Onam 2023: Coconut Is The Heart And Soul Of Onam Sadhya
Image Credit: Freepik

A traditional Onam sadhya is a delightful feast rooted in Ayurvedic principles. The sadhya aims to encompass a spectrum of flavours, including sweetness, tanginess, sourness, astringency, and saltiness. It is a banquet celebrating a medley of spices, vegetables, legumes, and the presence of coconut in many forms.

The Onam sadhya that is served in a pankthi, which means multiple rows or rounds, on a plantain leaf with tapering sides called tooshanila, makes complete use of the locally harvested bounty available in abundance to prepare these 26 and more dishes for the feast, of which coconut is the most essential ingredient along with mustard seeds, cumin, pepper, asafoetida, and more.

In South India, coconut is generally used a lot in the cuisine to prepare sweets like kadubu and barfi and dishes like sambar, stews, saagu, and steamed rice breads like paaputtu, kadamputtu, puttu, and more. In Kerala cuisine, coconut is the king of ingredients, as it features in almost all dishes. "Coconut takes a very important position as an ingredient in Kerala cuisine in general, and the grandest of all Kerala meals—the Onam Sadhya—is no different from this perspective. Coconut is used in many forms across dishes in the Sadhya. However, as a harvest festival, seasonal vegetables such as ash gourd, yams, pumpkins, etc. take the spotlight," says Thomas Fenn, partner at Mahabelly in Delhi.

However, what truly sets the Onam Sadhya apart is not the number of dishes it offers but rather the personalised experience it provides to each diner. And coconut is that ingredient that lends its textures and flavours in various forms to different combinations in various dishes of a sadhya that are balanced with the six tastes and flavours that taste delicious and yet are so different from each other. Almost all dishes on the plantain leaf of an Onam sadhya incorporate coconut in some form or another, except the chukku vellam (ginger or jeera water), a teaspoon of ghee, salt, and a small banana that is placed in the left corner at the beginning.

"We start our preparation for Onam Sadhya four days before the festival, including sourcing the ingredients. But the biggest task in preparing Onam Sadhya is grating the coconut. The quantity depends on how many people will be dining together. We take a count of one coconut per person, which means if we are preparing the sadhya for 100 people, we need to grate 100 coconuts," says Tresa Francis, Chef and Partner, Podhi Kitchen in Bengaluru.

From the papad that is fried in coconut oil to the ada pradhaman and paal payasam that incorporate coconut milk, coconut is the main ingredient without which preparing the Onam sadhya would not have been possible. Be it savoury or sweet dishes, coconut complements all the dishes very well. Let's explore how it influences the textures and flavours that make each dish taste different while balancing the taste profile. Here are five ways in which a coconut is incorporated into the Onam Sadhya:

Grated Coconut:

In a sadhya, grated coconut is added to dishes like the thoran, which adds a toasty taste while coating the mixed vegetable dish with coconut. Pachadi and erissery also use grated coconut, where they add a light crunch, make the gravies substantial, and highlight the main ingredient by pairing well with it, such as the pineapple in the pachadi or the pumpkin in the erriserry and veggies of an avial. In some dishes, grated coconut is toasted with the tempering to exude the toasty aromas and a rich savoury taste along with the crunch that pairs beautifully with vegetables like raw banana and yam in a kootu curry, for instance.

Coconut Milk:

Coconut milk is extracted by draining ground coconut with a muslin cloth. Olan, ada pradhaman, pazha pradhaman, and parippu pradhaman are some of the dishes that use coconut milk, which is extracted in two textures. One is thick coconut milk that is almost coconut cream in texture. The other is a thin milk extracted after the first three tries in the restaurant.

Coconut milk is light on the palate and rich in nutritional value. It lends a layer of rich creaminess to partly runny gravies like olan or desserts like pradhaman varieties and payasam. During the sadhya, when the hot flavours take control of your tastebuds, allowing you to taste nothing more, mixing some rice with olan can provide respite with neutral flavours from all the chilli heat and lingering flavours.

Coconut Oil:

Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is used in preparing Onam Sadhya. It is used for tempering almost every main dish, including inji puli, parippu, thoran, kaalan, olan, erissery, pulissery, samabaram, rasam, and more. The tempering of each dish elevates the flavours and texture of each main dish by releasing flavours from spices like asafoetida, mustard seeds, cumin, red chillies, and curry leaves, adding a savoury taste and elevating the character of each of the dishes to another level. Coconut oil is used to fry pappadums and upperi too, and the flavour of the combination of lentil pappadum or raw banana slices or chunks from the sharkara varatti with the coconut oil can keep you munching for a long time.

However, coconut oil is added in the end in order to not lose the nutritional value of the oil, which pumps up the coconut flavour into the dishes, making them very tasty (at least to those whose palates are well-adjusted to the coconut flavour). And coconut oil adds healthy fats and a rich texture to the vegetable dishes that fill you up as well. Also, with the inclusion of non-vegetarian dishes in sadhya, a piece of fish fried in coconut oil packs it with umami that can round off the taste on a savoury note with every bite.

Coconut Paste Or Puree:

Ground coconut is the base for many vegetable main dishes like avial, parippu, erissery, sambar, and more. It adds to the thickness of the gravy, making it substantial, unlike rasam, buttermilk, and curd-based stews and curries that are slightly runny. That's not all. While it makes every mouthful of food wholesome, it is light on the palate and easy to digest as well.

Slivered Coconut:

Ada pradhaman and payasam are the desserts that one might like to indulge in after a multicourse sadhya. And one ingredient that adds a toasty texture and umami flavour to the desserts is slivered toasted coconut. It cuts through the sweet profile of the creamy desserts with a savoury touch and also adds a bite to the otherwise runny desserts of an Onam sadhya. It completes a pradhaman or a payasam as a dish. If you feel that you need to add a crunch factor or a bite to any of the dishes, you can add slivered and toasted coconuts to dishes like thoran, upperi, and erissery as well.

The use of asafoetida, turmeric, mustard, fenugreek, and coconut is medicinal and almost mandatory. These are the bases for almost every recipe. However, each dish in a sadhya tastes so different in texture and taste. And in my 20 years of cooking sadhya, I'm amazed at how each of those dishes tastes differently every time and every year. It almost feels like I am eating them for the first time in that form," says Anju, who owns Anju's Cafe and hosts Onam Sadhya year-on-year in Bengaluru.

According to Healthline, coconut is a versatile and nutritious fruit that offers a multitude of health benefits. While low in carbs, coconuts are rich in fat and provide protein, essential minerals (like bone-boosting manganese), copper, iron, and selenium. Moreover, the fat in coconuts consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are metabolised differently and potentially aid in body fat loss. Studies indicate coconut oil's ability to inhibit the growth of various bacteria strains, potentially fending off infections.

It even competes with common disinfectants, promoting oral health by reducing bacteria growth. Coconuts' low-carb, fibre-rich, and antioxidant-packed profile may support blood sugar control. Some research suggests that coconut oil might reduce blood sugar levels and improve triglycerides. Coconut meat contains phenolic compounds, antioxidants that shield your cells from oxidative damage and protect against chronic diseases. Additionally, antioxidants in coconut oil may guard cells against oxidative stress and chemotherapy-induced damage.