From adapradhaman to avial, caterers parcel and despatch the Onam feast to Coimbatoreans

In the kitchens of Friends Catering in Ramnagar, a narrow doorway leads into a ill-lit store room lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. Close to the roof sit orderly rows of green pumpkins, followed by lines of brown yam. Mountains of de-husked coconut shells pile beside mechanical scrapers. Knives hang from walls and stacked steel vessels reflect the tubelights above. From the adjacent room wafts of boiling milk float in.

A man stands beside the uruli with five packets of milk in one hand and a blade in the other. A swift slit and milk gushes into the cauldron being vigorously stirred by a five-foot man with a ladle larger than him. It’s the beginnings of the creamiest paaladapradhaman I’m to share with a thousand other Coimbatoreans celebrating Onam in the city.

For 30 years, Friends Catering has brought to Coimbatore the Onasadya, a traditional 21-item feast of Kerala’s harvest festival. Caterers such Sastha Catering, Sabari Caterers and Sai Lakshmi Caterers, among many others, too have served variations of the Onasadya for years. “Our cooking style and ingredients are exactly like in Kerala,” says L.K. Ramanathan, one of the partners of Friends Catering.

Customised taste

Ravi from Sai Lakshmi Caterers however, modifies things a little to suit the Tamilian palate. “Many customers prefer less coconut oil than used traditionally, as the flavour is quite strong. Others ask for the Malayali thoran to be made with potato instead. Some also want less sweet and more kaaram. So, while usually, the sadya has two payasams, we replace one with parippu vada,” he says.

Practical concerns also bring in changes. “Urulis used to make paaladapradhaman are hard to come by today, so we use regular catering vessels instead,” says S. Mayuranathan from Sabari Caterers.

Regardless, the essence of the sadya remains the same say most caterers. Cooks from Palakkad, Alathur and Noorani in Kerala help ensure that. Friends Caterers employs over 70 such cooks and brings in 40 more to help out during the season. The ingredients they use are, however, sourced locally. Ramanathan, for instance, has purchased over one-and-a-half tonnes of vegetables from the local market for this Onam. “In fact, vegetables and flowers exported from Coimbatore are used in sadyas in Palakkad!” he says. Readymade ada for paaladapradhaman is sometimes imported from Kerala say caterers as companies in Mallapuram district make them well. “But even this is made in our kitchens if the orders are large enough,” says Ravi.

Business for caterers during Onam has grown exponentially observes Ravi. “In the early years, our customers were mainly Malayalis but Coimbatore’s culture is heavily influenced by being a border city and today Coimbatoreans treat Onam as their own festival,” he says. Friends Caterers serves a clientele equally divided between Malayalis and Tamilians. Orders come from many families and companies, and they deliver as far as Mettupalayam and Avanashi. Corporate clients have increased this season says Ravi. His largest order has been from Velan Info for over 40 litres of paaladapradhaman. “Since the day of Onam is a holiday for most employees, companies pick a day either before or after to celebrate. So, we’re busy through the entire week,” he says. While many caterers serve the full sadya, some sell just the paaladapradhaman, which they say is a hot favourite in the city.

In the fast lives that people lead these days, few find time to cook the elaborate Onasadya. So, caterers step in instead. Unfolding packets to pour pachadi, kichadi, olan, kaalan, avial, thoran, sambar and rasam onto a banana leaf isn’t the same as being served hot food, cooked live. But the taste makes up for it. It’s like a little bit of home, packaged in plastic and sent across the state border.