Drinking Rituals: Tapping Palm Wine in Aimanam, India

Called toddy or kallu by locals, this divine alcoholic nectar is said to be "a gift from God."

  • We took a boat ride to the small village of Aimanam, where toddy is extracted from coconut palms.
  • The palms are tied with coconut husks in two feet intervals, making the trees into ladders.
  • A villager in Aimanam climbs the palm tree. Once he reaches the top, he collects the sap from a vessel placed under the palm flower bud.
  • Climbing palm trees to tap toddy requires great strength and agility.
  • The toddy tapper brings the collected sap across the river to his house.
  • Raju, our most gracious guide, smokes a cigarette with us outside the house. He tells us Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, is from his village.
  • Once at home, the toddy tapper strains the toddy into glasses for us to drink.
  • He pours the rest of the toddy in a vessel to further ferment.
  • The toddy tapper and his beautiful family.
  • The freshly tapped toddy was sweet, slightly fizzy, with a distinct coconut flavor.
  • Our tour guide, Raju, tells us that toddy is a gift from God.
  • As we are both a little buzzed, we believe him.

Last week, I found myself in the tropical southern Indian state of Kerala, where I had the opportunity to see how toddy—or kallu, as locals call it—is tapped. What is toddy? Sap collected daily by licensed villagers from the buds of coconut palm flowers, then left to ferment throughout the day. The tappers hand a specific percentage of their toddy to the state, which is then distributed to local kallu shap, or toddy bars. My traveling partner and I were able to cut out the middle man and secure ourselves some toddy straight from the palm tree, which we drank in the home of a most gracious toddy tapper.

Our tour guide, Raju, took us on his slender wooden boat to his hometown of Aimanam, a small village which isn’t accessible by road. When we arrived, Raju introduced us to his friend from the village, a local toddy tapper. His friend expertly climbed up the trunk of three toddy trees, collecting the sap from the flower buds of each, which he lets continuously drip into a vessel placed underneath the bud. Raju explained that the toddy tappers extract three to four liters everyday from each tree, and they scurry up the trees to collect the sap three times daily. While they’re up there, they cut the flower buds, which causes the buds to continuously produce sap.

It is believed in Ayurvedic philosophy that your skin turns golden from drinking toddy. Toddy is a gift from God.

When Raju’s friend was done collecting the toddy from his designated trees, he hopped into his boat, we hopped into ours, and we headed across the river to his house. Raju told us that his friend had been collecting toddy for 20 years, since he was ten years old. This guy was a serious kallu professional, and he had the agility and build to prove it.

“It is believed in Ayurvedic philosophy,” Raju told us, “That your skin turns golden from drinking toddy. Toddy is a gift from God.” After hearing this, we picked up our glasses of toddy, cheersed, and put the sweet coconutty liquid to our lips. It tasted slightly fermented, and we were told that, at this early stage, the toddy had the ABV of beer (given that this was India, that probably meant around 6%, like standard lager).

When we tried the toddy in our hotel room six hours later, the liquid had turned fizzier, and it tasted even more fermented and tart. It had also lost most of its sweetness while retaining a distinct and pleasant coconut flavor. I’m just now remembering another fascinating fact the toddy tapper told us: He gave his child a small glass of toddy to go to sleep at night. Having personally experienced the glorious effects of toddy, I can only imagine how happy that child must be.

 

 

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