Kotahena’s licensed Toddy Tavern is one of Colombo’s few locations where you can grab a legal bowl of ra – that milky, soda-flavoured coconut liquor favoured by the southern belly of the globe.
It was when wandering through North Colombo one day that the small rectangular sign caught my eye. ‘Licensed Toddy Tavern’. Intriguing. After a few repeated attempts (it was closed a couple of times) and a bit of deliberation – should a girl go in? would that disrupt the order of the universe? – we wandered inside. The dense cluster of chattering men swivelled around in unison. There was a lull. The disbelief – and dare I saw wonder – was palpable.
A woman had just entered the kokis-littered, sweat-stained halls of Kotahena’s Toddy Tavern.
But the men that haunt these halls are an amiable bunch. Gulping with the desperate gusto of a kasippu siri siri bag drinker, they jostle their way to and from their benches, clutching their bowls and slurping as they walk, the milky liquid slopping past their lips. They gather on chairs, by the walls and spill out onto the back ‘garden’. They talk, they drink. The giant steel tub of murky juice holds them together. A few of them wander over inquisitively: where are we from? (they were quite disappointed to learn it was only Nugegoda) Why are we here? Someone passed us a plastic packet of kokis balls. Another asked for a group photo.
Palm wine, also known as kallu, ra or toddy, is an alcoholic drink made from the sap of a palm tree, eagerly slurped out of plastic bowls by groups of men lining a few broken wooden benches in often random shacks. Well, in Sri Lanka at least. Generally common in the subcontinent, omnipresent in places like Kerala (you can find a kallu stop literally every few metres), over here, toddy remains something of an elusive nectar.
Now toddy can be quite delicious – but only if it hasn’t been strung through the sweaty shirt of an arrack slinging uncle – which we suspect is the case with our Kotahena tavern. If served fresh, cold and clean, the sweet, cloudy concoction can be a refreshing slice of coconut heaven akin to the relief of a cool lime soda on a scorching day – with, of course, that extra boozy kick. The toddy served here, however, isn’t quite the Dionysian decadence we envisioned. Warm, balmy and with the unflattering undertones of a dull fizz, its closer to the flavour palette of socks, armpit and sweat. Which it probably is.
Generally dished out in plastic
bum washing bowls for a mere Rs. 10, we were offered a two litre bottle with two plastic cups straightaway – the Moet of Mutwal (Rs. 130!). But a tentative sip had us placing our glasses down hastily, and wondering whether giving away the litred champagne would cause a minor riot. Probably. So deciding against it, we said our goodbyes, tucked the mega bottle into the back of a tuk and sped off…
It’s still in the fridge if anyone wants it.