It was an abnormally pleasant day in Thrissur, Kerala –– the thought of venturing out for lunch did not seem as intimidating as it would on any other peak-humid day. In a quest to devour some authentic Kerala food, the only logical decision was to make our way to a Toddy Shop –– an establishment where chilled and strong Toddy is not the only thing that’s special.
Under the now beating sun of Kerala, stood a modest 4-walled structure topped with a sloped tin roof. One may also struggle to find the entrance –– tucked away at the corner of the front-facing wall. What resembled not much other than a warehouse, was in fact, the Mapranam Toddy Shop. It does not boast of much materialistically –– no fancy furniture or lighting, simple tables accompanied by simpler chairs, and an ever-present whiff of toddy in the air.
Following the heartiest welcome from Joy, the shop’s owner, I (along with a party of four) was guided into a booth. I did, however, make a stop at the spread of at least 20 dishes in various preparations –– all Kerala style. Beef, mutton head, whole fish, oyster, fish eggs, rabbit, quail eggs –– you name it, and Mapranam had a place for it. Joy’s excitement to list out his dishes was more than evident –– he even offered some tasters along the way. A ‘humble buffet’, I like to call it, with the food contained in aluminium pots.
Right in the middle of all the food lies a (sort of) treasure –– a wooden box that contains the money he earns for the day. However, it also doubles as his billing system –– in an earnest manner, Joy uses chalk to add up the expenses on the surface of the box, and informs you of the total post the meal.
Joy tells me, “Mapranam was started 60 years ago by my father. I took over it 41 years ago.” His chirpy self does not give away the fact that he began cooking these dishes at 3 AM, and continued till 8 AM. His ambitious self admits, “I aim to finish all 25 items by 6:30 AM.” After that, he opens the shop and awaits the influx of customers. He goes beyond his duties to give me a short tour of the buffet area, and explains each dish in detail –– one could identify the hard work he put into them. Joy had procured a liquor license back in 2002, but 2018 brought about doubts, causing him to give it up. Luckily, he decided to continue and now functions on a third party’s license.
He brought in each dish on a perfectly square piece of banana leaf and laid it on the table –– each dish, prepared with utmost care is complete with the impeccable use of masalas. “I buy whole masalas from the local market and grind them at home myself. In fact, everything is sourced from the local markets. I do not use any frozen or preserved food,” says Joy.
Scattered among the food are a couple of bottles of Toddy –– chilled and fresh. I have trouble concluding whether the toddy is what people visit Mapranam for, or the food. Each day, a new batch of toddy is brought in. Joy tells me, “The toddy is either locally produced in the southern outskirts of Thrissur district or comes from Palakkad in north Kerala. I sell around 200 litres of toddy per day on weekends.” Speaking of weekends, he also tells me that those two days see the most number of families visiting –– an unusual destination since toddy shops in Kerala see a high footfall of men who are alcohol enthusiasts, to say the least. Seeing women and families at the shop was most definitely a welcome sight.
During peak COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the sale of alcohol, and hence toddy, took a hit for obvious reasons. This was until the Kerala government added alcohol to the ‘essential items’ list, and allowed the sale of liquor between 7 AM and 5 PM. Joy’s life was made ever so slightly easier with this rule.
Another obstacle I wondered if Joy would have had trouble tackling is that of beating his competition of more commercial restaurants that surround his shop –– adjacent to Mapranam was a rather large establishment of Arabian food. Joy was quick to let me know, “The new food business has not affected my business at all. I have a set of loyal customers and haven’t lost out on anything. I don’t do any advertising, everything is word of mouth.”
The charm of toddy shops such as Mapranam may not particularly lie in the food, or even the toddy itself –– it may be attributed to people like Joy’s determination and love that goes into all of it. I hope I convey his excitement accurately when I say that his face truly lit up as we entered, and his quick-shuffling feet while serving food said a lot more about his pride in his work than a loose translation of his words ever could.
He accompanied us till our cars to bid adieu, under a sky that was now beginning to show signs of true monsoon rains, only after he posed and smiled for a few pictures I requested.
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