If you’re in Alappuzha, you have to romance the “shaaps”. A shaap is the locally Anglicized pronunciation for toddy “shop”! There you are. Shaaps are simply seductive.
And talking of shaaps, it’s surely got to be the Chungam shaap, soaked in the history of an old Alappuzha and swamped by the smell of spices smoking out of the small chimneys of its small kitchens. As you tuck into the delectable dishes served in Chungam shaap, there’s the unmistakable whiff of an old world charm which wraps you around with the history of the place, of how a place once called the Venice of the East has stood still in time, untouched by the pull of changes beyond its borders.
As your bus finds its way to the parking bay, you see small boats, canoes and tiny barges drifting along the many canals that criss-cross the place. It’s a charming frame. There’s no urgency, no vibrancy. Life is laid back, so are the weed-choked waters. Step out of the bus and walk up to one of the jetties from where you can hire a boat ride across the sprawling waters. Enjoy the picture-postcard beauty of Alappuzha’s lush greenery, swaying coconut palms and expanse of the backwaters. Head back to where you got in from. It’s time for a bite, a real big one at that.
History beckons once more. There’s no Sheraton or Marriot to lure you in. No trip to Alappuzha is complete without a boat ride and a jaunt to a famous Kuttanadan shaap.
Just a stone’s throw away from the city’s heart and bang in the middle of Kuttanadan paddy fields stands the famous Chungam Shaap, a beloved joint for tourists and locals alike. There’s a small road straight out of the bus stand. Never ever commit the folly of asking an 'Alappuzhakkaran' for a route to your favorite haunt. His “turn, left, right, left, north, east, west, south and go” will leave you reeling. So if you are heading to Chungam shaap, hire an auto and you will be at its doorstep. Better still, if you’d love to breathe in some fresh air, trek it down the narrow lane for about a kilometer and you are there.
To Alappuzha, the lake and the canals are like the veins on one’s hands, entwined and inseparable. If you have canals, then you need to have bridges across. Therefore, you can count up to 21 big bridges which connect the innards of the place, all with a rich story to tell. One such historic structure is the Chungam bridge. Water traffic along the canal used to be quite heavy when Alappuzha was under the princely rule. Barges loaded with merchandise, cutting through its placid waters, was a common sight. One could sail through the canal straight to the harbor. All barges heading out to the harbor had to “chungam” or tax to get through. The Chungam bridge, quite close to the place our shaap now stands, was where the tax was once collected, earning for it the nickname “Chungam paalam”.
Time for tummy-fill. Head straight for Pallathuruty via the banks of the canal. There ahead lies a shaap with its trademark look. This famous eating joint is 'chungam shaap' for everyone - but it is also known as Elankavu shaap.
The only thing apart from the houseboats that have boomed overnight and evolved is Alappuzha’s food business. Talk of toddy shops or shaaps and the familiar picture that pops up is of drunks swaying from side to side, soaked up on one drink too many, bragging their way home only to let loose innuendo-charged swagger at the wife and helpless children. But the scene is very different here. You got to pinch yourself to believe you are inside a shaap. There’s nothing here to remind you of the vision you just had. Everything about the place is clean and smart. No racket, no brawls, its reputation as clear as crystal. The place is spotlessly clean and the air around free of the stench. No coarse music and certainly no seats for “dancing-on-fours” sort of jolly revelers. There are quite a lot of families enjoying a hearty meal. Even that familiar black and white “kallu” board is nondescript. What greets you instead is the big “thani naadan” board.
The rather small room with a few small tables and stools to match look the perfect setting for a tidy meal. In a room inside are a bunch of diners, heavily immersed in their food. Enter shaap owner Sudheer with a big basin of rice. After him comes a long list of drool-worthy dishes: Pavakka (bitter gourd) thoran, kappa (tapioca), gooseberry pickles aplenty, sambar and red fish curry with the pieces invitingly peeking out. It’s not over. Here comes crab, prawns, calamari, clam and other fish varieties. A meal with around seven to eight dishes and a side plate of fish fry will cost you only an unbelievable Rs 50 and an extra Rs 10 if you need it as a carry away.
The food is so delicious that your curiosity gets the better of you and there you are in Chungam shaap’s kitchen. From the mists of the smoke curling up and the smell of pearlspots crackling in the sizzling hot oil emerges cook par excellence Kaumariamma. She joined the place 45 years ago, the day Chungam shaap set up shop and ever since, not a dish has been served without the Kaumariamma touch. Kuttanad’s very own daughter, the shaap chef gets nostalgic as she starts talking about those bases which influenced her choices in life. The convent in Kainakary and the church nearby were apparently her strongest influences. Kaumariamma’s culinary skills were honed in the convent’s kitchens.
Karumarimma soon became an ace at cooking chicken, duck, fish, and birds. Adding that dash of expertise to her skills is husband Rajappan who is a foodie PR man. He presides over the tables and sees to it that his guests go back happy. In fact, the whole family, the kids and grandkids chip in. Throw a challenge at Kaumariamma and she grabs it. So here goes one…a fresh dish with the day’s fresh catch. Just chill out, she says. Today’s special is “konchu vattichathu” (fresh prawns or shrimps cooked in fresh coconut, ginger, shallots and green chilies).
Kaumariamma places a large uruli (cooking vessel) on her country oven. She readies a dish full of cleaned Kuttanadan prawns, crushed green chilies, ginger and chopped garlic, fresh coconut oil and freshly scraped coconut. She’s pretty lavish on all ingredients. She’s not your recipe-book cook. Her dishes come from deep within and are divinely delicious.
The uruli is piping hot now. She pours in a large measure of oil, large enough to cover the green chilies. They are thrown in when the oil heats up. She keeps stirring it and adds just the right quantity of turmeric. Next to go in are the chopped shallots and the garlic, followed by the ginger. The stirring continues. Kaumariamma adds a few crushed dried red chillies to the sizzling mix and adds salt and a few sprigs of curry leaves. Now comes the garcinia (kudampuli) which she adds to the ingredients. The stirring goes on all the while. Time to add half of the scraped coconut and the prawns. Topping them all is another lavish round of coconut oil. This is again covered by the last round of coconut scraping. Sufficient quantity of water is poured in. Care is taken to see that the prawns don’t drown in the water! The prawns have to stand out. The uruli is closed completely.
The prawns get cooked in all the ingredients, soaking in their flavors. Within a few minutes, the konju pattichathu is ready. Just a spoonful of oil once again and a few sprigs of curry leaves complete the picture. Mmmm… sinfully delicious!
Have your fill. Don’t think of walking back. Hail an auto!
If folks come out of Chungam shaap on all fours, you know why. Man! They are high on food, not booze!