How To Serve Sadhya Meal? Presenting The Feast with Grace

Onam, Kerala's annual harvest festival, is a universally recognized symbol of the state. The official festival of the state is predominantly a Hindu celebration, but practically every resident of the coastline celebrates it with tremendous fervour. The ten-day celebration full of colours, rituals, and a massive feast known as the Onam Sadhya brings the people of the state together to celebrate life. It is a celebration that brings together history, symbolism, and community, the vegetarian feast served on banana leaves is a culinary and cultural treat. The banana leaf serves as a backdrop, bringing together several courses in a certain order that respects long-standing traditions and guarantees a balanced flavour profile. As we explore the technique of serving Onasadhya on a banana leaf, we will find a custom that transforms the act of eating into a cultural celebration of harmony and bounty. Here’s the art of arranging each element on the leaf that demands precision and an understanding of its significance. 

Onasadhya in order of serving on Banana leaf  

1.Uppu - Salt  

2.Cheru Pazham  - Ripe banana  

3.Sharkkara Varatty - Thick jaggery coated raw banana pieces  

4. Ethakka Upperi - Banana chips  

5. Chakka Chips – Jackfruit chips  

6. Chena Chips- Yam fry  

7. Inji Puli - Ginger and tamarind pickle  

8. Naranga Achar - Lemon pickle  

9. Kadu Manga - Raw mango pickle  

10. Nellika Achar – Gooseberry pickle  

11. Vendakkya Pachadi - Okra with yogurt, spices, and tangy flavors  

12. Beetroot Pachadi - Puréed beetroot, curd and coconut freshly ground together and tempered  

13. Olan - Ash Gourd and cowpeas or black-eyed peas slow-cooked in coconut milk  

14. Kootu Curry – A tew made with black chana, yam and coconut  

15. Cabbage Thoran - Finely chopped cabbage combined with grated coconut  

16. Avial - Combination of eight or more locally grown vegetables in thick coconut paste.  

17. Rice - The classic Kerala red rice or Matta rice known for its high fibre content  

18. Pappadam – Deep fried thin crisps 

19. Nei-Parippu - Toor dal simmered with cow ghee  

20. Sambar - An authentic Kerala sambar made with assorted garden fresh vegetables  

21. Kalan - Curd and yam slow cooked with a rich coconut paste  

22. Rasam - A sour soupy dish 

23. Ada Pradhaman - Thick rice flakes, jaggery, dry fruits and coconut milk payasam  

24. Palada Payasam - Rice and milk Payasam  

25. Chakka Pradhaman - Ripe Jackfruit Payasam  

26 . Parippu Payasam - Moong dal Payasam  

27. Pathimugham – Herbs infused boiled water. 

The meal starts with Salt, pickles and chips - This combination activates the palate and sets the digestive system into readiness for the meal. 

Accompaniments like Pappadam are mostly to add texture in terms of crunch to the meal, and are easily everyone's 'go to' for constant nibbles throughout the meal.   

Curries like olan Avial, Koottu curry and more are served in the middle top section of the leaf and show a plethora of dishes served with different flavours and different spring/ local vegetables . 

Rice, Sambar, Rasam- This is served in the lower middle section of the leaf, facing the person eating because it’s the main dish with which all the other accompaniments are eaten. 

Sambharam- This is had at the end of the meal to help with digestion and the salty, spicy flavour helps you clear the palate for the dessert. 

Desserts- Traditional desserts are served on the leaf directly, but for the modern plating payasam is served in a copper or steel glass. At Indian feasts, desserts are served at the end to give it a sweet ending.  

Why this order? 

The meticulous arrangement of dishes on a banana leaf follows a left-to-right order, catering to the majority being right-handed. This layout simplifies the act of eating. Additionally, the use of fingers, an extension of our hands, enhances the connection to the five elements of nature that constitute our body. This holistic approach not only makes the meal physically comfortable but also nourishes the soul, fostering a soothing and gratifying dining experience.

“First, you sit on the floor with the banana leaf spread out before you, its narrow end to your left. Traditionally, a pinch of salt is placed in the furthest corner of the banana leaf, and you are at ease to use it to season any of the meals to your liking if they are not as per your palate. Upperi, which are chips and Inji puli,a tamrind and ginger pickle are the first thing to consume. This is because these foods are thought to be the ones that stimulate the taste buds and so are the ones served first. The foods are served in a specific order, but that doesn't always correspond to how they're eaten. The key to enjoying it is to ease into it with milder flavours like Dal and Ghee over rice.  After that, we progress to the spicier sambar and rasam. Because with some meals, you want to ease your taste buds gently before gradually building up the intensity of the flavours,” explains Anisha Rachel Oommen, editor of Goya, a food & culture publication. 

