Tanya Thomas samples the Onam Sadya at Enté Keralam and relives memories of authentic community feasting on the special day in Kerala.
I didn't know that it's called Sambharam. Buttermilk has always been just morru at home.
So now this fancy new name intimidates me a little, and I realise that I don't know my own food as well as I thought I did. As we wait to begin, I wonder if the rest of my lunch would also come with touches of the exotic. a
Turns out it isn't to be. The Onam Ela Sadya at Enté Keralam is the back-to-basics version of vegetarian Malayali cuisine. Without the bells and whistles and abundant greasiness of coconut oil our food is known for, the sadya's simplicity can be refreshing.
The spread is light and healthy and well-worth it if you can't, or don't know how, to dish up all 28 components on your own.
The décor at Enté Keralam has, of course, the staples of Kerala presentation — a nirapara (a bronze vessel brimming with paddy), pookalam (floral design), and a lit nilavilakku (bronze lamp) gracing the entrance. The sadya here is specially prepared by Unnikrishnan Namboodiri. A priest-chef-ayurvedic doctor, he visits Chennai every year to fire up the vats for the festival. Some of the preparations begin months in advance in Kerala, he clarifies, when ingredients are in season. In Chennai, his kitchen is separately arranged to maintain its vegetarian purity; even onion and garlic are barred from entry.
My ela (the serving leaf) comes on a plate. And while I can picture my grandfather raising an eyebrow at the fork and spoon that accompany it, I guess it does make an immaculately-set table stay so. The first course is rice and lentils, and we follow that up with generous servings of sambhar, pulissery and rasam.
The vegetables border the plate in the time-honoured order of eating. Beginning with the eruseri and kaalan (a yam and yogurt preparation), we move on to the avial (mixed vegetables), kichadi pachadi, and end with thoran (vegetable garnished with grated coconut).
Unnikrishnan Thirumeni advises that we pick on the olan (white pumpkin in coconut oil) intermittently. It works as a mouth freshener, he explains, cleansing taste buds and readying it for new flavours. Translated, that would make the olan mostly bland. The vegetables are drier than I like them, and what I'm used to.
The pickles — mango and amla — are also moderately spiced while I usually like my achaars higher up on the red scale. The meal's crescendo is the payasam.
Naturally, there's palada pradhaman; the sweetness of its jaggery as pure as any back home in Kerala. My first mouthful of gothambu pradhaman (wheat payasam) is surprising, and immensely likeable.
But while the desserts are a revelation, the sadya does come across as tepid. The flavours are circumspect, undecided, even if the colours are inviting. My memories of sadyas in Kerala are filled with the sounds of happy chatter and pappadam crushed into rice. I realise that a restaurant isn't just replacement for a community feasting together, but it is a recreation nonetheless — and we can be grateful, if only for that.The sadya will be available at all outlets of Enté Keralam for lunch till Sunday. Excluding taxes, the meal costs Rs. 475 on Friday (Thiruvonam) and Rs. 425 otherwise. Sadyas as take-away lunch boxes are also available.
Tanya is a student of Asian College of Journalism.
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