Work starts early in the kitchen of Ernakulam’s Thottekatt Diwans’ Memorial Hall (TDM Hall). It is between 4 am and 5 am that stoves are lit and the cooks start preparations to make paalada payasam and pradhaman s, which have to be ready by 10 am. For ten days from Atham to Thiruvonam [the stars of the Malayalam calendar when Onam festivities begin and culminate] two varieties of payasam will be made daily, along with a variety of pickles made of lime, lemon, mango, gooseberry and ginger, all for the annual Onam Mela. This year’s sale began on August 11.
Every year since the early 1990s, for Onam, TDM Hall has been conducting this sale of banana and jackfruit chips, pickles, payasam , pappadam and kondattam . “Usually the sale used to be for 20-odd days. This time, it is just for 10 days. All these years, the Onam Mela has only been cancelled twice: once in 2018 due to the floods and last year [2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic],” says P Ramachandran, General Secretary of the Ernakulam Karayogam, which runs TDM Hall. Located in the heart of the city opposite Durbar Hall, the popular venue for weddings and cultural events has its own kitchen and staff. But the Onam fair is its highlight.
“Every year, until 2020, a trip to TDM Hall for Onam goodies was a ritual. My daughter is very fond of the paalada there. The shopping doesn’t stop there. Pickles, chips... the Mela is a highlight of our Onam shopping,” says Priya K. She hasn’t made up her mind about going this year.
“The reason we started this Mela was because the Onam fairs - of garments and handicrafts - had started. That gave us the idea of starting an Onam mela with food items at the Karayogam. These are things that cannot be made at home easily, especially when the old way of doing things changed. Paalada , for example, is not easy to make at home. If you cannot, no worries, you can pick up the original thing, made the traditional way here,” Ramachandran says.
Kochi’s favourite paalada , a signature dish, is the most sold item of the mela. In normal times, daily sales of paalada would exceed 2,000 litres; this year it is at 500-1,000 litres . The making of paalada is a tedious process. A watery batter of ground raw rice is smeared on banana leaves, which are then rolled and cooked in boiling water. The cooked ‘ada’ is then cut into pieces and cooked with milk and sugar for hours before it becomes payasam . “It is a time-consuming process, nothing that comes out of a ready-to-cook pack tastes this good.” Which explains the demand: “There were days we sold 4,000 litres a day pre-COVID,” he says. The paalada payasam is priced at ₹ 250 a litre.
Besides paalada [made of milk], one variety of pradhaman (jaggery-based version of payasam) made of either of nendran banana, parippu (moong dal), or gothambu (broken wheat) are made daily. The pickles too are made in-house, these are also being made in reduced quantities, “We used to make more than 100 kilos of each, now it is half the quantity. The demand has considerably reduced because there are few gatherings or get-togethers,” Ramachandran says.
Takeaway sadyas on Uthradom and Thiruvonam are also popular, preparations for these begin a day in advance. “We have a minimum order condition — either for three people or for five. We don’t have tie-up aggregators, nor do we deliver at home, so we cannot provide sadya for one. People have to come here and pick-up, which is a dampener for some in these days of everything delivered home. But we have our dedicated base of people who come every year!” Ramachandran adds.