If you roll your eyes upon hearing that a Chinese 'tea-shop' offers Kerala delicacies from tea to the ubiquitous tea-time snack, ulli vada—a distant relative of North Indian onion pakoras—start making peace with reality because that Chinese tea shop is at Thumpoli, Alappuzha.
How in the world is this tea shop owned by the Chinese, you may ask. After passing Thumpoli church, move north along the highway to reach China Junction. On the left side, there is a small, tiled wooden-shack with no board, which is the tea shop in question. Self explanatory is it not? Well, the shop has been there for 93 years. Why? How? Read on to find out.
Ask the owner, Vijayan, how his establishment got its name and he smiles, a smile that seems to have made peace with destiny. Vijayan's grandfather, Narayanan, was a daily-wage worker with the British firm, William Goodekar. Once when the employees in the company went on a strike (sorry, we are Malayalis, first!) the owner of the company was surprised to find Narayanan, their Man Friday, among the protestors. "Don't behave like a Chinese," the employer admonished Narayanan. When the strike ended a few days later, the workers got what they demanded, but Narayanan got something he did not ask for—a pet name. People started calling him China Narayanan!
It was then that he and his mother started the tea shop, a small venture that sold the humble puttu with all its rustic, local flavours. People of Thumpoli then started calling the tea shop the tea shop of China or Chinese tea shop. After Narayanan, his son, Chellappan took over the management of the tea shop. The locals continued to savour tea and snacks from the shop and perhaps owing to missing the thrill in the Chinese link with the change in management,started calling Chellappan, China Chellappan!
The shop eventually came into the hands of Vijayan, son of Chellappan, who is now China Vijayan.
Meanwhile, the shop reinvented itself, and from the rustic puttu, it started vending dosas, appams, lunch and so on. The shop kept itself in the news by offering a variety of unique dishes, only to be replaced by new ones after some time in true Chinese style. Now-a-days, all the glory and adulation is on Alboori, a small, fermented snack, whose nomenclature has more of a Middle Eastern lineage than a Chinese one. The recipe goes thus—to concentrated sugar syrup, add refined flour, rice flour and water and mix well. Dab the dough in oil and ferment for a day. The next day, drain the excess oil and knead the dough once more. Add cardamom and nutmeg, knead once more and the fry in oil, and Alboori is ready.
The small shop has become so famous that it has become a landmark. Even Vijayan has been asked many a times whether his house is close to the Chinese tea shop. China has become a family name for Vijayan so much so that even his children have become 'Chinese.' Perhaps it is this deep involvement with the name that has prompted him not to spend on a signboard for the shop. When you have such a brand written all over your profession and even your family, who needs a display board after all?