Last weekend was Onam. One festival that is celebrates across religions and castes in Kerala, a state in the southermost part of India- also called “God’s own country (also happens to be mine!!), making it rather unique in the fractured but yet “together” society that we have in India. But just as all other festivals in India, it revolves around food! In fact the high point of this festival to celebrate bounty is the “Ona Sadya”, which means the festival meal, or feast prepared on the day of Onam. We used to eat the Ona Sadya every year when we were kids, but I don’t have a particular recollection of my mum making a sadya at home. We usually used to feast as part of a community event, and get together with other fellow Malayalis and have a sumptuous meal, outsourced to efficient and extraordinarily gifted cooks in the community. So, while I knew vaguely the various ingredients that went into a grand meal, I had very little idea (and this was a few years ago) as to what went into their making.
About 10 years ago, when the cooking bug caught me big time, was the time when I started to actively take interest in traditional cooking. The net was my biggest source of inspiration and during my research when I learnt everything from baking tarts to making exotic payasams to biryani. I also, very interestingly learnt that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Ona Sadya! Well, it’s true. From north to south end of Kerala, the items, ingredients and basic character of Ona Sadya differs drastically. The Sadya differs from region to region, from caste to caste. And, it has transformed radically down the years. The typical ‘Sadya’ or feast of Kerala took its origins from the kovilakams (palaces of the Kerala rulers), and at the illams (households of Namboothiris, a Brahmin community of Kerala). The cooks at most of the palaces, had belonged to the Tamil Brahmin community, who were an integral part of Kerala’s society for centuries, primarily having migrated as royal cooks and thereafter took to teaching in a big way. These royal cooks developed the strict vegetarian cuisine followed in the kovilakams, introducing many flavours from their own country across the Western Ghats. It is said that avial, celebrated as one of the hallmarks of Kerala cuisine, was invented by these cooks. Similarly, sambar and rasam, the quintessential Tamil dishes, were introduced into Kerala by them. I was very intrigued to note that even till the early decades of 20th century, ingredients like sambar, or rasam that are considered an integral part of traditional Keralite diet, were not a part of the Ona sadya . The basic dishes for the sadya originally came in multiples of four. ‘Chathur vibhavangal,’ four dishes, which were kalan, olan, erisseri and, madhurakkari, or the sweet dish. It must have meant, the payasam. Kalan, olan and erisseri remain the fundamental basics of any traditional sadya in Kerala. Then, the ‘uppilittathu’ which literally means, ‘those pickled in salt.’ ! They were mango, lime, then, puliyinchi and inchithayiru (also called inchi pachidi). Puliyinchi is the special dish made in central Kerala for Onam. Large quantities of tamarind pulp and jaggery are boiled in stone vessels over low flames for hours. Chopped green chillies and ginger are added to the boiling mixture. Finally, once its done, seasoned with mustard, fenugreek, curry leaves and more chopped green chillies and ginger. This can be stored for long. Inchithayiru (ginger in curd), is literally that. Chopped and slightly crushed ginger and green chillies added to beaten curds. And, salt, of course. This was a great digestive to cope with the over-eating that is bound to happen with feasting!
The fried items are the next. Besides pappadam, Ona Sadya should have banana chips. Both plain chips and sarkkara upperi.
Nobody in Thrissur district (broadly where my ancestors belong!!!) can think of an Ona Sadya without the ‘Pazham nurukku,’ or boiled / steamed bananas. Not just your average variety, but the fantastic tasting ‘nenthrakkaya,’ specially cultivated for the season.
So, I spent the last weekend, making a lavish Ona Sadya, complete with Erisseri, Vella payasam (made with rice and jaggery), avail, pachidi, etc. I had to make some deviations from the traditional dishes to appeal to the less adventurous palate of some members of my extended family who joined us for the meal. For eg., I had to substitute the traditional red parboiled rice with ‘basmati rice’, and make it in the rice cooker as opposed to the traditional way of boiling it in water and draining the extra water (I do love the way that awesome rice smells, but have to leave that to some other occasion!!).
I am sure King Mahabali , in whose honour the festival is celebrated, would have been a pleased man at my place that Sunday!