The New Age of Mangalore’s Kali Gadangs

Mangalore's seedy toddy bars of yesteryear have become bright, airy spaces that showcase the beauty of the coast, shining a spotlight on the many incarnations of the humble palm spirit and the sumptuousness of local fare.

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A statue of a traditional toddy tapper (left) welcomes guests at The Toddy House, an establishment that serves myriad traditional and modern toddy variations best accompanied by lip-smacking duck roast (right). Photos by: Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

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You are going to a kali gadang?”my mother asked incredulously. She was visualising me in a gadang—Tulu for a small, seedy bar—known for grimy walls lit up with zero watt bulbs, drinking kali (toddy, palm wine), and chowing down on spicy food from a kitchen with questionable hygiene. “No,” I said slowly, recognising the signs of a verbal lashing building up, “kali bars are not what they used to be,” I assured her.

My own perception of them had only changed recently. It started with a social media post I chanced upon by The Toddy House in Talapady, around 18 kilometres from Mangalore city, a place that was turning kali gadangs hip. Come with family and friends, the post said, promising fresh kali, the best of coastal food, and a change in how toddy shops are perceived. We drove to The Toddy House on NH66, grateful that sparse traffic let us cover the distance in 20 minutes. As we squeezed the car into a parking spot, a statue of a traditional toddy tapper welcomed us into a space where the décor was quite Flintstones-esque. A chessboard tiled pathway leads to red oxide walled cubicles, each seating six, with a fan, lights, and even charging points. When the menu arrived, the dangers of involuntarily spit-shining our tables was quite real. While only coconut toddy was available the day we visited, palm and fishtail toddy are typically also on the menu. You can choose to have it au naturale or in the many flavoured versions created: think kali with fruit mixes, as milkshakes, and with spices. We began with Gandhari (bird’s eye chilli) kali shots. The kali was still in the mildly fermented stage—the tipple continues to ferment once tapped, going from sweet-ish to sour, and stronger on the alcohol hit—with the spice of the gandhari washing down our throats a few seconds later.

We ordered the ginger kali next, served in the traditional one-litre clay pot, with some duck roast and bondas (squid) masala fry. Also coming to the table was a bottle of neera, or palm nectar, the sweet, non-alcoholic sap that comes from the first tapping of a palm tree. With kali and food on the table, the only sounds were the sniffles induced by the pepper-heavy duck roast, the gamey meat and spices complementing each other in a perfect pairing like fish and rava masala, which are also on the menu. Between sips of the neera, which cooled the belly, we discussed what to do next, not realising we were systematically wiping clean the masala off the bondas plate while passing it around. No, we weren’t going to order more, we were going to Kudla da Paddai, a kali bar by the backwaters of Gurpura River a little beyond Urva.

 

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The route to Paddai seemed quite straightforward on Google Maps but we couldn’t find it as we navigated into streets that went from being lined with apartment complexes to mud paths, and what then seemed like a construction site at a dead end. Not one to give up easily, I spotted a narrow road at the corner that we followed, and sure enough, the backwaters came into sight as did a broken signboard for Paddai. Initial scepticism turned to delight when we spotted two massive thatched roof seating areas right on the banks of the river, surrounded by light bollards that lit up as the sun settled. We arrived between kitchen shifts and were told that with our palm toddy, only chicken sukka and kori rotti would be available. Bring them both on, we said. The thick and spicy coconut masala of the sukka made for a perfect balancing act. We turned our chairs to face the backwaters, watching the sunset as a fisherman drew in his net and came home for the day, and felt the warm breeze turn cool as it swept over the waters. As the evening’s cook came in we added another round of kali, some koli vadas and bondas chilli to our billing.

The next day we headed to Kali Parka in Bockapatna, Boloor, which also overlooks the Gurupura River. The experience of the backwaters here is different, considering you spend time on a massive anchored boat. Walking across the metal planks, we naturally gravitated to the semi-open deck, bypassing the air-conditioned lower level, just in time to take in the sunset. The squid ghee roast we ordered was cooked on board in the furthest corner. The aromas of the masala as it hit the hot tava instantly enveloped us and we eagerly welcomed its steaming entry to our table. Each bite was of that delicious, heartburn-guaranteed variety, finished with a generous handful of crushed, roasted cashew nuts. The kali here, though potent, worked in perfect rhythm with the spice. We sat on the deck, well past sunset to watch the colourful lights of Kali Parka come on, and guests streaming in.

While the down-to-earth draw of Mangalore’s toddy shops—from freshly tapped toddy to the steady supply of spicy, made-to-order, masala-heavy food—remains the same, these bars are now bright, airy spaces showcasing the beauty of the coast. Kali gadangs have come a long way from how my mother remembers them, a refreshing truth that goes down as smoothly as a sip of sweet palm nectar.

Author’s note: Kalivali–The Toddy Lounge in Kodikal is top of the list for next time as is Kaliyuga Beach Restaurant and Toddy Café, further away in Malpe.

 

Also Read | The Ultimate Foodies’ Road Trip Along the ECR

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

ESSENTIALS

The Toddy House 1-59 near Talapady check post NH-66 Talapady, Mangalore, Karnataka 575023

Kudla da Paddai Kallov, Sulthan Batteri, Road, Urwa, Mangalore, Karnataka 575006

Kali Parka Opposite road of Ayyappa Swamy temple, Bockapatna, Boloor, Mangalore, Karnataka 575003

KalivaliThe Toddy Lounge Paddodi Road, Riverside, Bangrakuloor, Mangalore, 575010

Kaliyuga Restaurant and Toddy Café Malpe BeachRoad, Malpe, Karnataka, India 576108

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  • Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bangalore-based freelance writer. She writes for several publications on food, travel, lifestyle, interiors, parenting and architecture. She enjoys telling the stories of people who have contributed to a range of fields, and chronicling interesting experiences that don't find a place in the rush of the mainstream. An avid food lover, Ruth loves to explore a city through its food.

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