Onam 2023: A Sadhya That's A Meat Lover's Dream
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Sadhya is a Malayalam term denoting a lavish feast or banquet. It holds a place of great significance within Malayali culture, and its importance cannot be understated. For the people in this South Indian state of Kerala, they take pride in being true Malayalis from Kerala. While most people will argue that 'sadhya' predominantly signifies a vegetarian spread along with a set of 26 dishes, it is celebrated differently across various parts of the state.

Certain dishes are prepared differently with variations in ingredients used, and in some parts of Kerala, a few dishes are unique additions like the boli, which is famous in Tiruvananthapuram and many areas of southern Kerala. Some regions in North Kerala also incorporate non-vegetarian dishes into their sadhya, making it a fare of 30 dishes or more.

"Boli, which is like a sweet dal chapathi, is served with paal payasam at the end of the vegetarian sadhya, without which Onasadhya is incomplete in our family. The demand for boli during this season is so high that sometimes we have to pre-order a week in advance from the local shops," says Sneha Basker, an IT professional in Tiruvanathapuram.

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Geographically, the state of Kerala can be categorised into three distinctive regions: South Kerala encompasses the districts of Pathanamthitta and Alleppey (Alappuzha), along with the southernmost parts of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. Central Kerala extends across Palakkad, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Malappuram, and Kottayam, encompassing the illustrious Vembanad Lake. The final segment includes North Kerala, which comprises Kozhikode, Kannur, Wayanad, and Kasargode.

The festival of Onam is a regional festival that celebrates the land, its harvest, and the people for the Malayalis. Onam "sadhya" is a meal that communities together participate in in Kerala. According to Oneal Sabu, a food anthropologist and writer, it has evolved, challenging the traditional understanding of its vegetarian nature.

Meat is sometimes served alongside the feast but is not considered an integral part, as "sadhya" is often offered to gods and ancestors and excludes meat for religious reasons in many households. However, there's no strict rule against including meat. The notion of the meal was shaped by geography, occupation, and caste rather than religion or social mandates. Elements we associate with "sadhya" today, such as sambar and pappadams, have non-native origins.

"In Kerala, we are all Malayalis firstly, irrespective of social differences like religion, caste or creed. And Onam is a harvest festival in our region that all of us celebrate with the same vigour. The Onasadhya is the festive meal that is meant to be shared and eaten together with family and friends, which strengthens our relationships every year. My mom and grandmother, along with their siblings, used to prepare elaborate meals every year. I look forward to this meal since it ends up being a large gathering of around 25 friends and family members. We now pre-book our tables at a restaurant for a sadhya two weeks in advance," says Andrew Joseph, an IT professional in Bengaluru.

Sadhya, the traditional Kerala feast, exhibits regional variations in serving order and dish quantity. In the south, the order remains consistent, starting with dry items like banana chips, followed by lentil curry and ghee with rice. Each main dish is paired with rice, with additional servings provided only after dessert (payasam) and tomato-tamarind-pepper soup (rasam).

Thrissur, Palakkad, and Ernakulam feature rasam following sambhar, concluding the meal with rice mixed with yoghurt or buttermilk and pickles. In northern Kerala, sadhya ends similarly, with rice mixed with yoghurt or buttermilk. The Aranmula Valla Sadhya, after the Aranmula boat race, boasts 64 dishes, with cooks relying solely on aroma as tasting is forbidden due to it being an offering to deities.

Sadhyas in the Tiruvanathapuram region serve side dishes like kichadis, pachadis, avial, and thoran only once, with second helpings considered impolite, except at Aranmulla sadhya, which allows unlimited servings. Conversely, in north Malabar, Valluvanadan, and Ernakulam, guests are offered seconds and thirds as a gesture of respect and hospitality.

We add a meat dish or two to our sadhyas in the northern parts of Kerala. We include either a fish fry or a fish, mutton, or chicken curry where coconut is toasted, ground, and blended with masalas. In the south, Palakkad uses matta rice; in the north, we use parboiled rice; and in other regions, they use ponni rice or so. In North Kerala, we use a lot of whole spices, which is not so in the southern part of Kerala. I think it may be because of the Portuguese or Moplah influence in North Kerala. Towards the east that comprises Palakkad, etc., the sadhya is strictly sattvic in nature," says Chef Sandeep Sreedharan, of ElaaGoa.

The Malabar sadhya, in contrast to other Kerala regions, features an assortment of meat and fish dishes alongside fresh vegetable-based offerings. Meat, including beef, holds a significant place in Malabar sadhya, even in Hindu households. This meatiness includes dishes like fish fry, beef roast, and chicken curry, which are essential to Malabar palates. In Kollam, which belongs to the southern region, the presence of dishes like sizzling meen porichattu (fish fry) alongside thoran might surprise those from Thrissur and Trivandrum districts, where such non-vegetarian items are known to be uncommon.

While debates continue about including meat, some families incorporate it into their celebration. The diversity of food choices reflects Kerala's multifaceted culture. Regardless of the menu, the festival's core purpose remains unchanged: a time to bond with loved ones, celebrate life's blessings, and enjoy food that brings happiness to homes.

"In Kerala, Onam is celebrated as a secular Malayali festival cutting across all major religions in the state. The classic or traditional Onam sadhya is a vegetarian one that celebrates seasonal produce; however, the details can vary across households and regions within Kerala, particularly in the Malabar and central parts of the state. The details of a sadhya can vary and include non-vegetarian dishes intermixed with vegetarian ones," says Thomas Fenn, Partner, Mahabelly restaurant in Delhi.

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He adds, "When Onam is celebrated in larger groups, it is not unusual to have some non-vegetarian options present for those who wish to partake in it. In the north of Kerala, where many communities consider meat an essential part of festival celebrations, meat is always on the menu. Even restaurants in Kerala have caught on to this, often serving Onam Sadhyas with meat dishes as sides. There are no changes with a non-vegetarian sadhya other than adding a dish or two to the total vegetarian dishes, so if there are 26 items, with the additional non-vegetarian items, it would come up to perhaps 30. The flavour profile rules of sweet, sour, spicy, and savoury tastes are integral to the Onam Sadhya regardless."

"Although non-vegetarian sadhyas are commonly prepared for Onam, seafood, chicken, and mutton are the main choices for meat. Pork and other meats are not included in an Onam sadhya anywhere in the state of Kerala. For Onam sadhya at my home in the Northern Malabar region of Kerala in Kozhikode, it comprises either fish or mutton biriyani with other sides, or it includes a sadhya with mutton curry, fried fish, or chicken as additional dishes to the 26 vegetarian components," says Sharon Haridas, a photographer in Canada.

She further adds that, "We don't do a full vegetarian sadhya. I'm not sure how that came about, but my great-grandmother always said, On a good day, don't make me starve, so that's how it's always been. I also think it could be because of the Islamic influence in my family, but I've noticed that most of my Muslim friends prefer the authentic vegetarian sadhya for Onam."

While debates continue about including meat, some families incorporate it into their celebration. The diversity of food choices reflects Kerala's multifaceted culture. Regardless of the menu, the festival's core purpose remains unchanged: a time to bond with loved ones, celebrate life's blessings, and enjoy food that brings happiness to homes.