Onam 2023: Onasadhya, A Festive Meal Based On Ayurveda
Image Credit: Balakrishnan For Kappa Chakka Kandhari

Onam in Kerala is a harvest festival that is celebrated for 10 days. It is declared to be the official festival of the state and is celebrated with pomp by all religions and communities alike every year. Thiruvonam commemorates the homecoming of the demon king Mahabali, who is believed to visit in spirit the prosperous land he once ruled on this day.

The traditional principles of Kerala's cuisine are based on the ancient medicinal system of Ayurveda. And Onam Sadhya, also known as 'Sarppadya' or 'Sadipada', is no exception to that. It is relished on Thirovonam, the final day of the 10-day-long carnival. An elaborate and special meal that everybody looks forward to every year during this festival is Onam Sadhya, which has a minimum of nine dishes according to many traditionalists and over 15 dishes that are prepared in a similar way in the state and across Malayalee households, and served in a particular order every time. It is a traditionally vegetarian banquet of over 24 dishes based on the shad-rasa, or six-taste principles, of Ayurveda and served on a plantain or banana leaf, mainly for lunch.

Rich in polyphenols, the natural antioxidants found in many plant-based foods, banana leaves offer a nutritional boost to food as they infuse these healthful compounds into the meal. These polyphenols are believed to combat lifestyle diseases and may possess antibacterial properties that help ward off germs in food. Also, with their ample size, banana leaves effortlessly host entire feasts without mingling the diverse curries, making them the ideal choice as a serving plate for sadhya. 

A traditional Onam sadhya is a well-balanced Sattvic meal that comprises dishes that do not use onions or garlic, although shallots are used in ulli theeyal or sambhar. The dishes are prepared utilising freshly sourced seasonal local produce, including vegetables and fruits.

"Ginger is used for its flavour and medicinal properties. You may notice that potatoes are not used in a sadhya. The vegetables and fruits used to prepare a sadhya are carefully selected for their medicinal properties and nutritional value. The ratios are carefully measured, and the vegetables are cut differently for different dishes by considering the cook time of the vegetables to achieve the desired texture and flavours," says Chef Sandeep Sreedharan, Elaa Goa, Anjuna.

There is no use of garam masala or heavy spices like cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, star anise, etc. either, except for cardamom in the payasams, which also aids digestion. The use of oil is very low as well. In fact, virgin coconut oil is used in small amounts for the dishes in a sadhya. Be it avial, thoran or theeyal, a light drizzle at the end to finish the preparation of the dish is how oil is used.

"It is important to remember that cold-pressed coconut oil loses its nutrient value when it is heated too much. It is considered an essential fat and contains lauric acid. So, we add virgin coconut oil after finishing off the dish like thoran and give it a good mix," says Seetha Anand Vaidyam, Founder and Wellness Coach, Ananda Foundation.

That's not all. One must be seated cross-legged on the floor as it is believed to improve flexibility, aid digestion, and enhance blood flow along the body during mealtime, and the food must be eaten with the right hand at all times. The banana leaf is placed in front of the person eating, with the tapering side facing towards the left. And the service begins from that side with salt, pickles, pappadum, banana, and more. A glass of warm jeera water is always kept by your side through the elaborate meal, should you fancy a sip of water. Jeera water is known to promote digestion.

The salt banana chips and sharkara varatti, which is raw banana coated in jaggery and flavoured with ginger, are served at the beginning of the sadhya. The harmonious blend of sweetness, saltiness, and a touch of spiciness in these snacks triggers your salivary glands, preparing your palate for the upcoming meal. Also, jaggery-coated sharkaravaratti is known to manage blood flow in the body during the meal.

The Multiple Courses And The Nutritional Benefits On Offer


Inji puli is a favourite condiment of many during an Onam sadhya. "I could keep eating puli inji with rice throughout the sadhya, even when I feel full. I have been told that it is rich in vitamins A, D, E, B, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. That is one accompaniment that I look forward to in Onam Sadhya more than payasams or avial," says Sushmita Ravi, an advertising professional in Bengaluru.

