Onam Sadhya: Synonymous With The State Of Kerala

The annual harvest festival of Onam is synonymous with the state of Kerala. Although primarily a Hindu festival, almost every denizen of the coastal strip, irrespective of religion, takes part in the state’s official festival with great zest. The events celebrated as part of the festival are believed to be intrinsically linked to the creation of the state. Records state that the festival was celebrated as early as the second century CE. There are two major events associated with Onam. The first revolves around the homecoming of King Mahabali, and the second is about the tale of Parasurama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) creating the land of Kerala by casting his weapon into the ocean. The festival starts on the first month of the Malayali calendar – Chingam - the date of which is determined arithmetically, usually landing in the latter half of August.

The way Onam is celebrated across the state in a variety of ways. That said, one element remains the same, and is indispensable to the festival- the Onam Sadhya. The ambrosian meal celebrates the broad scope of the state’s vegetarian cuisine. For instance, some parts of Kannur and Kozhikode serve non-veg dishes as a part of Sadhya, namely chicken sukka, and fried kingfish. 

Usually, Onam Sadhya is served every day for the ten days that lead up to the festival. Sadhya is served in parts, which may go over nine courses, with over 28 dishes. It is served on a plantain leaf, something Malayalees living outside the state often go to great lengths to obtain. The end of the leaf that comes to a point faces the left of the guest, with the guest ideally seated on a bamboo mat. Utensils are used only for serving and the meal is eaten by hand. The elderly are seated first, with the dishes served by the elderly women of the family, although this custom is no longer adhered to as strictly as it once was. Sadhya is enjoyed as a community, and Malayalees living outside the home state gather together under one roof to celebrate the festival. They also invite members of other communities to join in the festivities. 

The first dish that opens the Sadhya is parboiled red rice, which is topped with parippu, a mild lentil gravy, followed by sambar. The sambar is made with any vegetables at hand, the watery gravy flavored with spices, primarily using Hing (asafetida). Rasam may also be served at this stage. A highlight of the Sadhya is ‘avial’, an integral part of Malayali cuisine. The dish is cooked using parboiled vegetables (up to thirteen vegetables are added in some places), with the vegetables cut into batons and flavored with a tangy coconut-yogurt paste. The vegetables used in the preparation bring in a plethora of textures, from mushy ash melon to crumbly plantain. The plantain is cooked with the skin on. Various side dishes are served alongside the avial: pappadam, a fryum made using urad dal flour; chena varuthathu (fried yam); puli inji, a chutney made using ginger and tamarind; thoran (vegetables stir-fried with coconut); kalan, a tangy gravy with chunks of plantain; pachadi, a yogurt based dish, with chunks of either kaitachchakka (pineapple) or vellarikka (cucumber); kadumanga achar (mango pickle); mezhukkupuratti, a stir-fried vegetable dish, usually prepared with long beans, or plantain; kaya varuthathu (banana chips); olan, a mild coconut milk-based gravy with ash gourd and red beans; vadukapuli achar (wild lemon pickle), and vendakka kichadi (okra in a spicy yogurt based sauce). This is a festival feast and the Sadhya doesn’t pretend otherwise. 

The dessert course consists of various types of payasam, a wet pudding. Pal payasam, a slow cooked rice pudding, flavored with milk and rice is perhaps the most common. Semiya payasam, a payasam made with fried vermicelli, raisins and cardamom are common additions, is one of the most commonly consumed sweet dishes in the state. Palada payasam, a payasam made using milk and ada (a rice noodle in the form of flakes); sabudana payasam, made using sabudana pearls are also popular. Almost all payasams are milk based, with cardamom as the key flavoring, supported by other spices like cloves and cinnamon. Pradhaman is a pudding that is native to Kerala and served as a part of Sadhya. It is made using jaggery and coconut milk with a base of either rice or rice ada.

Onam Sadhya is brought to a close with a final course comprising another serving of rice, a side of rasam, and kaalan, a spiced buttermilk. In traditional style, once the food has been consumed, the guest folds the leaf in half along the midrib to signal that their meal has been completed.