paddies set below sea level now flooded with the monsoon deluge, palm lined bunds, through alluring canals that snake through the blanket of lucid green, past children diving into the water and splashing about with squeals of laughter and admonishing mothers busy with afternoon chores, to arrive at our destination this afternoon, a toddy shop euphemistically called R Block.
The toddy shops of Kerala are famous throughout the state with personal favorites among the people. The better ones are spaces for social interaction where families will gather over glasses of toddy and exquisitely spiced food. The toddy shops in the backwater region of Alleppey are special and located in stunningly beautiful surroundings.
Toddy or ‘Kallu’ hardly intoxicates when it is fresh off the palm tree and is said to possess nutritive properties. There are three kinds of toddy served; ‘madhurakalllu’, sweet toddy tapped early in the morning and leaves behind a pleasant glow, ‘andhikallu’, toddy tapped in the evening that is mildly intoxicating and ‘muttankallu’, tapped the previous day and fermented, that can deliver the kick of a mule.
The culinary merits of the R Block are legendary through the realms of the Vembanad. Plastic chairs are laid out around a stone table overlooking a canal. The smiling proprietor, a portly, bald man, bare bodied, in a singlet, arrives with a bottle of sweet toddy and glass tumblers. The clouds overhead, part for a moment to reveal the sun. A skiff goes by, loaded with bananas, another draws up to the pier. The boatman leaps out with bunches of succulent shrimp and pearl spot fish. A motorboat with jabbering tourists, cameras voraciously taking in the scenery, passes with a hoot of its horn.
A couple of sips of toddy and I lick my lips in anticipation. Life is looking up. The food arrives. A boat empties a group of people who settle down in another table and place their orders. A gentle breeze blows in from the sea. I have decided that I am going to sample a little of everything in the menu. The meal is composed of Rose Matta rice accompanied by pumpkin in curd, a coconut based gravy, delicately spiced and flavored with turmeric, cabbage fried with spices, a chutney with raw onions in curd and diced raw mango pickle. And then the epicurean delights of the kitchen arrive in a procession devoid of ceremony. Sautéed beef, curried sardines, roasted prawns and turtle meat, fried crab, roasted duck and frog legs all served on squares of banana leaves.
The collective soul of a people is often to be found expressed in the food of the land. I am now a backwater gourmand and the meal a symphony for my senses: there is not a moment when the senses are still, titillation follows satiation. Textures follow succulence, spices leap at the palate, aromas play a subtle accompaniment, all lulled momentarily by sips of the sweet sap.
A drifter’s task is never done, the feet were meant to move, to search for the next horizon. I depart from R Block with my genial host waving goodbye. This has been an unforgettable experience, feasting on the delightful cuisine of the Kuttanad region amidst the spectacular beauty of the monsoon landscape. I carry another bottle of the sweet toddy for the hour long ride back to Alleppey. I am being slowly lulled into a gentle stupor, I promise myself, I shall return, someday. In the meanwhile, there are miles to go and more promises to keep.
|Our meal set beside a backwater canal|