Onam 2022: Soulful and satiating, your sadhya is served!
A multi-dish melange of flavours that is served on a banana leaf, we decode what an Onam sadhya consists of and how you can enjoy it, ahead of the annual harvest festival of Kerala
Come Onam and visuals of vibrant floral pookalams (rangoli), women clad in traditional kasavu sarees clapping their hands to the rhythmic beats of traditional instruments come rushing to the mind. But for most people today, both within and outside of Kerala, the lavish sadhya is what they instantly resonate with, when talking of the annual 10-day harvest festival that culminates with Thiruvonam on September 8. On this day, the homecoming of king Mahabali to Kerala is celebrated with great splendour.
What goes into a sadhya?
Traditionally vegetarian, this lavish meal typically consists of around 26 dishes, covering all kinds of flavours – sweet, sour, salty, spicy and umami (savoury). “Some of the customary dishes are Kalan (raw banana curry made with yoghurt and ground coconut), Olan (Stewed ash gourd, pumpkin, cucumber with long string beans and dried red beans in coconut milk), Avial (cumin scented seasonal country vegetables in coconut, shallots and turmeric based stew), Inji curry (ginger with palm sugar and tamarind with asafoetida ) and the much-loved payasam. One fruit that has a ubiquitous presence in the sadhya is banana, in raw and cooked form. A whole ripe banana is also served, symbolic of prosperity,” shares Printo Pauly, sous chef, The St. Regis Mumbai, which is doing a sadhya on delivery for foodies on September 8.
“Onam is held in honour of the returning benevolent king Mahabali, so tradition rightfully demands that you do not cut corners in the richness, scale and opulence of it,” notes Thomas Fenn, partner at Mahabelly, Delhi, which is offering a succulent spread to patrons on September 7, 8 and 9. He adds, “Coconut in various forms (milk, grated and roasted) and curd are a common thread in most of the recipes. Aromatics such as ginger, mustard seeds and curry leaves are absolutely essential, too.”
All ingredients used in the delicacies embody the spirit of Kerala’s harvest season and the diversity of the region’s rich abundant produce. Seasonal vegetables such as ash gourd, cucumber, yams, pumpkins etc form an integral part. Ancient tradition has it that the feast signifies eating new grains and fresh produce, together as a community.
Serving a sadhya
Before digging into this amalgam of flavours, one must know of the way in which a sadhya is to be relished. “The entire feast is served on a banana leaf, which has antibacterial properties and a natural antioxidant called polyphenols. Traditionally, a person is meant to sit on the floor cross-legged and the banana leaf is placed in front of them, with the tip pointing to the left. Salt is the first item to be placed, followed by banana chips and sharkara varatti (banana chips caramelised in jaggery and cardamom), on the lower left of the leaf. Various pickles, inji curry, pachadi (a form of raita), kichadi (a coolant made with sour curd), avial and thoran (stir fry vegetable) would be served on the upper half from left to right. After this, rice is placed in the centre, topped with ghee and parippu (boiled dal), followed by sambar, pulisery and kalan in the second round. The meal ends with payasam and buttermilk. Once the meal is done, the leaf should be folded and closed with hands, signifying satisfaction,” explains Vetri Murugan, head chef at Zambar, Gurugram, which is set to host patrons for a delish Onam sadhya from September 7-9.
While the dishes are served from left to right, the meal is traditionally consumed from right to left, seated facing the East. “A balance of proteins, carbohydrates, acid and fat is the only way you can consume a sadhya, and the essential part is that it all starts with the banana leaf itself,” notes Rishikesh Rai, executive chef, Vivanta New Delhi Dwarka.
“Step-wise ceremonial way of serving and eating makes for a large part of the indulgence,” opines chef Arun Sundararaj, director of culinary operations at Taj Mahal, New Delhi. He adds, “Sitting down for the meal is healthy for ingestion and digestion. Also, it is traditionally eaten without any cutlery, thereby engaging all five fingers in the process of mixing and eating.”
Sadhyas and their soaring popularity
A practice once restricted to the homes of Keralites, Onasadhyas have now entered the mainstream food domain, with its popularity stretching over to the homes and restaurants of non-Malayalis. A key reason for this, according to chefs, is the curiosity around different cuisines and the growing keenness in embracing myriad cultures and customs. “The sadhya I think is the gateway drug to Kerala cuisine in the North of India,” quips Fenn, adding “It is vegetarian, there’s a lot of colour and table-side drama involved in serving it, not to mention very elaborate with no less than 25 items on the leaf. This year and the last, the number of home chefs and non-Malayali restaurants offering sadhya during Onam has increased manifold, which is quite encouraging. Not to forget, pravasi Malayalis have really spread the gospel of Onam.”
Another key reason, chefs believe, is the growing acceptance of vegetarianism and veganism, both of which can be catered to in a sadhya. Most dishes can easily be replicated with coconut milk and plant-based yoghurt, without compromising on the taste. “Most of the dishes (in a sadhya) are gluten free as well. With the increase in demand to experience local cuisines across the country, people are eager to experiment,” says Rohit Chadha, executive sous chef at JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, which has a special sadhya on offer on September 8.
Author tweets @srinidhi_gk