The Onam sadhya occupies the sweet spot between tradition and innovation. The dishes served on the banana leaf feature variations that are a function not only of hyperlocal culinary attributes, but also the more prosaic requirements of convenience.
WITH Onam here, you’ve probably been contemplating where you can dig into the traditional sadhya. A place where you can expect avial, pachadi, pappadam, inji puli, moru curry and payasam being ladled generously onto your banana leaf. However, while these dishes are part of the set Onam menu at most restaurants, there are variations even in these traditional preparations.
The ubiquitous sambar, for instance, can take on diverse avatars. In the northern Calicut (Kozhikode) region, the gravy gets its characteristic coarse texture from roasted coconut, while folks in southern and central Kerala favour tur dal to give it a thick consistency. Similarly, the avial in Palakkad has a white appearance since it lacks turmeric powder.
And, “residents of Trivandrum indulge in four payasam varieties during the sadhya in contrast to the rest of Kerala where just two suffice,” says Joji James, executive chef at Amal Tamara, a 19-room property that subscribes to the Ayurvedic way of life. “We take note of these nuances and consciously prepare our dishes at our property in Mannanchery, savouring the rich variety of flavours that Kerala’s diverse regions have to offer,” he adds.
Ayurveda wields some influence over the Onam sadhya. Each dish, served in small portions, offers several nutritional benefits in addition to the taste. The seasonal vegetables provide fibre and minerals, while the lentils and rice are rich in carbohydrates. Similarly, the fusion of tamarind and ginger in puli inji acts as an antioxidant, while the curd-based pachadi helps in digestion. And let's not forget jaggery, which takes pride of place in the payasam; this superfood is an antioxidant, has anti-carcinogenic properties and is also the perfect energy booster.
Every festival has traditions galore, which are often associated with the region's history, geography and culture. Over time, some of these gain mythical status and soon, people presume that this is how certain things are done.
This spillover is best observed when it comes to food. That is when the modifications occur, sometimes overtly and often unobtrusively. Many matriarchs still prepare inji puli with inji-thairu or a mixture of curd, grated coconut and ginger. However, its more popular manifestation is that of a saucy pickle.
Over time, the culinary traditions of Onam sadhya have evolved to adapt to changing family structures and urban living. Once marked by bustling kitchens filled with generations of family members, its preparation today has been redefined by the realities of smaller family sizes and the fast-paced nature of modern urban living.
Many Malayali households, guided by their matriarchs, now rely on hotels or specialty restaurants for sadhya preparations, effectively striking a balance between upholding their cultural roots and the demands of a contemporary urban lifestyle.
This includes Prathibha PP from Tirur, Malappuram. Due to paucity of time, it has been years since she has prepared the sadhya at home, but she ensures that she heads to a restaurant specialising in Malayali cuisine every Onam.
Here, Now, And Heritage
Sadhya is best enjoyed when one is seated on the floor, with each delicacy beautifully arranged on a banana leaf. However, since many in the younger generation find it easier to do 50-leg crunches than sit cross-legged on the floor for longer than five minutes, tabletop settings have taken over.
“Another lesser-known culinary tradition involves the careful arrangement of each dish, with every item finding its designated place. For instance, the pickles and fries find their place at the leaf’s top left and bottom left corners,” says chef James.
It is customary for the tapering end of the leaf to face the left side of the seated guest: Indians usually eat with their right hand, so it is easier for the diner to dig into the main dishes, like rice, when they’re placed on the broader part of the banana leaf. This is also why the salt, pickle and chutney are served on the narrower part of the leaf.
Similarly, according to Thrissur-based Tintu Alapatt, in a typical Onam sadhya, certain dishes simply cannot be skipped. Order-wise, while served on the banana leaf, it starts with salt, ghee, sharkara upperi, followed by nedram chips, banana, poppadam and fresh pickles like puli inji. She adds that some of the other traditional preparations include chenna varuthathu (yam cut into slices and fried with spices), kichadi (gourd in yoghurt curry) and theeyal (mixed vegetable gravy) — dishes that not many are aware of.
Next comes the serving of rice, mixed with papaya curry, a spoonful of ghee and a little salt. “The taste is delicious, and the combination is also rich, nutrition-wise,” Alapatt shares. This is accompanied with sambar, rasam and moru (buttermilk) with other lesser-known preparations like kadala curry (chickpeas gravy) and potato masala curry.
Let's not forget the supporting cast in the sadhya — avial, kalam, olan, eriserry, upperi, and thoran, depending on the vegetable one wants to use, which could be beans, carrot or beetroot. In fact, Prathibha notes that olan is prepared without adding salt, to get the original taste of other dishes.
"Then we have the kootu curry or pachadi from any vegetable of one’s choice, though pineapple is preferred as it gives the naturally sweet taste," says Gita Ramesh, joint managing director of Kairali and author of The Ayurvedic Wellness Cookbook.
The sweet note to this expansive meal is accentuated with the many versions of payasam. While paal payasam is the most common, there are other options like paru or gothambu pradhaman as well as ada, semiyan, parippu or chakka payasam, so you are always spoilt for choice.
Ramesh explains that the relevance of these dishes depends on eating as much fresh produce that grows during that season in small portions and balancing it with Ayurveda, closely tied with Kerala.
Onam sadhya truly comes alive with a delightful spread of over 26 diverse dishes, each meticulously prepared using more than 60 unique ingredients. The beauty of this feast lies in its ability to encompass a wide spectrum of taste profiles, including the dimensions of sweetness, saltiness, sourness and spiciness.
But several of these dishes have evolved with time. While the sadhya still presents aeons of accumulated wisdom, it also offers a hat tip to mundane contemporary times when people want to be associated with their roots without the baggage of culinary heritage.
RECIPE FOR CHAKKA PAYASAM (JACKFRUIT PUDDING)
From Dr Gita Ramesh’s The Ayurvedic Wellness Cookbook
Serves: 3 | Cooking time: 25 minutes
½ cup jaggery
½ cup water
3 cups fresh jackfruit, chopped
1 cup thin coconut milk
½ cup thick coconut milk
¼ teaspoon cardamom, powdered
1 tablespoon ghee
10 cashew nuts, slit
In a pan over medium heat, add ½ cup jaggery, ¼ cup water and bring to a boil. Stir and let the jaggery melt completely. Remove from heat and pour through a stainless steel strainer into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Place the saucepan over low heat. Add chopped jackfruit and ¼ cup of water. Cook for 5 minutes until the jackfruit softens to a slightly mushy texture.
Add thin coconut milk and cook for another 4-5 minutes until the ingredients thicken to a semi-liquid form.
Add thick coconut milk and stir well for 2 minutes. Add cardamom, mix well and cook for one minute. Remove from heat and set aside.
Place a small pan over low heat. Pour ghee and cashew nuts. Roast for 2 minutes until the cashews are golden brown. Mix the cashews into the payasam and serve in bowls.
(Images, from top, 1, 2 and 4: Traditional sadhya spread; family seated for Onasadhya; serving of sadhya dishes; via Shutterstock. Image 3: Tintu Alapatt. Image 5: Chakka Payasam, prepared by Gita Ramesh.)
From all of us at Slurrp, Onam Ashamsakal!