words & images claire thomas
I first heard about toddy from the perpetually stoned Mexican in the room next door to mine. It was June, Rishikesh. Unfathomably hot. One evening, enveloped in a plume of silver chillum smoke, his bloodshot eyes glazed over dreamily as he recounted nights in Kerala, drinking coconut beer with the locals.
"Man, it's so fucking good. Creamy goodness, right from the tree."
Coconut beer? How had I not known that such a wondrous substance existed…? And so my pilgrimage began.
Setting my compass southward, I traversed the monsoon-soaked beaches of Goa and Karnataka before finally arriving in my personal mecca: Kerala. God's own country, lined with slender, swaying coconut trees. Nestled directly below those leafy palms, my eyes landed upon the bulbous bunches of ripe coconuts. I could hear them calling my name.
Continuing this quest for the Holy Grail, I primed some friends with tales of the tropical elixir and asked a local rickshaw driver to take us to a toddy shop. "Toddy shop madame," he repeated back to us confusingly, with the ubiquitous and equally confusing Southern Indian head wobble. Moments later we were careening through palm-lined dirt tracks, our eardrums about to tear from the volume of the Bollywood music.
Finally, we pulled up to a very nondescript-looking concrete building. "Here is," he announced assuredly. Our doubtful faces then registered the large collection of rickety bicycles parked alongside, as we tentatively followed him through the back door. Before us was a starkly lit corridor with individual cubicles on either side, inside of which sat the exclusively male clientele, insect-limbed, shirts unbuttoned down to the navel. They necked their toddy with casual disregard as we walked past with feigned nonchalance.
Finding the only empty room, our unlikely ensemble sat down: one Greek, one British, one Scottish, and our now very excitable Indian driver. After some momentary confusion about whether these foreigners were perhaps lost, a brown ceramic vase of pungent-smelling liquid was placed in front of us with four glasses, because, of course, the driver needed to wet his whistle too.
Picked fresh from the tree that very evening, the toddy had come to us thanks to the local toddy man—something of a hero—who had scaled the thirty-foot trees, barefoot and with no safety harness, to tap the fermented juice. We were warned that as each hour passes, the mixture becomes ever more potent. If one were to leave a bottle with the lid screwed on tight, it had the potential to explode, like some sort of delicious bomb.
We sniffed the stinky, milky fluid, hesitating momentarily, but as the toddy passed our lips, we were in heaven. It was the sweetest, smoothest and more-ish natural brew I'd ever sampled. Liter after liter, we poured it down our throats, growing giddier with every glass, privileged to be in this strange place hidden among the trees with these Keralan workers.
As it transpired, Kerala has since banned the sale and consumption of alcohol, in an attempt to tackle the state's drinking problem—no doubt much to the despair of the toddy shop's customers…but I bet the toddy man is still smiling to himself.