This quick-to-prepare dish is a delightful combination of a spicy hit from ginger (inji) and tamarind's tanginess, loaded with nutritional benefits. Ginger, which is known for its ability to alleviate nausea, helps you remain calm and composed through the elaborate meal when the tamarind that it is paired with kickstarts the salivary glands for the feast ahead. Tamarind (puli) is also known for its heart-healthy properties and digestive benefits, making the condiment an important addition to the meal.

The other two or three pickles, like lemon, raw mango, and goosberry pickles, aid in digestion; they are palate cleansers and balance the tastes of salt, bitterness, and sourness between mouthfuls of rice and other accompaniments. The body greatly benefits from the vitamin C and flavonoids found in mangoes and limes. Limes are rich sources of minerals, vitamin B, and potassium. Additionally, the citric acid present in limes and lemons also aids in digestion.

Round One Of Rice, Parippu (moong dal mash), Ghee, And Pappadum

This is the first course in a sadhya. Rice with bran is rich in B-complex vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin while also providing essential dietary fibres. This makes it a suitable choice for individuals with diabetes or lifestyle-related conditions due to its low glycemic index. Additionally, rice with bran is a source of valuable phytonutrients. Consuming it can fulfil a significant portion of your daily manganese requirement, and the dietary fibres can aid in reducing body fat.

Pappadum is a gluten-free snack that's not only high in protein and fibre but also supports digestion. It pairs perfectly with rice, ghee, and parippu, adding a delightful crunchy texture. Ghee is rich in essential vitamins such as A, D, and E. Vitamin A benefits eyesight; vitamin E enhances skin radiance; and vitamin D aids in calcium absorption. Dal is packed with iron, potassium, and calcium, which help maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

Vegetable Course And Side Dishes:


This dish, crafted from ash gourd, lobia beans, and coconut milk, offers a substantial fibre content. Notably, it's abundant in both protein and iron, providing a boost of energy and assisting in acidity regulation. Moreover, it boasts skin-friendly properties and aids in maintaining stable blood sugar levels.


This dish is a treasure trove of probiotics and medicinal attributes. It consists of coconut, buttermilk, chillies, turmeric, and either raw bananas or yams. Buttermilk, abundant in calcium, aids in alleviating acid reflux, while raw bananas offer a wealth of fibre and vitamins, promoting blood sugar control. The peculiar-looking yam is a nutrient-dense legume brimming with carbohydrates, vitamins, antioxidants, dietary fibre, and protein. It plays a role in preventing hypertension and regulating hormonal imbalances in women.


Avial is a delightful melange of vegetables, including carrots, pumpkin, brinjal, yam, raw banana, beans, and drumstick, all cooked in a blend of ground coconut with a touch of turmeric and finished with a drizzle of coconut oil. This vegetable gravy dish offers a bounty of nutrients, including vitamin A, folic acid, fibre, and beta-carotene. The inclusion of yoghurt infuses your stomach with probiotics, enhancing digestion. Additionally, the coconut oil used for seasoning avial contributes to reducing bad cholesterol, promoting heart health, and aiding in weight management.

"Earlier, when we were growing up, drumsticks, carrots, and beans were not locally available vegetables in Kerala, and avial did not have these newly introduced vegetables. We would add pumpkin, yam, brinjal, raw banana, and the seasonal ones as well. But as the years went by, drumsticks, carrots, and beans made their way into the sadhya's avial as most people enjoyed their textures," says Anju, who runs Anju's cafe at Rangashankara in Bengaluru.


Thoran is a dry vegetable stir-fry that includes seasonal vegetables of one or two kinds, like beans or cabbage thoran. They are cooked until soft but not mushy. They are topped with grated coconut, mild spices, curry leaves, and chillies to finish cooking with a thorough mix. It is served as a dry side dish with rice and other items; common ingredients include cabbage, carrots, beans, pumpkin, and drumsticks. These veggies are sautéed in coconut oil and seasoned with spices like turmeric and chilli powder.


