Onam 2023 Special: Malayali Chefs Relive Memories Of Onasadhya
Image Credit: Kappa Chakka Kandhari

The fact that Onam is one of the most important festivals for the people of Kerala, no matter where in India or the world they may be settled now, is very well known. The 10-day festival is not only all about celebrating the fresh harvest, but also the return of the mythical ancient King Mahabali. A central part of Onam celebrations in and beyond Kerala is the Onam Sadhya or Onasadhya. A vegetarian feast packed with simply cooked Kerala cuisine dishes, the Onam Sadhya is now enjoyed by not only Malayalis but food enthusiasts across the world. 

And yet, capturing the authentic flavours of Onam Sadhya, like any regional or traditional meal from around India, requires a lot more than just knowing the recipes. For Malayali chefs and home chefs, the Onam Sadhya is not just a feast to cook up and serve today, but also a time to reflect on the nostalgia of flavours they grew up with. The ideas of Onasadhya from their past inform how they approach the feast in their present. 

To understand this complex and yet emotional love for the many dishes that form the basis of the Onasadhya, we caught up with five Malayali chefs from across India. They shared all the details of the Sadhya they enjoyed during their childhood, the Onasadhya they cook today, and how nostalgia and passion for food bridges their past and present Onam Sadhya feasts. 

Chef Marina Balakrishnan, Oottupura  

“I think Onam from my childhood was more than just about Sadhya, it was about happiness and celebration,” says Mumbai-based food entrepreneur Marina Balakrishnan, who is known for her delicious vegetarian Kerala food. “I grew up thinking celebration meant food. We had a family of 25-30 people, so we grew up rooted in the culture of togetherness and Onam became all about sharing. We had a lot of Malabar Moplah neighbours, and my grandmother made sure that she would either invite them over for the Onam Sadhya or send Payasam and curries over to their places. All of us helped in the kitchen while growing up and then shared the meal sitting together on the floor. So, I grew up with the idea that when you cook a good meal, it’s always good to share with others.”  

“The idea I took away from this was that it doesn’t matter what’s on your banana leaf, what matters is your attitude,” she adds. “That’s what guides me when I cook the Sadhya now on Onam. This year, I’m doing a very large Sadhya with 30 items, which means I’ll be starting my prep at least two days before. With some dishes, like the yoghurt-based ones, cooking a day ahead always enhances the flavours.” But what about her favourite on the Onam Sadhya plate? “I just love the Olan, a simple dish made with ash gourd and coconut milk that stays in the centre of the banana leaf,” she says. “This dish sits so quietly in the Sadhya among popular heroes like Pulissery, but it deserves more attention.”  

Chef Regi Matthew, Kappa Chakka Kandhari 

Growing up in Pala, near Kottayam, Chef Regi Matthew’s Onam was a reflection of Kerala’s village life. “We kids used to collect all the flowers and make Pookalam, then we’d go off to play,” he explains. “By the time we came back home, the Onam Sadhya would be ready. All the vegetables for the Sadhya were grown in our own backyard. The most important thing for us in a Sadhya was the Payasam, so my mother used to make two types: Ada Pradhaman and Pala Payasam. I remember Sambar, Erissery, Avial, Thoran, Pachadi, Khichdi and Inji Curry would always be on the plate with Sarkkara Varatti and Nendran Banana Chips.” 

Now, at Kappa Chakka Kandhari, what Chef Regi does is to maintain the authenticity of flavours. He explains how each dish has a designated location and order on the banana leaf, and this has to be maintained. “We have engaged a team of Nambodaris from Kerala to cook the Sadhya in Bangalore and Chennai,” he explains. “All the ingredients have been sourced from different parts of Kerala, so these are traditional Onasadhya dishes. I personally added two more Payasams in it as a nostalgia flashback to my childhood.”  

Chef Joji James, Amal Tamara  

For Chef Joji James, who has dedicated his life to create Kerala cuisine dishes with Ayurvedic and Sattvik principles in mind, Onam Sadhya feasts are the perfect opportunity to represent the culinary genius of Kerala. “The beauty of Onam feasts is that every community brings the bounty of their region and the techniques of their cuisine to the preparations,” he says. “For me, childhood memories around Onam include the making of the Pookalam and trying to outdo the neighbour’s version in a friendly, unsaid competition. I also used to enjoy the little dances that the women of the family do around the Pookalam and watched in anticipation of a good meal, as the leaf was laid for King Mahabali first, before we were served.” 

He further explains that the traditional Sadhya includes up to 28 dishes and it would be considered incomplete if you did not make them all. “So, my Onam Sadhya includes a minimum of 20 dishes,” he says. “Must-haves on my menu are Avial, Erissery, Olan, Pulissery, Kalan, Pachadi, Parippu curry, Thoran, Sambar, Rasam, Shakarapereti, Puli Inji, Banana Chips and at least two kinds of payasams, Ada Pradhaman, and Aval Payasam. My favourite dish is the Aval Payasam, made with beaten rice, milk and jaggery. This is a treat while being a healthy dish. I also enjoy starting my meal with the Parippu (moong dal curry) with some ghee over rice.” 

Chef Velu, Monsoon Empress Hotel 

Known for his critical role in establishing Dakshin at Sheraton New Delhi, Chef Velu has since shifted  back to Kochi to work as the Executive Chef at the Monsoon Empress Hotel. So, his Onam Sadhya today must be quite a close approximation to the one he grew up with, right? “During my childhood, we enjoyed boat races and made Pookalam, apart from eating a lot of vegetarian dishes and going out every day,” he says. “At home, we used to have very simple Sadhya dishes during Onam, like Parippu, Sambar, Rasam and Sambaram. Today, things have become more elaborate, especially at restaurants. When I was a kid, we used to have minimum 17 items on our simple Onasadhya plate, a maximum of 22 dishes.” 

And what about the Sadhya he makes today? “We make simple, home-style Onasadhya today,” he says. “There is a lot of coconut, coconut oil and coconut milk in our dishes. We also include a lot of yoghurt-based dishes. I like to focus on the inclusion of seasonal and fresh vegetables in dishes like Thoran, Avial, Kootu Curry, Pachadi and Khichdi. Some of the dishes, like Sarkkara Varatti and Ada Pradhaman can only be done by expert chefs and grandmothers. Since we are in Kerala, everybody knows what taste to expect, so we have to maintain that standard.” 

Chef Jerry Matthew, CGH Earth Coconut Lagoon 

For this Kerala-based chef, Onam has always been all about “flowers and flavours”. “I’m from a Christian family, but Onam used to be a big deal for my family too,” he says. “In our ancestral home near Kochi, we had many Nair and Nambodari neighbours. So, on Onam, they would always share Sadhya dishes with us. We used sit on the floor in a long line with our parents and family members and eat these dishes off a banana leaf. I’m a sweet lover, so I always used to enjoy having the Payasam with crushed Papadam on top. My cousins and I would always make Pookalams, even if they were small.”  

His other favourites include Olan made with potatoes in the region he comes from. Chef Jerry Matthew also notes how the Onam Sadhya cooked now are very different. “During childhood, we would first source the vegetables from our backyards and neighbourhood and then cook the dishes. Now, we simply have to include as many vegetables and varieties as possible. Now, we serve Onasadhya on banana leaves, but those are not served on the floor,” he says. “Instead, we place a mat on a table and then place the banana leaf on top. We then serve a set pattern of dishes like Avial, Olan, Thoran, etc.”