Onasadya: a feast fit for a king

The Onasadya is traditionally served on Thiruvonam, the most important day of the festival

September 10, 2019 01:14 pm | Updated 02:10 pm IST

Most festivals centre around good food and Onam is no exception. Or perhaps it is. Onasadya as it is called is a spread where one indulges responsibly.

Onasadya, always eaten by hand, typically comprises 25 to 30 items and balances the six fundamental flavours — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent — among them. Starting with the order in which the dishes are served to the dishes themselves, the feast is a combination of Ayurveda and native wisdom, and has been observed ever since the festival has been celebrated.

The meal is served on a fresh plantain leaf, with the tapered end on your left. Two kinds of salted chips or upperi — made from banana and colocasia — placed on the left of the leaf, along with shakaraveratti (fried banana bits dusted with jaggery) mark the start of a long list of items that are integral to the sadya or meal.

Sometimes, chillies that have been soaked in curd and dried, are also served with the upperi .

Next, two types of papad, some salt and the small variety of banana, typically found in Kerala, is put on the leaf. Ginger pickle to aid in digestion, mango pickle to be enjoyed with curd-based dishes and lime pickle as a palate cleanser are a part of the sadya.

Before the rice is doled out, the side dishes are served. Perhaps the most important of these is the avial — a semi-dry dish of mixed vegetables in a curd or coconut base.

Then, there is a thoran which is a dry vegetable dish marked by grated coconut. Along with these, a small serving of a hot and sour kichadi (made with sour curd, ground coconut and cucumber or ash gourd) and a pachadi , the sweetened version of a kichadi made with either grapes, pineapple or pumpkin is served.

Kaalan or mor curry which is the Malayali version of kadi prepared without the besan and olan , a thick gravy dish prepared from ash gourd, cow peas and coconut milk complete the preliminary course of dishes, Depending on the region of Kerala your host is from, a kootu or stew is also served.

Typically, the meal starts with plain dal served on hot rice with dollops of ghee, to which the pappad is the most fitting accompaniment. This is followed by a sambar where the asafoetida and choice of vegetables aid in the digestive process. Again, depending on the region, a payasam or puliserri (a thin gravy made with yoghurt and mango or cucumber) or kaalan , a thick curd-based gravy dish made with a tuber, make for the next course.

A range of payasams or pradhaman are the highlight of the Onam feast. Of these, the ada payasam made with steamed and flattened cubes of flour in a jaggery base, is the most prestigious.

It is chased down by other kinds of banana, lentil or wheat payasams. However, the grand finale payasam-wise is the palpayasam made with rice or vermicelli and milk, served on a boli, again depending on the region.

The entire feast is rounded up with a portion of plain buttermilk and rasam, traditionally ladled onto the cupped palm of the eater. Truly a finger-licking, feast for the gods!

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