I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: the pandemic has been uniquely hospitable to the proliferation of condiments and therefore dangerously enabling to those of us suffering from Condiment Acquisitive Disorder.
So much carryout and delivery—to say nothing of ambitious home-cooking projects—has strained the dimensions of refrigerators across this plague-ravaged land. If I didn’t have so much time on my hands I wouldn’t know how to make use of the half-empty tubs and jars of Thai sweet chili sauce, aji huacatay, salsa macha, toum, compound butter, jelly, jam, tzatziki, kuchela, ssamjang, and shito that I’ve hoarded over the months.
Time inspires creative solutions. A lot of these things end up in preparations they weren’t intended for, often virgin (or otherwise) Bloody Marys, weird puddings, breakfast scrambles, and late-night pastas.
Chefs, of course, have been packaging and branding their own, and I’ve been helpless to resist them. I’ve been so overwhelmed by their sheer numbers that I’ve been slow to pick up the marvelous Keralan, aka Malayali, pickles and podi produced by Superkhana International line cook Thommy Padanilam, who pushes them under the Instagram handle Thommy’s Toddy Shop. It’s not a good excuse. I’ve been following @thommys_toddy_shop since the summer of 2019, after I wrote about Margaret Pak’s Thattu, then the only restaurant specializing in the food of India’s southwestern state on the Malabar Coast.
That’s where Padanilam was born and lived until he was six, when his family emigrated to Springfield—not a hotspot for Keralan expats. But he really didn’t become an avid home cook and student of the food he grew up eating until he moved to Chicago to study accounting and history—specifically post-colonial theory.
“It was only when I moved to the city and I was surrounded by all these other Malayali and Indians who grew up in pretty robust communities in the Chicago suburbs and Chicago that I really started to have that identity crisis. Kind of like the cliché story: I was not Brown enough for the Brown kids and not white enough for the white kids. I think I just turned to food as a way to deal with that crisis at the time.”
There was necessity involved too. There was no Malayali food to be had in the city limits, and he had no vehicle to access suburban Malayali catering operations. So he started cooking his mom’s recipes, eventually hosting his own periodic supper club after graduating and taking his first accounting job. He was thrilled when Pak began popping up at Kimski, and before long asked if he could help out at one of her Malayali brunches.
“I ended up making appams for several hours, and I had a thrill,” he says. “I kept wanting to chase that feeling.” Padanilam quit his job in 2018 and joined Pak when she opened on Politan Row. He moved to Superkhana International a year later and started learning to work the kitchen stations. “That just made me fall more and more in love with the industry and the job.”
So it was a rude and abrupt stop five months later when the pandemic shut everything down. “It was really tough because I finally felt like I had my head above water in terms of working my station and figuring out my way in that level of restaurant.”
Yet Superkhana International has survived the last year through a unique combination of pop-ups and packaged goods produced by industry friends and employees and sold through its carryout window. That’s kept cooks like Padanilam employed. It was Superkhana chefs Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada’s idea to start a pickle business, but it was Padanilam’s idea to narrow it to the achars, podis, and general flavors of his home state.
Thommy’s Toddy Shop—the name refers to the ubiquitous south Indian roadside taverns where food is served alongside lightly boozy palm toddies, made from fermented palm sap—launched in August with Padanilam’s Tomato Thokku, a gingery curry leaf and mustard seed-spiked nightshade condiment, and an unorthodox (for Kerala) zucchini achar. He followed up in November with his Coco Podi, a seasoning powder made with (among other things) roasted coconut chutney, coriander, ginger, garlic, tamarind and yogurt-marinated and fermented curd chilis. The next month came a smoked tamarind and ginger hot sauce. And last month came his Kari Leaf Podi, another seasoning mix with fried garlic, sesame seeds, curry leaves, and black pepper.
These preserves, seasonings, and their antecedents have specific purposes in Malayali cuisine but Padanilam recommends broad applications for each. The Tomato Thokku began appearing on sandwiches, pizzas, and burgers sold at Superkhana. He likes the podis for stir fries, eggs, and popcorn. He recommends the hot sauce for barbecue, chicken, and rice, and the potato and rosemary pizza sold out of Superkhana’s window from the Pizza Finestra pop-up. The jars and bottles, which sport thin, horizontal striping that recalls a certain Malayalam cinema aesthetic demonstrated in the work of filmmakers like Rajiv Anchal, can be ordered through Padanilam or Superkhana’s websites.
A mango achar is up next, and Padanilam wants to apply Malayali flavors to the Chinese chili crisp phenomenon that’s currently gripping CAD sufferers everywhere. “I’m not reinventing anything by any means,” he says. “But I think I’m bringing it into a western context in a way that it hasn’t been before.”
Bigger things are coming too. In February he served a sold-out pop-up at Superkhana, featuring a menu of brunch dishes that until then had no precedent in Chicago, like chicken mappas a Keralan-Christian stew with idiyappam, steamed rice noodles, served with a side of coco podi. “I’ve never worked brunch myself so I thought it would be a good opportunity to try to figure out how to make perfect sunnysides. It was a very traditional, straightforward take, but I wouldn’t say a lot of the food was engineered for traveling and for the pandemic.”
To that end he’s plotting a sequel for late April or early May: pothi choru, toasted banana leaf packets stuffed with rice, chutney, seasonal vegetables, and some kind of protein (egg scrambles, fried fish, or chicken). “This is something my parents would have for school lunch,” he says. “It’s kind of a working-class meal to go. The same idea as a burrito. You’re packing in all these nutritious calorie-dense things into a portable container for you to consume while you’re on the road or when you don’t have time to sit down and have a proper meal.”
Best eaten with a side of Tomato Thokku.
Superkhana International, 3059 W. Diversey, 773-661-9028 v