Sea In A Bowl: Hunting For Sri Lankan Toddy

Manori Lanka, toddy I tried in Mannar in Sri Lanka
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It was late evening when the bus pulled into the CTB(Ceylon Transport Board) bus station in Mannar. I could almost taste the Sri Lankan Toddy in the breeze. Darkness hid this north western Sri Lankan town which has a gulf named after itself, and an island as well. Its northernmost village, Thalaimannar, is only 30 kms from Dhanushkodi in India. Though relatively underexposed to tourists there are a few things of interest. Would you find it funny if I said Somalian donkeys in Mannar are considered a tourist attraction? I certainly thought so.

Well there are other things too like the African Biobab tree and a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that this is where Rama prayed before he made his way through rest of Sri Lanka to fight the epic war of Ramayana.

In more recent times, Mannar was under the rebel group LTTE’s rule, which waged a three decade long war against the Sri Lankan state which ended in 2009. They wanted a separate country for Tamils from the north and east of this island.

But there was more on my mind than war and religion.

Dutch fortress of Mannar

View from the Dutch Fortress in Mannar

No Whisky, No Rum – Get me some Sri Lankan Toddy!

I was also keen on going drink hunting, to find Sri Lankan Toddy. Though I have drank myself silly with Whisky, Rum and Beer; it is Toddy that is closer to my roots. My family too comes from a town called Udupi, on the coast of Southern India. And I wanted to have this fermented sap of palms, the best way I know, with locals.

Vijay’s name on his facebook profile is Vijuthan, and as if that wasn’t enough, he was also a fan of Tamil star actor Vijay. He was assigned the job of finding me a Sri Lankan Toddy centre by a local friend. What I had thought of as a straight forward task, turned out to be bit of a treasure hunt.

It was late afternoon, and Vijay on his Indian motorbike took me through villages of Mannar. White sand followed us everywhere we went, so did the Palmyrah tree. It was disappointing then that despite that, it was proving almost impossible to find Palmyrah toddy, which is a specialty of the north.

‘It is not the season’, a young man in dead tight jeans and a football jersey close to the beach told us.

The old gentleman at the Toddy centre in Mannar in Sri Lanka

I prepared myself for Coconut toddy, which would still have been a treat in that hot & dry weather. A few minutes later, we were at a toddy centre. Many people had lined up for their daily fix in their sarongs. It was here that I met an elderly gentleman with a beautiful smile. He had been to Kerala in India to play a football match in his youth. He spoke really good English, in a place where I least expected anyone to.

Vijay and I decided to try one more centre before giving up on the idea of Palmyrah toddy. The next centre was even closer to the beach; in fact the waves were just a stone’s throw away. It was absolutely in the middle of nowhere and, as expected, the only people at this unstriking building were men. This place sold even whisky and other spirits. But if you were looking for Sri Lankan Toddy, the poor man’s drink, you had to go to a different section and queue up. A man then would pour toddy from 750ml bottles into large plastic bowls. The idea of sipping a drink out of a fluroscent coloured bowl for some odd reason made it even more appealing.

The man at the Toddy centre pouring the frothy liquid in Mannar, Sri Lanka

It was then my turn.

For less than a dollar, I was given a bottle. The frothy liquid tasted crunchy, sweet and sour. If there is ever a drink that signifies the sea, then it has to be Toddy for me. And to enjoy this bowl of Sri Lankan Toddy next to the beach, with a young man who I did not know of only an hour earlier, was a joy.

The evening was made even more interesting by chatting with locals while I sat on the concrete bench. With my cargos, t-shirt and cameras I didn’t look like your regular toddy drinker. The interesting bit was that none of them spoke English, and I could hardly speak a few words of Tamil.

Snack Liquor Restaurant, the toddy & liquor centre on Keeri beach, Mannar, Sri Lanka

Snack Liquor Restaurant where I finally tried the frothy liquid

That is when I realised Vijay did not like toddy, he preferred beer.

The sun was disappearing fast. But we decided to go get ourselves some beer. A short ride later we were outside a wine shop which was managing a huge crowd. It is true that alcoholism is a problem in the island nation(but that is for someday later). Vijay and I walked out with cans of ‘Lion Strong’ beer, my favourite in the country.

The evening came to a slow end as Vijay and I sipped from our cans in the middle of a flat open piece of land. Vijay told me that he did not remember much of the war since he was a kid back then. But he was happy that there was no fighting, and never wanted it to start again.

He offered me a snack that I tried for the first time, fried whole garlic with spices. The cold, strong beer of Sri Lanka and the saltiness of the snack was a perfect end to my journey to Mannar.

It just reminded me that just like in life, while hunting for local drinks you can chase what you want, but what you actually get might be equally or even more satisfying. You just have to be open enough to embrace these experiences.

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