Chef Marina Balakrishnan Takes Kerala’s Vishu Sadhya To America

From the stories posted by Mumbai’s celebrities to gracing national television via MasterChef India, Chef Marina Balakrishnan and her traditional Malayali vegetarian fare through Oottupura are now quite well-known. What her fans and food connoisseurs now know is that when it comes to the most important festivals on the Malayali calendar, be it Vishu or Onam, Chef Marina Balakrishnan always marks the occasion with a specially curated, highly seasonal and always delicious sadhya spread. The twist with Vishu 2024 is that she is now taking her signature sadhya to the USA.

“Traditional Sadhya has always been vegetarian,” Chef Marina Balakrishnan says as she talks to Slurrp about preparing a Vishu sadhya spread consisting of more than 27 dishes this time around. This year, she will be travelling to cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco to give people a taste of the authentic flavours of the cuisine from God’s Own Country. Taking pride in representing authentic vegetarian food of Kerala in the US, the chef said, “I am really happy about giving people a chance to experience traditional sadhya with dishes organised on a banana leaf.”

Kerala, known for its backwaters, green landscape, delectable cuisine, and rich cultural heritage, will be celebrating Vishu, the Malayalam New Year, on April 14, 2024. Chef Marina Balakrishnan will start off the celebrations with her pop-up on April 13 and 14, 2024 at Copra in San Francisco, led by Chef Srijith Gopinathan. Thereafter, she will also be doing pop-ups at Baar Baar in LA and New York, led by Chef Sujan Sarkar. Here’s everything she had to say about her special Vishu spread.

What Does Chef Marina Balakrishnan’s Sadhya Include?

Preparing more than 27 dishes for one meal is not an easy task, but Chef Marina Balakrishnan specialises in it. She has been preparing sadhya for years now. Since she will be preparing traditional dishes, the people attending her pop-ups will get to taste mambazha pulissery (a popular Malayali mango-based dish that signifies an abundance of the fruit in the summer season). This dish, according to her, will be the highlight of her Vishu sadhya.

Speaking about the craze of Indian food abroad, Chef Marina added, “I don’t change any format. I don’t change the narrative. If the pachadi is supposed to be cooked in a certain way, I do it like that. I don’t alter the taste to suit the Western palate. This food is highly respected and appreciated overseas.”

She added, “I also don’t modernise the cuisine.” However, she has witnessed that non-Indian food connoisseurs are more interested in Indian regional cuisines and stories. Chef Marina Balakrishnan claimed that her sadhyas at Copra were sold in just 40 minutes, which seems like a record in itself. 

Roots Of Sadhya, A Vegetarian Delight

Chef Marina said that festive food for Vishu has always been a vegetarian delight, just like most sadhya meals from her native Thalassery are. She remembers her childhood memories of a sadhya that her grandmother prepared at her home. “The mats were laid out on the floor and we sat down with the banana leaves laid to savour the sadhyas.” She also added that more and more people abroad are now appreciating vegetarian food because of  its flavours and health reasons. 

Arrangement Of Sadhya On A Banana Leaf

Speaking about the authentic way of preparing sadhya and serving it on a banana leaf, Chef Marina Balakrishnan said, “Sadhya leaves look so beautiful. It’s almost like another analogy.” The order of food starts with salt because it balances flavour. However, the chef's grandmother told her that it also acts as a protector from evil eyes because the entire arrangement looks appealing. 

Followed by salt are banana chips and jaggery chips. Then pickles are added next. Raw mango pickle is a seasonal addition along with lemon pickle. Next comes inji puli (injipuli), which is a chutney made with ginger, tamarind, and jaggery. Only a tablespoon of each dish is served. If anyone would like to eat more, they can ask for it,” Chef Marina explained. 

The banana leaf on which sadhya is served is divided into two halves - the top half and the lower half. Once the top half is complete and has all the yoghurt-based, avial, thoran, and side dishes, the lower half is filled with rice, rasam, payasam, sambar, etc. In the middle of the rice, a pool is created in which a dollop of ghee is added and thick dal goes on top. “There is no set order of eating it,” the chef added.

Along with all the delights, a banana and papadam (papad) are also served. “Banana is because it aids digestion,” the chef said adding, ” Kerala-based Ayurvedic studies say that if a person wants to see a good ayurvedic meal, they should try Kerala’s vegetarian sadhya because it has all the five flavours - tangy, salty, sweet, astringent, and spicy.” 

Explaining the wholesomeness of sadhya, Chef Marina Balakrishnan said, “After relishing sadhya, you do not feel like sleeping. You just feel absolutely light and joyful.”