Onam 2023: Six-Taste Philosophy & A Multisensory Feast Of Sadhya
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The Onam sadhya is curated based on the knowledge received from Ayurveda, home remedies, and traditional wisdom. Ginger, black pepper, curry leaves, and coconut are vital ingredients in these dishes. Sadhya is a meal that is served on a plantain leaf and is meant to be relished with hands.

Beyond its health advantages, this practise is thought to establish a connection between fingertips and chakras like the heart, third eye, solar plexus, throat, sexual, and root chakras. Eating with hands is believed to activate these chakras, contributing to emotional and physical well-being through the motion and touch involved in the process.

According to the book The Illustrated Foods of India by KT Achaya, the ancient Indian science of life, as documented in texts like the Charaka Samhita and the Sushrutha Samhita, offered a holistic perspective on health, encompassing body, mind, and spirit and their connection to the cosmic moral cycle through the ancient medicinal system of Ayurveda.

This system recognised that the balance of three elemental forces, known as vata, pitta, and kapha, within the body was vital for good health. Achieving this equilibrium relied significantly on diet, herbal remedies, and exercise. Food choices were tailored to one's physical constitution, temperament, season, and environment.

Food was categorized by taste (rasa) and property (guna), with six basic tastes and contrasting pairs of gunas like light and heavy, dry and unpleasant, and compact and mobile. Specific tastes and properties were recommended to address imbalances in vata, pitta, or kapha. Additionally, food had potency (virya) and aftertaste (vipaka) factors that influenced its impact.

For instance, sweet foods encompassed cereals, milk, legumes, and more and were considered heavy and energy-building. Sour foods included mangoes, citrus fruits, and tamarind. Salty foods featured all types of salt, while pungent foods contained spices like ginger and mustard. Bitter foods encompassed items like bitter gourd and neem products, and astringent foods included tree bark and lime used with betel leaves. Overall, this ancient system recognised the profound connection between diet, constitution, and health, offering a comprehensive understanding of nutrition's role in overall well-being.

Onam Sadhya Is A Sensory Feast

The sadhya is a sensory feast that involves the participation of all five senses in a wholesome and satiated meal experience. The aroma from the dishes prepared for a sadhya gets the digestive juices churning, increasing hunger. The vibrant colours of various dishes, like the tinge of purple from beetroot khichadi or a hint of yellow from pineapple pachadi, the contrasting deep maroon colour from inju puli, and the peaceful white from olan and rice, served all at once on the banana leaf, look like a colourful map that makes it a feast for your eyes and works your appetite further.

As your fingers touch the warm and fluffy rice and mix it with the parippu or dal, the feel of different textures and the warmth can make you hungry for more. The crackling sound of pappadum on the dal and rice is so pleasant and chirpy that you can wait no longer for the tongue to taste and kickstart your sadhya after appeasing the 5 senses.

"Every dish that you make for a sadhya has similar ingredients, but the flavours vary vastly from each other. It is not just the taste and flavours of the dish that vary but also the textures, which together make the onam sadhya a sensory experience that appeases all your senses and the six taste factors," says Tresa Francis, Chef and Partner at Podhi Kitchen, Bengaluru.

She continues to add on by saying, "For instance, an avial is crunchy and different from a sambhar as it is savoury and runny, which when compared to a pappadum that is also savoury but crispy and crackling in texture. While erissery contains pumpkin, yam, and more, it is a mushy dish as compared to avial, which is also a mixed vegetable dish that has a crunch when you bite into it. The difference in texture and taste plays a big role in distinguishing dishes from one another, although the vegetables and many ingredients used for both dishes are similar."

The Shad-Rasa Philosophy Of A Sadhya

The Onam Sadhya is a balance of six basic tastes along with nutritional composition and sensory appeal. "The shad-rasa concept emphasises balancing six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent). It’s believed that this concept is backed by the traditional ayurvedic practise in Kerala. It’s to ensure a well-balanced meal," says Chef Siju Krishnan, Executive Chef, Moplah's in Bengaluru.