Cucumbers and vibrant beetroots are frequently used to craft kichadi, celebrated for its palate-cleansing prowess. Cucumbers, known for their detoxifying abilities, efficiently eliminate toxins from the body while also promoting improved bone health and overall well-being. Beetroot, on the other hand, is renowned for its heart-healthy attributes and is capable of reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It's packed with essential nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, iron, and vitamin B, contributing to its impressive nutritional profile.

"A pachadi and a kichadi are almost similar in their preparation. I think, the savoury side is referred to as khichadi, and the sweetish preparation is called pachadi. Most people make beetroot khichadi, mango, or pineapple pachadi. I use bananas to make pachadi. Or it really depends on the availability of the ingredients locally," says Tresa, chef and partner at Podhi Kitchen in Bengaluru.


A diverse array of pachadi dishes can be crafted using ingredients such as pineapple, beetroot, and pumpkin. Pineapple boasts the enzyme bromelain, which aids in digestion and alleviates indigestion. Beetroot, on the other hand, is rich in nutrients like folic acid, iron, zinc, and carbohydrates. Pumpkin, with its wealth of alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, dietary fibres, vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium, is equally impressive. Furthermore, the vitamin A content in pumpkin contributes to enhanced eyesight, making it a valuable addition to your diet.


Famous for its delightful aroma and flavour, sambar is a versatile dish composed of an assortment of vegetables, including potatoes, drumstick, carrots, Mangalore cucumber, and an array of spices, including the savoury asafoetida. The dietary fibres within it effectively prevent constipation, while the primary ingredient, dal, provides a substantial protein source.

Payasams For Dessert

No Onasadya is truly complete without a delightful serving of payasam, or dessert. Intriguingly, payasam is a versatile dish that can be crafted from an array of ingredients. Yet, ada pradhaman and pal payasam (milk payasam) take the lead as the most frequently prepared desserts for a traditional sadhya. Payasams created with jaggery, like ada pradaman or parippu pradaman, boast a blend of iron, zinc, potassium, and other vital minerals. Meanwhile, the decadent pal payasam made from milk and coconut milk offers a dose of calcium, phosphorus, and protein.

The third kind of payasam would be a fruit-infused payasam with jaggery and coconut milk, like the chakka pradaman or jackfruit payasam. "The strong flavours of jackfruit payasams are best relished after the pal payasam and the ada pradaman as they are slightly heavy on the palate, but it is my favourite. The ripe jackfruit and the jaggery with cardamom and some slivered dried coconut are worth waiting for a whole year," says Basit Manham, an IT professional in Bengaluru.

Final Course With Puliserry, Sambaram (buttermilk) and Rasam

The presence of calcium and vitamin D in buttermilk plays a crucial role in preserving dental health. Furthermore, buttermilk harbours beneficial bacteria that are vital for the body, effectively combating indigestion and promoting gut health. Veggies like cucumber, gourds, and mango go well with the tart puliserry, which is paired with rice. These dishes also offer a rich supply of essential minerals like potassium, phosphorus, zinc, iodine, and riboflavin. The aromatic rasam, seasoned with an array of spices, aids in digestion as well.

"The traditional way to relish this course is by cupping your fingers to receive a ladleful of the broth and slurping it on-the-go before ending your meal. If you have a voracious appetite, you can have it served on rice and eat the final course to balance out the sweetness from the payasams. Or, you can even receive it served in a glass to drink it all up before ending the satisfying meal," says Sanooj, a graphic designer from Thrissur.

And when you are through with all these rounds of eating, drinking, and burping, you will have one final task to do before you rise from your seat. The banana leaves are folded to stop the leftover food and fluids from flowing out of the plantain leaf. The upper flap is folded by bringing it towards the lower half of the leaf, which also signifies that you have thoroughly enjoyed your Onam sadhya.

This meal is finally followed by vettila murukkan, a version of paan where a spoonful of crushed areca nut is stuffed between betel leaves with a touch of slaked lime and chewed until the tongue goes red and is mushy enough to be swallowed. This gets the digestive juices working, letting the fibre-rich mouth freshener do the needful.