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Thursday, Dec 12, 2019

A veg meal that even I adore, is the Onam Sadya, says Kunal Vijayakar

I am an ardent worshipper of food from Kerala, especially of Mapla and Syrian Christian delicacies, but the Sadya has a special place in my heart.

mumbai Updated: Aug 30, 2019 19:23 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
A traditional Onam Sadya is served on a banana leaf, and should have at least 23 items. Now that’s what I call a feast!
A traditional Onam Sadya is served on a banana leaf, and should have at least 23 items. Now that’s what I call a feast! (iStock)
         

We are about to enter what is probably the busiest festival season of the year in India. Come September and India explodes with colour, light, fireworks, and food. The two big festivals just round the corner are Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam, to be followed by the gaiety of Dussehra and the explosion of Diwali.

Both Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam are festivals that tug at the emotional bonds of people, Maharashtrian and Malayalam people in this case. Weary form a year’s work, Malayalis from all over the world rush back to their native towns and villages for the festival of Onam. Maharashtrians do the same, going from cities like Mumbai and Pune back to their villages and hometowns. This is a time to bond with family and friends and celebrate culture and heritage as our people have, for centuries.

Ganesh Chaturthi is a festival close to my heart, and I’ve often written about how it was celebrated in our homes, and the special foods that were so typical of the festival. But I haven’t delved much into a classic Onam celebration. Onam is primarily a harvest festival, celebrated all over Kerala to commemorate the golden rule of king Mahabali, a fabled asura ruler. Jealous of his acclaim, the legend goes, the Gods conspired to end his reign. They sent Lord Vishnu to earth in his Vaman (dwarf Brahmin) avatar, and he trampled Mahabali into the netherworld, but granted his last wish — to visit his land and people once a year.

That day is celebrated as Onam. With Onam come banana leaves, colourful Kathakali masks, the aroma of incense and the beats of the Panchavadyam and Chenda drums. Onam is the emotional string that binds all Malayalis together.  

And nothing brings together all Malayalis like the Sadya does. Sadya is the Malayalam word for feast and it is Kerala’s most popular and revered Vegetarian Thali. Sadya is not only served during Onam, a Sadya can also be the traditional meal served during a wedding or on Vishu (another festival celebrated in Kerala and in parts of coastal Tamil Nadu).

I am an ardent worshipper of food from Kerala, especially of Mapla and Syrian Christian delicacies, but the Sadya has a special place in my heart. It’s the one vegetarian meal that I adore. Maybe it’s the coconut that features in the Avial and Payasam or the crisp south Indian papadams or all the lovey fritters that go with a traditional Sadya.

Normally the Sadya served on Onam is cooked without onions or garlic. A full-fledged Sadya should have at least 23 items. The meal is usually had sitting on the floor; cutlery is definitely avoided. A Sadya must comprise of Avial (curd curry), Thoran (dry vegetables), pickles, lemon, salt, boiled rice and Payasam (a sweet dish).

It starts with Kaya Varuthathu (crisp banana chips fried in coconut oil), Sarkara Varatti (jaggery-coated banana chips), at least two kinds of pickle, raw mango or lime. Along with that is served a Pachadi (a sour curd curry made with cucumber and ash gourd cooked in coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves). Then comes the classic Avial, the nectar of Kerala — soft and creamy vegetables cooked with coconut, curd, coconut oil and curry leaves. The omnipresent Sambar and a pepper-spiked Rasam. Then there is Parippu (a thick moong dal curry cooked with grated coconut and seasoned with spices and drizzled with ghee).

Thoran can be made from any vegetables that are fresh and available — carrots, cabbage, beans, tomatoes or leafy veggies. The curry is flavoured with coconut and green chillies.

You can take the Sadya to whatever level of fanciness you wish. You can add dishes like Erissery (a coconut curry of pumpkin and black-eyed peas), Kaalan (a sour dish made with bananas or yam cooked in yogurt, and coconut) and Olan (spiced black peas in coconut milk).

As with most meals, you end with a sweet dish. Here, Palada Pradhaman (a sweet dish made with rice, milk and dry fruit) or Pazham Pradhaman (rice with coconut pieces and jaggery) is typically the last dish served.

If you truly want to understand what an Onam Sadya means to a Malayali, there is a saying that describes it best. They say in Malayalam: ‘Kanam vittum Onam unnanam’, which means ‘We should have the Onam Sadya even if we have to sell all our land’.