At the beginning, salt is served in a pinch to balance the taste of the food as you begin to eat a sadhya. It is followed by salt-fried banana chips and sharkara varatti, which are sweet and thick banana chips coated in jaggery and flavoured with the pungence of ginger. The balance of sweet and salt, with a hint of pungence, in these snacks activates your salivary glands to prepare for the meal to come.

The savoury black lentil papadum and the sweet and astringent-natured ripened small banana are placed on the left as well. The three pickles, namely inji puli (tamarind ginger pickle), chopped raw mango pickle, and lemon pickle, that come after are pungent, tangy, and acidic condiments that are paired in between the meal for a balanced taste, to promote digestion, and as a palate cleanser as well.

The use of mustard, fenugreek seeds, and curry leaves in the stews and gravies adds a hint of bitterness that is subtle but essential for a balanced and rounded taste of the dishes. Also, some bitterness comes from the lemon rind of the pickle and the use of fenugreek seeds in the dishes. The tartness of a puliserry can be combined with the savoury, salty taste of an errissery, which is mushy and heavy on the palate.

The sour crunch of the avial can be combined with the sweetness of the coconut milk and gourds in the olan, which is light on the palate. Also, whenever the food gets spicy or pungent during the sadhya, either from a kondattam or roasted curd chillies. And a dash of tangy inji puli on the savoury parippu-rice and pappadum is a popular combination that can free up your palate for the mild olan and rice with thoran in the next round.

"I love the payasam and pappadum combination a lot. That is how I learned how to eat payasam when I was young. The salty and savoury pappadum soaks up the liquid sweet payasam, and the texture of the dessert becomes thicker, which makes it easier to savour the dessert by hand. But the sweet and salty dessert has a balanced taste that is rounded off with a cup of tangy sambaram and pungent rasam after," says Samanvitha Ranganath, an engineer in Canada.

Sometimes, lemon pickles are paired strangely with payasams. A lick of tangy lime pickle with a hint of bitterness in between the payasam course of the meal is popularly enjoyed to cleanse one's palate, and the tart citrus flavour enhances that of the sweet and rich payasam. "Most Malayalees love these combinations as we have grown up with them, and it’s nostalgia. It’s also done only on very special occasions like Onam and Vishu," says Chef Siju.

In northern parts of Kerala, the meal for many communities starts with mashed banana with ghee, which is accompanied by pappadum crushed on the mash, mixed well, and eaten. "We mash ripe small Mysore bananas with ghee until they are pulp. We then crush a pappadum on top, mix it well, and begin our sadhya with a hint of sweet and savoury taste. This is my absolute favourite. And then, when we are through with my other favourites, the pineapple pachadi, avial, kootu curry, meat, fish, and the remaining rounds, we savour payasams. About three kinds of payasams are what we have at the end. That way, we start our Onam sadhya and end the meal on a sweet note too in the north of Kerala," says Shayne Haridas, a food blogger from Kozhikode.

"In an Onam sadhya, whatever combination you may mix and eat, every mouthful will surely be a balance of the six tastes and various textures. It will be sweet, savoury, sour, packed with a punch of pungence, with a hint of bitterness, and some astringent. You can mix the sweet with savoury or sour dishes. I enjoy pairing sweet with savoury. My favourite is the combination of sambhar, rice, and sweet pineapple pachadi," says Chef Tresa Francis.

The stir-fried vegetables with coconut, like the thoran, ulli theeyal, errisery, and avial, are balanced with all the tastes. The sweetness and savoury taste come from the use of coconut and vegetables, and the use of chillies in the tempering of these dishes makes them pungent to help keep up the momentum through the multiple courses of the meal. Mango pickles are savoured with dishes made of curd or buttermilk.

The slaked lime, areca nut, and betel leaf mouth freshener at the end of the meal is astringent in nature. Therefore, it is known to cleanse the palate and promote digestion. Thus, the flavour play in an Onam sadhya appeases every basic taste in a unique manner that is thoroughly enjoyed once a year.