God’s Own Feast: The Onam
The pitter-patter of a shyly receding monsoon greeted me as I stepped out of the airport. I was in the land of God’s Own Country. It is a coincidence that it was time for Onam.
What is Onam?
Onam is Kerala’s biggest festival. Of course, like anything else in India, this is steeped in legend. The story, as I have heard from the locals, goes something like this. The erstwhile demon king of Kerala, Mahabali affectionately called Maveli was a tad arrogant of his own benevolence. The good king was also mighty. So the king of gods, Indra, feared a power struggle and thus sent, Lord Vishnu, to deal with the issue. Vishnu took the form of a dwarf aka Vamana. Mahabali was conducting a great sacrifice when Vamana came there seeking alms.
As expected, Maveli asked Vamana what he wanted. Seizing his opportunity, the little trickster then requested three paces of land. When the king agreed, Vamana or rather Vishnu grew in size to his full stature. With his first stride he covered the entire skies, and in the second he covered the netherworld. Realising that the only other piece of land left was the earth, Mahabali graciously offered himself. Vamana then pushed the king into the netherworld, never to threaten the Gods reigning above.
Due to his sincerity, and the fact that he was actually a great man, Lord Vishnu bestowed on him the gift of returning to the land once a year and looking upon his subjects, and generally having a gala time. So, once a year, all the Malayalees get dressed, decorate their house with artistic floral displays (pookalams), and prepare the feast of a lifetime in honour of the visiting king.
The feast – read ‘Onam Sadya’ is literally a treat for sore eyes and a gastronomical blitzkrieg of chaotically complimentary flavours. Onam Sadya is an art form in itself. There is so much detail, precision and science that goes into the preparation of this enormous spread. As a foodie, I decided to do some research as all the dishes as I was told play a central part that makes the Sadya more than just an elaborate lunch.
In Sadya, I was informed, it’s not the cooking of the meal, but the order and form in which it is served that is equally important. The particular way of serving has to do with maintaining the temperature of each dish. While it is alright for the pickles to be cold, it would be criminal to serve Sambhar, the mixed vegetable soup that was anything but piping hot!
In some households, Sadya had as many as 65 dishes! All the rich gentry used Onam as an occasion to awaken jealousy among peers by putting on larger-than-life display of their wealth on the banana leaf. Imagine the size of that leaf! Somehow I was lucky enough to observe the preparation for the typical Sadya of about 20 plus dishes to be prepared and plated on the banana leaf or ‘ela’.
Thus let us say hello to all the characters on the ‘Banana Leaf’.
And as I mentioned before, the art of laying out the leaf is a beautiful process that has been passed down through the generations.
The Pickles (Uppilittathu) – the Palette revitalisers: These are the first to make an appearance on the leaf.
– Tamarind and Ginger Chutney (Puli Inji)
– Lime Pickle (Vadukappuli Naranga Kari)
– Yogurt spiced with ginger (Inji Thayir)
THE FRIED GOODIES
The Fried Goodies aka Upperis: Just above the pickles rest these deep-fried crisps!
– Banana Chips (Kaaya Varuthath)
– Banana Chips coated in Jaggery (Sharka Upperi)
– Yam Chips (Chena Varuthath)
Can we do culinary without curry? Now comes the array of ‘koottans’ or curries, although this will be nothing like a chicken jalfrezi or a lamb korma. These are spread through the leaf as shown.
– Okra in spicy yoghurt (Kichadi): Made usually with okra or bitter gourd.
– Pineapple in yoghurt and grated coconut gravy (Pachadi).
– Pumpkin and red beans in a grated coconut gravy, or the Erissay: This little treat has a story: It is said that the powerful aromas of the tempered mustard and curry leaves in fresh coconut oil draw Maveli into the midst of the feast.
– Ash gourd and red beans in coconut milk (Olan).
– Mix vegetables in ground coconut (Avial), it is a nutrient that takes care of your vitamin intake.
– Potato stewed in coconut milk (Istu).
– Vegetable stir-fried with grated coconut (Thoran/Mezhukkuvaratti), vegetables are simply stir-fried with freshy grated coconut. It comes in all sorts of colour and combinations.
Above the Kichadi and Pachadi, but served after all these items have already been laid out is the Kurukku Kaalan. Many households guard the secrets of this tangy delight like they would their valuable heirlooms, fiercely contesting the uniqueness of each recipe in an almost childish manner, for that is how awesome this dish is, if made right.
– Yam and raw banana in tangy yoghurt sauce (Kurukku Kaalan)
The poppadoms: Now this is placed just near the upperis n pickles
– Big Poppadam
– Small Poppadam
Nowadays, the practice of placing these two varieties of poppadoms has given way to two medium-sized poppadoms.
– Boiled Lentils (Parippu): The dal is served with a generous helping of ghee which represents prosperity and wealth.
– Rice: It is not the white basmati that India is famous for but brown, parboiled and not very aromatic. It has stomach-friendly qualities and digests way faster than white rice.
– Sambhar: It is the first dish to make reappearance because everyone wants a second helping.
The dessert, Pradhamans: Now this is a fiercely contested battle zone of sorts with a never-ending debate of which pudding trumps the other. While some swear by the milky goodness of the Paal Ada, others will defend the jaggery-laden Pazha Pradhaman. Of course, one has the liberty of picking one’s own top favourite!
– Banana Pudding in Jaggery Sauce (Pazha Pradhaman)
– Pasta Pudding (Paal Ada Pradhaman)
– Buttermilk/ Sambharam: This dessert signals the end to the decadent feast but hold on ‘ a next helping of rice comes in with the acid neutralising buttermilk as accompaniment.
– Paan or Murukkam: Though there is no recipe it is served as part of the feast.
Now this is the order of serving. But the order of eating changes significantly from person to person and place to place. Everyone develops their own style of eating this unique Sadya, which makes this even more personal and special.
At the end of the meal, the right corner of the leaf is slit upward to signify that the leaf has already been used. Apparently, people polish it off so spotlessly that often it is hard to make out if the leaf was used or not! Turning it toward oneself is a subtle message to the chef, that there is room for improvement and folding it away from you, obviously means complete and utter satisfaction.
For the Road
The food is cooked by Brahmin men through the night and is ready by 10am the next day for the pooja in the nearby temple known as ‘Athazha Pooja’ literally meaning ‘food pooja’.
The said dishes are only consumed in small portions so that all the unique flavours can be enjoyed, while leaving the stomach a happy customer.
There is a lot of use of Jeera or cumin which is an acid neutraliser, so there will be none of those nasty burps after a hearty meal. And the water that is consumed is also boiled with Jeera to further aid the digestion process. The yam that’s used in the Kaalan is effective in clearing out the stomach.
The food is cooked in pure coconut oil, touted as the best thing for teeth and gums and such. The food is cooked without onions or garlic, a turnoff to smelly breath. Also, the paan with the betel leaves and areca nut combination is perfect for cleansing the palette and also serves as a mouth freshener.
Onam Sadya is way ahead of its times, integrating taste, health, wealth and happiness all into one massive feast, and dripping with fun, flavour, and festivity.