From rundown wooden huts with standing room, to concrete structures sparsely furnished with plastic chairs and family portraits on its walls, toddy shops are a ubiquitous part of Kerala’s landscape. Shaaps, or kallu kada as they are known in Malayalam, serve the popular toddy made from the sap of the coconut tree. The shops have food as well, but its singular purpose can often be to aid and abet the consumption of the alcoholic beverage by mostly male patrons. When the insides are on fire from the spice of beef or fish fry, the pungent, milky toddy is the perfect antidote.

This “toddy shop food” was the “first thought that came to mind” when chef Hemant Kishore, who hails from Thiruvananthapuram, had to create a bar menu for a new kitchen space in Las Vegas. “In most American cities you will find North Indian cuisine or an idli or a dosa on the menu,” said Kishore. “People don’t know that there are so many other elements to Indian food and cooking.”

With dishes like karimeen pollichathu (marinated steamed pearl fish) and parotta beef fry, Kishore wanted to give bar food a South Indian twist with the aim of highlighting unique flavours and lesser-known ingredients. Thus was born Kishore’s culinary project, the Toddy Shop.

Chef Hemant Kishore. Photo credit: Daniel Clough photography.
Chef Hemant Kishore. Photo credit: Daniel Clough photography.

Two years ago, he opened a restaurant, whose menu was described by the Las Vegas Weekly as a “creative new gem hiding in a sports bar”. The food even attracted praise from Indian politician Shashi Tharoor on Twitter. Though the restaurant has since shut down, Kishore is holding pop-ups across Las Vegas featuring his toddy shop food.

Fiery food

The idea of the Toddy Shop came about when Kishore was hunting for a dedicated kitchen space for his existing healthy meals delivery service in Las Vegas. “I found an empty, abandoned kitchen in an old smokey bar, which had many casino gaming machines,” he said. “The landlord suggested that I make some kind of food for the bar as well. It could have been very basic bar food, but I saw this as an opportunity to try something new.”

The interiors of the bar, says Kishore, inspired the menu for his new endeavour. “This bar I found was out of the way from the Las Vegas Strip, and had a dim, dingy and smoky interior that made me think of toddy shops right away.”

The food at traditional toddy shops is known for its fieriness. In his book Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast, writer-journalist Samanth Subramanian describes the toddy shop fish curry as “furiously red with industrial dosages of chilli powder”. While Kishore agrees that spiciness is an essential element, he also considers the food a gateway to showcase the variety in Indian cuisine. “I am trying to bring that forward along with interesting dishes,” he said.

Around 70% of his menu features dishes with flavours that would be familiar to his audience – there’s Rajah Masala, a spicy peanut salsa, and Rasta Wings, which is jerk-rubbed wings served with fried plantains and sauce. The rest of the menu introduces his clientele to newer ingredients through dishes such as puttu and kadala curry (steamed rice cakes and chickpeas curry), appam and stew, a Kerala fried chicken sandwich with pickled red onions and an inji (ginger) curry and mashed-up kappa (tapioca) with shrimp masala and kothu parotta.

The “industrial doses of spices” have not been toned down even though Kishore does get complaints. His response: “That is the essence of toddy shop food. That’s what this food is.”

Photo credit: Fred Marledge.
Photo credit: Fred Marledge.

Kishore has also tried to bring together the best of two worlds, creating dishes which give southern flavours a western spin. “For a Tacos and Beer Festival, I used Kerala parotta for the shell part and made a Kerala fried chicken taco with fennel pickled in beer,” he said. “Fennel is one of the main ingredients in fried chicken, which gives it a unique flavour. People loved the dish.”

Eating healthy

Kishore’s journey in the hospitality world began in sales and marketing at the Taj Westend in Bengaluru, after he completed his Bachelor’s in Hotel Management. He soon realised that his passion was working in the kitchen. On the advice of his professors and peers, Kishore applied to The Culinary Institute of America, and joined the Baking and Pastry Arts programme in 2007.

After graduation and working in a few restaurants, Kishore moved back to India. His big break came in 2014 when a chef he had once worked with, offered him a job with a catering and consulting company in the United States. A year later, he decided it was time to “venture out on my own”.

His entrepreneurial project was a result of his personal journey towards healthy eating. Long hours in the kitchen had taken a toll and he had gained a lot of weight. Determined to get it back on track, Kishore used his culinary skills to prepare the right kind of meals for himself. He lost over 60 pounds. “Many of my friends wanted me to help them and requested that I prepare healthy meals for them.” The 6 Pack Chef, his journey in a nutshell, also became the name of Kishore’s healthy meal delivery service.

Photo credit: John Estrada.
Photo credit: John Estrada.

But Kishore’s sole focus now is the Toddy Shop. “I found my niche and I’m running fast with it,” he said.

Unique flavours

The uniqueness that Kishore brings to the table in terms of flavours and dishes is a recurring theme in all the reviews about Toddy Shop. Nevada Public Radio’s Desert Companion describes his food as something “that’s not being served anywhere else in the metropolitan area”. Kishore agrees that representation of Indian food is restricted in the region. “In most restaurants, menus have remained the same since inception and every place serves the same food. None of them are chef-driven. Through the various events that I host, I am slowly introducing people to a new cuisine and also educating them that Indian food doesn’t necessarily end at naan and tikka masala.” In his pop-ups in and around Las Vegas, he frequently pairs his food with wine and craft beer.

“Ethnic food is definitely taking centre stage,” said Kishore.“Japanese cuisine, Italian and Mexican food have always been popular. But people are looking for more now. Also, Las Vegas has this big brand name, and at the same time, there is room for innovation and growth.”

Earlier this year, Kishore spent 10 days in Kerala visiting toddy shops, and making a video about them and, of course, their food. Through his crowdfunding campaign #projectToddyShop, Kishore aims to raise enough money to build a restaurant from scratch. “I think toddy shops have a very community essence to them where people catch up and talk about various things. So I am hoping to build a restaurant which will have big tables, forcing people to sit together and interact over good food. For the most part I want to preserve that essence of a toddy shop.”