Daring the heat, we set out to Telangana’s Siddipet district for a taste of the season’s fresh palm toddy. People of the district claim that they have zero COVID-19 cases, crediting authorities for efficiently quarantining those who returned to their homes when the all India lockdown was announced in March. The toddy tappers however, jokingly claim it is the magic of their ‘white water.’
‘White water’ is the locally-coined term for palm toddy (kallu) because the toddy tappers feel anything with an English name sells better. As we drive past Siddipet town and approach the villages, we see palm trees with pots hanging from the top. Despite the blazing sun, the greenery around the area is soothing.
We skip the toddy tappers at the entrance road to Ankerapalli village, 15 kilometers from Siddipet town, because it is crowded. About 10 cars are parked outside the shacks, an indication that toddy is in demand despite the challenges of social distancing. With lockdown eased in Telangana allowing inter-district travel in Green zones, travellers taking the NH 365B are making pit stops for a quick drink.
Inside the village, the only sound is the tap-tap echo of men climbing and descending palm trees with toddy. The sound is created when the tapper moves the harness tied to his waist. Made of rubber and high duty plastic ropes the harness is used as a tool to balance from the tree. The toddy tappers refuse to shake hands with visitors. “You might not be infected, I might be. When health experts say we must maintain distance let’s always do it. It is for our safety,” says 45-year-old Raju, coming down from the tree after felling a few bunches of toddy fruit (munjal) for us to be served. The gelatinous, soft fruit is easy to eat. It is filled with mildly sweet water reminiscent of tender coconut.
Akhil Goud, another toddy tapper arrives on a two-wheeler, from the handle of which hang two pots of palm toddy frothing at the brim, harvested a few minutes ago. He hands each of us a leaf of the palash tree (moduga in Telugu) and gives a quick demonstration on how to hold it, and drink from it. As we drink, he pours the toddy steadily, tailoring his pours to the speed at which each of us drinks.
To use ‘moduga’ leaf as receptacles, one must hold both ends of the leaf with the index and thumb of each hand, bringing it closer to resemble a small cup. The leaf is the best alternative if you prefer not to drink from a bottle. The toddy is sweet, indicating that it is fresh. The longer it stays in the pot and heat, the more it will ferment, developing an edge of sourness along with a heady kick.
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“During the lockdown with ‘hard-liquor’ shops shut, we were the heroes; people thronged our village for toddy but we had to maintain distance and sell. So we only sold them when they handed us bottles,” says Akhil.
He adds, “In the village, our entry and exit points were closed, so we didn’t have outsiders coming in. We stay here, eat our own produce and only sell toddy. Since our district is COVID-19 free, we feel safe.”
Are they selling to people outside their district? “Only at the toddy huts. We do not allow too many people from outside into our village. The demand for toddy has gone up with people opting to have fresh, natural foods. It is a good thing for us and for consumers as well. As long as toddy is natural and unadulterated, there is nothing to fear,” he smiles.
In pre-pandemic days, the village had a steady stream of tourists who would visit for toddy picnics. “There are a few good home cooks here, so they engage them for a simple meal of country chicken with rice or chapati,” says 42-year-old farmer Chintakaya Ravi.
As we sip our toddy appreciatively, a man approaches, carrying a bag. Akhil introduces him to us as Kanakaya. He opens the bag to reveal a bowl of spicy natu-kodi (country chicken) curry and chapatis that he has brought us for lunch. We settle down for a memorable meal, set to the rythm of the tappers going about their work. In the background a bright muster of peacocks scream.