Sweet celebrations

Ada pradhaman in Thiruvananthapuram, paalada in Kochi, parippu payasam in Wayanad... what’s cooking in uralis across the state this Onam

September 01, 2017 05:17 pm | Updated 05:17 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Pineapple Pumpkin Payasam

Pineapple Pumpkin Payasam

Payasam is the ambrosia of any Malayali sadya. However meticulously prepared and fastidiously served, a sadya is often judged by how rich, how creamy and how hot the payasams were. Inevitably, the first question that Malayalis ask each other about a sadya is ‘ ethra payasam undayirunnu ?’ (How many payasams were there?).

Classic ada pradhaman, rich pazham pradhaman, delectable paalada, grainy parippu payasam and syrupy kadala payasam... they are the divas of the sadya. Chefs put on their thinking caps to come up with payasams that offer a wide range of tastes and textures. And now in addition to the vintage payasams, there are payasams made with vegetables and fruits such as apples and oranges.

Raj Kalesh, host of various culinary shows on television, says: “In the capital city, ada pradhaman is numero uno, closely followed by kadala payasam and paalada. Up north in Kasaragod, broken wheat (gothambu nurukku) payasam is a favourite, perhaps an influence of the Kannada culture just across the border. Parippu payasam is most common in parts of Kannur and Wayanad. They make it with cherupayar (split moong daal) parippu or cherupayarparippu and rice,” he says.

Payasam with jaggery (sharkkara)

Payasam with jaggery (sharkkara)

Although there are many quirky, innovative versions of the payasams nowadays, the four main varieties — paalada, pazham, parippu (green moong dal) and gothambu — still fill the uralis, particularly during Onam, according to Vijayakumar, manager, Vinayaka Caterers, Kochi. “In Ernakulam, paalada and pazham are the hot sellers while the other two are more popular towards the north of Kerala. But the paalada is a constant everywhere,” he adds.

In fact, there was a time when the pazham pradhaman was considered the best, according to Raj. “It has been mentioned in the Aithihyamala . Prepared with slightly overripe bananas, jaggery and coconut milk, the payasam gets its special bite from chukkupodi (dry ginger powder) and crushed cumin seeds. No fried cashew nuts and raisins! According to some books, even ghee was not added to it,” he says.

T.P.R. Namboothiri of popular food blog Namboothiris Thattukada, a Sanskrit scholar and an authority on vegetarian food traditions of Kerala, explains the significance of payasams for Onam. “Onam is essentially a harvest festival, a time when paddy is harvested, dried and rice grains threshed out of the sheaves. Unakkalari (rice that has not been parboiled) cooked in fresh cow’s milk is offered to the gods as a thanksgiving for a good harvest and that’s why payasams are known as devapaakam . Vedic references suggest that feasting on sadya and payasams is an age-old practice. In the Sanskrit text Amaraghosham , for instance, it says: Paramannam thu payasam , which means that payasams are supreme in taste. In another text it’s written Madhurena samaape — end the feast with something sweet,” he explains.

In his native Malabar he says that on all 10 days of Onam, traditionally, different payasams are made, such as idichupizhinja payasam (payasam made of milk extracted from coconut), grithapayasam (with ghee), kadina payasam (with ingredients like raisins, dried ginger, cumin and other such fragrant spices) and so on, all to do with different aspects of the harvest.

“On the three days of Onam, however, specific payasams are cooked. On Uthradam day, pazham pradhaman is made with nendran variety of bananas. It’s associated with the kola kazhcha ritual (offering of bananas) at Guruvayur temple,” he explains. On Thiruvonam, it’s paal payasam, connected to the legend of Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu’s encounter with King Mahabali. On the third day, Avittam, ada payasam is usually prepared. “The very same unakkalari is cooked and flattened into flakes and then cooked in either water or milk to make the payasam,” he explains.

Ramachandran Iyer preparing payasams in Thiruvananthapuram

Ramachandran Iyer preparing payasams in Thiruvananthapuram

According to Pazhayidom Mohanan Namboothiri, a master chef known for managing massive kitchens at many events across the state, ada pradhaman and paalada are top sellers in his kitchen at Kurichithanam in Kottayam district. “Last year we sold over 10,000 litres,” says Pazhayidom.

Meanwhile one can savour five to six varieties of payasams at the grand Aranmula Vallasadya of Sree Parthasarathy Temple of Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district. As is the tradition, the oarsmen sing Vanchipaattu calling for each variety of payasam to be served, such as ada pradhaman, Ambalappuzha paal payasam, kadala pradhaman, pazham pradhaman and, of course, the kadumpayasam that is offered to the main deity of the temple.

In certain other parts of Pathanamthitta, meanwhile, chena (elephant yam) payasam is a hot favourite. “Yam is an easily available ingredient in the region and can be stored without getting decayed for many months. The yam is cooked, mashed and then cooked in coconut milk and jaggery,” says Raj.

Thrissur, perhaps, leaves other districts behind when it comes to payasam varieties and paalada tops the list. Who better to vouch for this than Kannan Swami of Velapaya Madom in Thrissur, who has been in the business of preparing sadyas for 25 years now? He sold nearly 45,000 litres of payasam during the 10 days of the festival last year. “On Thiruvonam day, I sell up to 12,000 litres of payasam of different varieties. Paalada is always a hot-seller, followed by pazham pradhaman and parippu payasam,” says Swami.

Pazhayidom and Swami say that you cannot afford to be sloppy while preparing paalada as the payasam is only as good as its ingredients. Packaged ada (rice flakes) is a strict no-no and the milk has to be carefully reduced to give the payasam its creamy texture. “The large bronze vaarppu contributes a lot to the taste of the payasam,” says Swami.

When it comes to most other payasams though, you are limited only by your creativity. These days, just about every fruit, vegetable, cereal grains and pulses are used to make the sweet treat. Jackfruit, mango, pineapple, pumpkin, tapioca, pasta, oats, bamboo rice, tender coconut, and even unniyappam and fruit salad... you name it, find its way onto menus, many of them popular, thanks to payasam festivals for Onam and cookery shows on TV.

In our opinion, payasams are best savoured from the ela itself. Eat it the old fashioned way. Once it’s ladled onto the leaf, gently blow on it to cool the serving down, swirl it around a bit with your fingers and scoop it up straight into the mouth. If you want, you can team the payasams with boli (like Thiruvananthapuram natives do, with paal payasam), pappadam or bananas. Bliss.

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