Chayakkadas, the tea-snack outlets of yore, have undergone a makeover to remain a bustling part of urbanised Kochi

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the local joke went that there would have been a Malayali waiting for him there with a welcoming chayakkada all set up. Exaggeration aside, it’s no mean feat that we’ve managed to tuck our chayakkadas into the nooks and crannies of every street, popping out of holes in the wall and overtaking spare inches of pavement space. Once the go-to hubs for town gossip, international news, comfort-food palaharams and steaming-hot tea, the chayakkada, today, has undergone a makeover in urbanised Kochi.

From ‘Pappadavada Athava Oru Naadan Chaayakada’ on MG Road, to ‘Gafoorikka’s Chaayakada’ at Pallimukku, ‘Kadayil Oru Thattukada’ on Rajaji Road, ‘Mappilakada’ off the NH Bypass and the simple ‘Chayakkada’ at Vytilla (to name a handful) brick-and-mortar cafe avatars of the traditional tea shop have sprung up across the city, with a modern spin, of course. For instance, ‘Kadayil…’, run by three friends Lomy Mathew, Levin Raj and Viyayakumar L.T, welcomes you with a bamboo structure hoisted above a food shelf, English pop music and tea in ceramic cups. The atmosphere otherwise is distinctly chayakkada-like, with its minimal space. “There’s a constant stream of people; many of them stand and eat, others sit down for a few minutes,” says Levin.

Minu Pauline’s ‘Pappadavada’ functions similarly out of a tiny space at Shenoy’s Junction. Old lanterns hang from the walls, framed pictures of black-and-white movies make for interior decor and a man cooling tea in ‘meter-chai’ style offers customers huddled by the roadside, a steel tumbler full. “I quit a bank job to start this place,” says Mini, “because I love our traditional chayakkadas and the food they serve. I would prefer taking my family to a chayakkada, over a posh restaurant any day! So this was my way of creating a family-friendly chayakkada.”

Sleek interiors apart, the food is as local as it gets. Pappadavada’s latest is ‘Ammachi’s Pazhankanji’ served with kappa-kuttan, spicy red fish curry and pulissery. “My idea of a modern chayakkada was one that served the puttu-kadala kind of palaharams my parents grew up with. So we provide the regular snacks — pappadavada, pazhampori, parippu vada — as well as full meals such as beef curry and idiappam, our hot favourite. At ‘Kadayil..’, their signature dish is the kappa biriyani. “While it’s usually served with chicken, we have 10 varieties of it ranging from prawn kappa biriyani to kakka irachi (mussels) kappa biriyani,” says Levin.

In true chayakkada form, the moot point at all these outlets is their competitive pricing. “I began Gafoorikka’s because I wanted a place where people got good food cheap, just like at traditional tea shops. One roll of puttu costs Rs. 6 here and tea is the same,” says Abdul Manaf, who’s named his cafe in tribute to actor Mammukoya’s iconic comedy role Gafoor Ka Dost. ‘Gafoorikka’s special is the dum biriyani, brain fry, liver roast and kaada (quail) fry. Adds Minu, “While in office before, I’d noticed that restaurants rarely serve portions for one person. Here, we’ve designed combo meals that are specifically for office-goers who come individually.” The constant crowd outside Pappadavada is testimony to people grabbing lunch on the run.

While many of these enterprises serve a generic range of chayakkada food, Jojo Ravindranath who runs Mappilakada, says he wanted a place that served specifically Mappila cuisine — which is a blend of Arabian food, North Kerala cooking and Fort Kochi/Mattancherry specials. “We serve Majboos biryani known for its dry lemon tinge, and many typical Thalassery snacks such as erachi pathiri and chatti pathiri.” The food comes with the old-world charm of white marble-top tables, open electrical wiring, ancient switches and mirror cupboards full of goodies. ‘Chayakkada’ at Vytilla has been more experimental — besides its physical outlet, they run a roving van which stalls at different spots across the city serving tea-time Kerala snacks and chai, rather reminiscent of four-wheeled pettikadas.

By day, these cafe/restaurants are havens for office-goers, but by the evening, they fill up with families out to show their children what eating out in a bygone era meant. Says Mini, “I’m happiest when grandparents come with their toddlers. They point to the film stills and the lanterns around, and tell their little ones with nostalgia of the chayakkadas they once frequented back in their home towns.”

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