Aysha Tanya decodes the Onasadya. Whether you're cooking one or eating at one, here’s what you need to know.
It is a quiet Sunday afternoon in Kerala, and my mother and I are on our way into town when we spot a maidan full of men and women dressed in traditional attire — white mundus and sarees with gold borders. Soon after, we are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours — there’s a procession making its way through town, marking the beginning of festivities. Onam is here.
The wonderful thing about 10-day harvest festival, which takes place in the Chingam month of the Malayalam calendar, is that despite its roots in Hindu mythology, it is a celebration for all Malayalis: Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike partake in the celebrations that send all of Kerala into a tizzy. Street processions, shops bustling with people making their annual appliance purchases, eager to spend their festival bonus on attractive discounts and still making it back home in time for the special screening of the year’s blockbusters. The celebrations reach a crescendo on the 10th day, known as Thiruvonam when all of Kerala dresses up, visits family and partakes in that most eagerly waited ritual of the festival — the Onasadhya.
As a student, Onam was about pookalam contests; each grade competing to create the most intricate flower patterns on the floor, decorating with fistfuls of jasmine, rose petals and marigolds. These days, I find the most exciting part of any festival to be the traditional meal associated with it — especially when the meal forms the heart of the festivities, like at Onam. A conventional onasadhya follows the rules of satva guna diet, one of the key classifications of food in Ayurveda. As a result, onions and garlic are off the table, as are eggs and meat. However, here in the Malabar, known for it’s love of fish and meat, a sadhya that includes fried fish or chicken is not unusual.
In order to learn more about sadhya, which literally means feast, I unashamedly invite myself over to the Kannur YWCA Onam celebrations. I am warmly welcomed and shown a seat. Soon after, the festivities begin; an Onam folk song has the audience humming and clapping along, setting the mood for the afternoon. A thiruvathirakali follows. This dance, performed exclusively by women swirling gracefully in a circle around a brass lamp or a ceremonial flower carpet, is set to folksongs depicting tales of lovesick Parvathi and other scenes from Hindu mythology.
I am of course, here for the food and it is not long before I tiptoe into the kitchen, hoping to catch a peek at the last of the preparations. To my surprise, I find the dishes are already laid out on the table: It turns out this Sadhya is a potluck. I can’t say I wasn’t concerned about the authenticity of a potluck-Onasadhya, but one of the ladies puts my worries to rest. “We sent a Whatsapp list of all the items on a typical sadhya to the members, and each person picked a dish to bring,” she confides. There are casseroles and vats and giant tins, all releasing the most delicious aromas. It is soon evident that this is a buffet-style sadhya and I’m glad I brought a few banana leaves with me. If I am to learn the art of serving a typical sadhya, a plate is simply not going to be large enough to accommodate the 15 or so dishes to be had.
With the help of Ms. Venugopal and a few other ladies who pitch in, we bustle back and forth between the pantry and kitchen, where we’ve laid out a banana leaf by the window to be photographed. The first rule of sadhya is that it is eaten seated cross-legged on the ground, the banana leaf on a mat in front of you, the tapering end toward your left. Ms. Venugopal is knowledgeable about the intricacies of the sadhya, and explains to me the order in which each kootan or condiment is served.
The first item, a pinch of salt, in case you find any of the kootans not seasoned to your liking, is placed on the left corner of the banana leaf. Next to it, a few banana chips – the salty variety as well as the sweet, jaggery-coated uperi. From left to right the dishes then served are: puli inji, a chutney made from tamarind, jaggery and ginger — warming and spicy with an earthy sweetness from jaggery, is my personal favourite; manga achaar or green mango pickle and naranga kari or wild lime pickle. The interesting thing about the naranga kari is that it is an instant pickle, not requiring any fermentation. It is strong and tangy, and dipping a small piece of crispy pappadam into it is my favourite way to start a sadhya. Next, the olan or sliced pumpkin cooked in coconut milk, by far the most subtle kootan on the leaf, is a pretty off-white colour. Kichadi made with cucumber and yogurt is followed immediately by pachadi, made with yogurt that is paired with pineapple, squash or ash gourd. I like the yellow pineapple pachadi best; the sweetness of the pineapple offsetting the sour yogurt perfectly. Erissery, a dry kootan made of pumpkin and red beans in grated coconut, is placed towards the right end of the leaf, adjacent to kaalan, made with banana and ground coconut, cooked with a tuber like yam. It is sweet and salty all at once, and a firm favourite with anyone who tastes it. The most well-known sadhya kootan, aviyal, comes next — carrots, drumsticks, green bananas are simmered in yogurt and coconut, and cooked to a thickened consistency. On the extreme right is thoran, the Malayali equivalent of subzi: sautéed beans, beetroot or cabbage with shredded coconut. Lastly, a pappadam fried in coconut oil is placed on the bottom left side of the leaf and you ready to begin!
It is said that the first bite of a sadhya should be uperi followed by puli inji, both of which awaken the taste buds, making them receptive to the myriad flavours and textures that are about to follow.
Payasams & Pradhamans
The sadhya is off to a measured start with the first course of rice, served with humble parippu or daal, with ghee and pappadam. The next course ups the ante with rice, sambar, and rasam, the spices and tamarind making your tastebuds tingle. The third course however, pulls out all the stops with the most anticipated course of the most anticipated meal of the most anticipated festival in Kerala — the payasam and pradhaman course. Kerala’s equivalent to the ubiquitous kheer, the main difference between payasam and pradhaman is that payasam is made with milk while pradhaman is made with coconut milk. Typical Onasadyas feature ada pradhaman, made with rice flakes slow-cooked for hours in coconut milk and jiggery; parippu pradaman which features Bengal gram instead of rice flakes, and paal payasam, vermicelli cooked in milk. The easiest way to identify each payasam and pradaman is by colour — paal payasam is the lightest in colour, and ada pradhaman is the darkest, since it contains jaggery. Besides these, jackfruit or banana payasams may also feature in the sadhya.
The next and final course is a third helping of rice topped with curd or buttermilk, chased with a banana. It is said that the curd or buttermilk with banana prevent the bloating that is sure to follow, if the meal were to end on a sweet note. To sip on through the meal, is water boiled with cumin and dried ginger.
At the heart of the sadhya is a celebration of community dining, and celebrating local, seasonal produce, which may be why it resonates so deeply across generations. That and the fact that it is heart-stoppingly delicious. Even though most homes these days cook closer to 15 dishes rather than the 24 that make up a traditional Onasadhya, it is still a feast fit for a king.
Aysha Tanya is the editor and co-founder of Goya Media. Illustration by Sheena Deviah.
A previous version of the article mentioned that Onam celebrations begin on the first day of Chingam. This has been corrected.
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