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Updated: November 6, 2013 19:08 IST

The spirit of song and spice

Anasuya Menon
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A PLATEFUL: Of songs, food and stories
A PLATEFUL: Of songs, food and stories

A series of three books attempts to preserve the culture of food, songs and stories at Kerala’s shaapus

Toddy, in thick bottles and fat earthen pots, disappears down gullets in a matter of minutes. Somebody somewhere in the dingy corner of the shop breaks into a song. As if on cue, others catch on, in tune and thumping desks. Soon, the air is thick with a coarse melody.

Don’t just see it as a slurring ditty of intoxication. It speaks of the toil and the pain of the common man, says K.N. Shajikumar in his foreword to Shaapu Paatukal, a book dedicated to shaapu songs.

Three books

DC Books has come out with a three-volume collection of shaapu stories, songs and curries. Shajikumar traversed the State —from Thiruvananthapuram to Kannur — visiting toddy shops and spending considerable time in them to capture their true environment. shaapus. The books are an attempt to preserve the culture that thrived in these toddy shops.

“It is about the essence of being Malayali. There is a strong sense of nostalgia associated to shaapu culture, and the songs and stories that emerge out of them,” says Ravi Dee Cee, managing director of DC Books. The shaapu was not just a watering hole, but a cultural space, which still connects the Malayali to his roots,” he says.

A socio-cultural landscape

Toddy shops have been elbowed out to the margins of bustling cities, but they still nurture the vestiges of a socio-cultural landscape long gone.

The book on songs includes some of the traditional songs (naadan paattukal) and popular film and theatre numbers with a small paragraph introducing each to the reader.

From fun songs to those on harvest, love and the blues, it packs in some of the most enduring numbers in public memory — the naadan paattu, kaithola paya virichu…, all-time favourites such as manasamaine varu…, thamasamenthe varuvan… and manikyaveenayumayen…, to pick out a few.

In the book of stories, Shaapu Kathakal, Shajikumar collates the colourful tales that originate in the shops — some of them humorous and some thought-provoking. A few stories have been contributed by writer C.R. Omanakuttan, too.

The book on curries, however, is expected to fly off the shelves. “There is a resurgence of interest in shaapu food and people are going back to it like never before. Today, people visit toddy shops just for the food,” Ravi says. The book contains a selection of authentic recipes of dishes served only in toddy shops. Unakka chemmeen chammanthy (dried shrimp chutney), kaada roast (quail roast), tharavu roast (duck roast), njandu ularthu (crab), different kinds of fish preparations, kappa biriyani, kallappam (also known as shaapappam) are some of them.

“The reason why people have this sudden fascination for the shaapu is perhaps because they are a pointer towards everything that is unpretentious—the toddy, the food and the people,” says Santhosh V.P., the owner of Kuttimulla, a restaurant serving shaapu food at Panampilly Nagar. “However, toddy shops now are not like those before. Most of them have been neglected and are unhygienic,” says Santhosh, who served as the manager of Mullapanthal, one of the most popular mainstream toddy shops in Kochi.

Changing face

The new-age shaapus are more accessible with a touch of sophistication.

“When Mullapanthal was opened around nine years ago, we tried to change the image of the toddy shop. And it worked. Women and children visited, too, and a family could have a sumptuous meal together,” Santhosh adds.

Shaapu curries are also healthy, Santhosh points out. “The average Malayali’s food habits have changed drastically and lifestyle diseases have become so common that people now feel the need to go back to their roots. The food served at the shaapu is very fresh since no preservatives are added.” What about the screaming spice then? “Whoever said spice kills? A healthy person can take the kind of spice we serve,” Santhosh explains.

The books Shaapu Currikal, Shaapu Paattukal and Shaapu Kathakal, will be launched at the DC book fair on at Marine Drive Grounds in Kochi today.

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