“Can we go to Mullapanthal?”: My foodie friend from Kozhikode (Calicut) asks me. Sitting at the Grand Hotel in Cochin – a heritage hotel known for its traditional Kerala food – around lunchtime, this refined friend of mine asks me if I could take him to a local toddy shop. Weird, huh? Except it isn’t. Not at all. For, how many toddy shops you know has a 4.5 rating on Tripadvisor? Tell me about a toddy shop with a website of its own and can be located easily using Google maps. Mullapanthal – translated roughly as ‘Jasmine Shed’ – is a different kind of toddy shop – the famous kind. The ‘serves-food-to-die-for’ kind.
To fully appreciate the situation, let me tell you a bit more about toddy and toddy shops. Toddy (known as ‘kallu’ in Malayalam) is a local alcoholic beverage tapped from coconut palms in Kerala. The white liquid that collects initially is very sweet and non-alcoholic. The liquid begins fermenting almost immediately after collection, and within hours, it yields an aromatic wine of up to 4% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet. When fermented longer, a stronger, more sour version is produced, and this is drunk by the locals (units usually measured in pots). A toddy shop is a (shady) drinking establishment where toddy is served along with food. The ambience is down to earth (read: pretty basic. I mean really basic. Just a few benches and desks for furniture, thatched roof, no flooring) and really noisy (with a chance of brawls – especially after a few pots have been downed). A toddy shop isn’t a place a decent bloke like you would want to be seen, let alone photographed. So if my sophisticated friend from Kozhikode chose a toddy shop over a heritage hotel for lunch, there must be something about this place, don’t you think? Very correct!
I really do not know how and when Mullapanthal shot to fame, but it is a name that keeps popping up whenever someone talks of ‘nadan’ (ethnic) Kerala food. I’d never been there myself, and I thought my friend’s request gave me a good reason to understand it first hand finally. So off we went to Mullapanthal!
We got to the place – a rather colourful, tiled building – and waited for a private cubicle to be free to get seated. As soon as we sat, a burly waiter showed up and took our order, including Karimeen Pollichathu, fish curry, fish head curry (!), kappa (baked tapioca), puttu, fried shellfish and squid. The table had a dirty sieve which we figured was to filter out impurities (ants, flies etc.) from the toddy. Since it was mandatory to order kallu and food here, we had ordered the smallest portion available – a bottle. Fermented toddy is not for everyone – the sour taste and smell could be unbearable for some. Both of us left the bottle untouched – after all, we had come here for the food. While waiting for our food, we saw a steady stream of customers coming in. Among them were families (no children), a group of ladies (“Streekal kallushappilo? Shiva Shiva!”. Women entering a toddy shop in a conservative place like Kerala is a big deal! huge!) and foreigners. Finally, our food showed up – the star of the show was the fish head curry. I mean, look at the ferocious fish head – even if you are an ‘I-would-eat-anything-that-doesn’t-bite-back’ kind of person, you would think twice before digging in.
The visual impact this dish had on us was so awesome that we spent the next few minutes clicking images of the dish from various angles. The puttu was super soft, and the kappa was delicious. On the other hand, the fish curry was so spicy hot and potent that it could launch a man into space. Delicious, but not for the weak-bellied. (Food served with toddy is usually very spicy and hot with chillies – so this didn’t come as a surprise to us). We laboured on for the next forty-five minutes ordering more kappa and puttu to tone down the spiciness, but I could understand why Mullapanthal was so popular for its food at the end of the meal. The best part? – the bill did not require us to loosen our purse strings much. It is not a place I would go to often, but something I wanted to experience at least once in my life. So now I can say: “Mullapanthal? Been there, done that!”.
So, have you been to this place? What did you eat? Any good?