According to Gim George, owner at the Kerala Café, “the journey begins with the tangy kick of pickles and chutneys, igniting the taste buds. As the meal progresses, it transitions from bitter flavours, like the bitter gourd dish, to soothing yogurt-based pachadi. The meal further dances through coconut-infused kichadi, nutrient-rich thoran, and comforting rice and lentil dishes. The crescendo arrives with the finale – the sweet, creamy payasam dessert.” He also adds “It's important to note that the exact order and selection of dishes can vary, and some regional variations might exist. Additionally, the order may slightly differ based on personal preferences or specific customs within different communities.” Onam Sadhya isn't just about indulging in a culinary extravaganza; it embodies the values of unity, inclusivity, and equality. The Sadhya is served on banana leaves, symbolizing purity and acting as an equalizer, as all guests are served the same way. The act of sharing a meal on the same leaf epitomizes the spirit of togetherness that Onam fosters. 

Owner of Mumbai-based home chef enterprise Oottupura, which specialises in Malayali vegetarian food, Chef Marina Balakrishnan shares a very interesting fact that salt serves two purposes. The first is that you add a little salt and keep adding as you mix the curries into the rice and eat. However, there is a belief or myth that states it's also to fend off evil because the Sadhya banana leaf looks so beautiful with the feast spread on it. Further, she says that the liquid dishes are either placed in a katori (bowl) or in a glass, such as a little steel glass. So you either combine some and eat it or you drink it. And then there are those who prefer to have rasam in the palm of their hand rather than in a glass. She continues further that in Kerala, even if you go to temples, they don't have the custom of serving food in a katori. It is either served on the leaf or offered in your palms. Even your sambaram, or buttermilk, is served in your palm for you to sip. 

Chef Regi Mathew, Co-Owner and Culinary Director of Kerala cuisine restaurant, Kappa Chakka Kandhari says during the Sadhya, Once the guest sits down, he/she sprinkles some water on the leaf to show respect to the host and wipes the leaf (and technically not washing the leaf). Going forward you should not drink any liquids. Water is permitted both before the meal and after the final buttermilk is consumed at the end of the sadhya. Fold the leaf in half, top to bottom, when you're finished eating. If you're really pleased with everything, you can fold the corner to the right over the banana peel and pieces of drumstick you've chewed. This gesture tells the host that you enjoyed the meal without leaving any remnants on the banana leaf. 

Onam Sadhya, as described by Chef Suresh DC, Brand Chef at HOSA, Goa, is a vegetarian feast consisting of more than 15 dishes prepared according to the shad-rasa, or six-taste principles, of Ayurveda and typically served on a plantain or banana leaf. The ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda serves as the basis for the traditional cooking methods used in the state of Kerala. Additionally, Onam Sadhya is also spelt "Sarppadya" or "Sadipada". When preparing a sadhya meal, the vegetables and fruits are chosen for their nutritional and therapeutic benefits. Careful ratios are used, and the veggies are sliced differently for each dish based on the expected cooking time of the vegetables, he adds.  

Culturally, socially, and symbolically, the Onam Sadhya feast is extremely significant in Kerala, South India. Some of the most important aspects of the Sadhya meal are as follows: 

Cultural Tradition: The Onam Sadhya has its origins in ancient Keralan tradition. It's a time-honored custom that celebrates the variety of regional cuisines and the cultural significance of food in the state.  

Celebration: The Onam Festival is celebrated in Kerala to commemorate the return of the legendary King Mahabali to his kingdom. The Sadhya plays a key role in the celebrations because it represents the values of abundance, hospitality, and togetherness. 

Community Bonding: Preparing and partaking in the Sadhya fosters a sense of community and togetherness. Family members, neighbors, and friends often gather to share the meal, reinforcing social bonds and strengthening relationships. 

Variety and Abundance: Onam Sadhya is celebrated for the great variety of meals it offers, from sweet to savoury, and for the abundance of flavours it encompasses. This is a symbol of Kerala's natural bounty and agricultural bounty. Dishes in the Sadhya are often made with seasonal, locally obtained ingredients. This is indicative of regional culinary and agricultural practises. 

Banana leaf: All of the dishes in the Sadhya have symbolic meaning. The use of sustainable banana leaves as placemats and plates highlights the necessity of valuing and protecting natural environments. The banana leaf is also a symbol of cleanliness and is said to improve the taste of the food when used as a serving dish. The many dishes represent the richness of life and the peaceful coexistence of disparate elements. 

In contemporary times, the tradition of Onam Sadhya thrives not only in homes but also in restaurants, where chefs bring this cultural heritage to the masses. These establishments meticulously recreate the eating order, ambiance, and authenticity of the Onam experience.