Once containing mineral water, these bottles now hold left-over palm wine, or toddy, a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented palm sap. Sap from palmyra or date palms can also be used to make it, but I drank it in Kerala where the ubiquitous coconut is the palm of choice.
Palm wine is drunk in many places around the world in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, but it’s mostly consumed in India in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and is also referred to as kallu.
Toddy is made by cutting into the stem of the palm and collecting its sap. When first collected, the sap is a very sweet and non-alcoholic liquid, to which a little lime juice can be added to stop it fermenting, which it otherwise does as soon as it’s exposed to air. This is served as a drink called neera. Within 2 hours the sap will have fermented to the point where it has an alcohol content of about 4 per cent, which increases during the day as fermentation continues. Toddy is usually drunk before evening, by which time the morning-harvested sap will have acquired a sour, acidic, vinegary taste.
I drank toddy with some Keralan friends. We drove from my friend’s home in Kozencherry, hired a motorised canoe with a driver and a sun-roof, and cruised up and down the canals near Alappuzha, whilst eating snacks, taking photos of each other and generally having a lot of fun. We pulled up to a canal-side toddy shop (a basic little shack with shaded tables for eating) and ordered regular toddy-accompanying Keralan food made up of curries of duck, fried fish and kakka (a small clam), served with tapioca, a potato-like root vegetable. We ordered something vegetarian for me too, but I had a few mouthfuls of the duck, the fish and the kakka curries, just to see what they were like. It’s very rare that I put my vegetarianism aside, and unfortunately I paid for it. In the car home I started to feel not quite right, but I put it down to the heat and car sickness. When we got back to Kozencherry it became very clear to me that the food I had eaten needed to leave my body! My friends held my hair and rubbed my back whilst I vomited in my friend’s front garden… Mrs Dharmajan gave her son quite a dressing-down for taking me to such a questionable and local eatery.
Do I like toddy? No, not really. I don’t really like coconut juice or water either, although I’d be happy to drink coconut cream out of a can with a straw. I got through a glass, but that’s enough for me!
Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey, in Kerala