Onam on a leaf

Traditional Onasadya served on a banana leaf. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat  

Mouths have already begun watering in anticipation of the mother of all festive feasts in Kerala – the Onasadya. If you thought it was, simply, rice served with a few vegetarian curries and a couple of payasams on an ela (banana leaf), you couldn’t be more wrong. There’s an art to preparing, serving and feasting on the Onasadya that’s as diverse (and mind-boggling) as the people and places of the state.

Onasadya traditions appear to differ from region to region, place to place in the state, from community to community, and even from family to family. In my father’s ancestral home in Thrissur, for example, every Onam, we kick off the gastronomic adventure with an appetiser; a whole, ripened, boiled nendran banana, squishing it with pappadam and a drizzle of ghee! One of the elders in the family likens it to the ‘pappadam-pazham kuzhakkal’ tradition popular in sadyas in Thalassery and Vadakara in Kannur, from where our paternal ancestors hail from; the only difference is that they use fresh Mysore banana to mix with the pappadam.

A friend, a native of Kollam, meanwhile, talks about how fish curry, made with the morning’s catch from Ashtamudi Lake, is a part every Onasadya in the region, while at a great-aunt’s home in Kozhikode varutharacha chicken, cooked in dry roasted coconut, is always on the Onam menu. A colleague from Pattambi in Malappuram insists that no sadya in his illam is complete without a ‘velutha’ curry, which is something akin to seasoned buttermilk.

“Onam is at once a community festival, a harvest festival and temple festival, all of which promote the idea of togetherness. In fact, the term, sadya itself comes from the Sanskrit phrase ‘sagdhi shcha me’ in Chamaka prashnah of the Yajur Veda, which roughly means that food should ideally be shared and partaken together with many people. The Onasadya reflects the spirit of the season and is traditionally made with seasonal vegetables such as yam, cucumber, ash gourd and so on. Even, serving paal payasam on Thiruvonam has a significance. It’s connected to the legend of Vamana, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, vanquishing Mahabali,” says T.P.R. Namboothiri, Principal, Madras Sanskrit College, and well-known food blogger who specialises in Brahmin cuisine of his native Kannur.

Foodie and food show host Raj Kalesh has travelled the length and breadth of the state in search of the best of local cuisine and has come up with a few observations of his own. “What’s served for sadyas in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam up to Aranmula – the areas that broadly come under erstwhile Travancore – is quite different to that served in Malabar; the most strikingly of which is that in Travancore you start off the meal with parippu. In all others places, sambar features first and parippu only appears as a side dish. If every sadya in Thiruvananthapuram has boli with paal payasam, a sweet combination found nowhere else in the state, in the Valluvanadan region (south Malabar) puli inji, a luscious, sweet-and-sour paste of tamarind, ginger, jaggery and green chillies, is a requisite on the ela. In Kozhikode, chicken curry and fry is a must in many Hindu households and in some areas of Kannur and Kasaragod, fish fry of meaty varieties such as avoli (pomfret) and aykoora (King fish) is a hot favourite…,” he says.

Priya Jayachandran of Mangalya Caterers, one of the city’s sadya experts, adds: “Parippu in the Travancore area is a gravy made with roasted moong dal, while up north it’s got the consistency of a thick paste and is made of toor dal. This side of the state, we make vada koottucurry, with small uzhunnu vada, while in all the other regions it’s made with ash gourds, pumpkin, yam and plantain.”

That said, the Travancore-style Onasadya is renowned to be the most “disciplined” and tradition-bound. “There’s a beauty to how it’s served, which makes it visually appealing to diners too,” says Priya. Chips and pickles go on the leaf first and then, in clockwise order, inji curry, pickles, three varieties of kichadi (cucumber with mustard, beetroot with ginger and bitter gourd with garlic), two pachadis, madura curry, thoran, avial, and koottu curry. “The combo for parippu and rice is koottu curry, while all the others are meant to be had with rice and sambar,” explains Priya. Then come the payasams – ada, parippu/wheat or pazham pradhaman and boli with paal payasam made with broken chemba rice. This is followed by olan (without black-eyed peas), rasam and buttermilk. “Each curry gets priority. Olan, which is a light curry made with ash gourd and coconut milk, is said to have medicinal properties. Rasam and buttermilk too aids in digestion,” she adds. On that note, some argue that the Thrissur-style sadya, with ‘small’ and ‘big’ pappadam, unniyappam and neyyappam, and that of Tripunithura, with its spectacular paal payasam, comes up trumps in the taste stakes.

The arguments and discussions go on while Malayalis get ready to feast on the sadya!

Platter full of taste

What’s common to all sadyas is the variety of rice used for the meal – Kerala matta a.k.a. red parboiled rice. The traditional sadya features anywhere upwards of 10 varieties of koottaan (curry), the mainstays of which are, usually, parippu, sambhar, rasam, avial, kootucurry, madhura curry, olan, pachadi and kichadi (both of which are yoghurt-based), besides pappadam, banana, inji or puli inji, pickles, plain banana chips and sharkara varatti, plus payasams (ideally, two jaggery-based prathamans and one milk-based). It can go up to around 64 items as served in the ‘Vallasadya’ for the Aranmula snake boat race.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2021 3:51:28 AM |

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