Onam is a harvest festival celebrated annually by Keralites, worldwide. For those residing in the UAE or in the Gulf region for a while, chances are that they too have adopted Onam as an important festival in their lives!
The elaborate feast of traditional vegetable preparations served on a banana leaf during Onam, the Onasadya, is legendary. I recall how difficult it would be to get reservations in popular Keralite restaurants in Dubai during Onam. The story isn’t different at all now that we have relocated to Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. As a result, the best sadya or feast that I have experienced so far … was at our Chennai home last year, stirred up by our local cook. Let’s see what’s in store for us this Onam!
The essence of any festival is to connect people, allowing them to reflect on a traditional aspect of day-to-day living. In the case of Onam, it is celebrating and reflecting on the harvest. For a typical urban dweller who picks up fresh produce from the shelves of an air-conditioned supermarket, we may be disconnected for most of the time regarding the source of the origin. A festival like Onam, perhaps, gives the person a chance to connect spiritually and energetically to the farmer who toils on the land.
It is through traditional celebrations, rituals and cultural storytelling, the message is passed to the younger generations. The beauty of the Onam festival is reflected in how it has transcended the borders of its origin in the southern Indian state of Kerala or even the Malayali diaspora across the globe.
Olympia Panache, the community in which we live in, is cosmopolitan. Many families have lived abroad and now settled here. I love the way the regional traditions are still upheld amidst their modern lifestyles.
My early morning walks are greeted by women who are busy drawing Kolams, traditional patterns with coloured powder on the ground outside their thresholds. With a festival around the corner, these floor designs become more elaborate.
Last year, we had a lovely orientation programme led by the beautiful mother-daughter duo of the Menon family, who are residents here. Having lived in the UAE for more than three decades, the Menon family is now happily settled in Chennai.
I had the privilege of chatting to Mrs Menon for a better understanding of whether the celebration of festival has evolved over the years in her home - both outside as well as in India. She affirmed that nothing much has changed from her childhood, except that certain traditional activities took place specifically in and around Kochi, where she grew up.
“We used to look forward to the school holidays. Preparations started ten days before Thiruvonam, the most auspicious day of the Onam festival. The Pookkalam or the flower Kolam (pattern) took centre stage - the design evolving from the innermost circle and extending outwards in concentric circles with each day of Onam.
“We used to run around to pluck flowers and the challenge was to get enough fresh flowers to cover once the circles got bigger. This also resulted in a casual competition in the neighbourhood, as to whose flower kolam was the best! A very happy moment was when a swing would be put up on one of the days.
“Unlike store bought swings, the seat of the swing was made from coconut palm leaves and hung from trees and we looked forward to it so much.”
As I listened to her, I recalled watching how an intricate Pookolam come to life in a city hotel where we stayed first when we moved from Dubai to Chennai. It took several manhours and a massive amount of flower petals, continuous supervision from the ground level as well the first floor foyer veranda that overlooked the ground floor, where the design took shape.
Apart from the above activities, wearing new clothes, visiting family and friends and a variety of homemade sweets and savouries also comprised Onam celebrations for Mrs Menon in her childhood - something that she continues to do. Her childhood memories of Onam delicacies included homemade Upperi or banana chips - something that every family necessarily indulged in. Salty Upperi and Sharkara Varatti or Upperis sweetened with jaggery, traditional rice balls and a variety of food items made especially during Onam. “On the day of the sadya, I like to make fresh banana chips, provided I get the Nendran varieties of bananas. These special varieties of bananas grow only in Kerala. There are different types of payasam or pudding, one variety cooked in coconut milk and the other in cow’s milk. There are payasams made with ripe bananas, daal and rice. These are made especially during the sadya, and I definitely make at least two varieties. I make everything that is served in a traditional Onam sadya.”
Will the traditional way of celebrating Onam survive the changing trends and times?
Mrs Menon is confident that tradition will never die. When she moved to Dubai after marriage, there weren’t so many restaurants that served traditional sadya food as is available today. Her family joined a few other families and gathered at a relative’s place for a traditional sadya.
All the women came together to cook and serve an elaborate feast just as it was done at home, in Kochi. Indian vegetables weren’t available as easily as is now.
“Some supermarkets flew them in during some festivals or specific days and we had to pick them up before they got over. At a later stage, there were clubs and associations formed by Indian communities that continued the tradition. I used to sing prayer songs and our two daughters also participated in cultural programmes.”
Her elder daughter, who lives in USA, is joined by her group of friends and continues the tradition of celebrating Onam and cooking up a traditional sadya in a manner that Mrs Menon was used to since her childhood.
Living outside Kerala, in the UAE and now in Chennai, she does miss certain activities that take place during Onam. “There’s something called Pulikali, where people dress up as Puli or tigers and participate in a dance form, wherein a hunter chases a tiger. There are competitions now and the makeup and energy of the artists is incredible. I also miss the traditional Snake Boat Race, which happens in a place called Aramula. I remember how we used to go all the way to watch the boat race.”
Last year during Onam, my mother and brother had visited us. My mother and I experienced Mrs Menon’s harvest celebrations. We learnt a few traditional dance steps that commemorated the sun deity and danced around an intricate Pookalam, with a brass lamp lit in the middle of it. My mum dressed up in a cream and gold saree and we too didn’t deviate much from the Onam colour theme. An elaborate sadya awaited us at home - fluffy white rice, daal, sambhar, rasam, curd curry, Kaalan, pappadams and payasam to name a few, served on a freshly washed banana leaf.
I am sharing the recipe of Kaalan, a delicious preparation made with elephant foot yam and plantain or raw banana, and cooked in a rich yoghurt gravy. It is an important part of any Onasadya and let it not lose it’s importance to Avial (mixed vegetables in a yoghurt-based curry) this Onam!
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
1 or 550gms elephant foot yam, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 or 550gms plantains, chopped into 1/2 inch slices with skin on (I prefer to boil plantains with skin on as I find it easier to remove them once boiled)
1 cup fresh grated coconut
2 green chillies
2 red chillies
1/4 tsp turmeric
10 peppercorns, crushed
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
A pinch of crushed fenugreek seeds
A handful of curry leaves, fresh
1 tbsp ghee
2 tbsp coconut oil, cold pressed
400 gms yoghurt
Salt as per taste
In a deep vessel, add turmeric, crushed peppercorn and salt to the yam and plantain pieces. Add water, to cover the chopped pieces, and cook with the lid on, over a medium flame until tender.
While it is cooking, make a fine paste with grated coconut, green chillies and cumin seeds (I prefer to use a hand blender). Add the paste to the cooked vegetables and stir it in.
Blend the yoghurt in the hand blender or whisk it smooth. Add it to the above, and let it simmer over low flame for a while, as the gravy thickens. Add ghee and remove off the flame.
Heat coconut oil in a tempering pan. Add the mustard seeds. Once they start splattering, add dry red chillies, crushed fenugreek and curry leaves. Take off the flame after a short while before the chillies start burning. Pour into the yam and plantain gravy.
Kaalan is ready to be served, with steaming white rice or the red Kerala Matta rice.
- The writer is the author of the culinary travel blog ishitaunblogged.com. She is currently based in Chennai and has been a Dubai resident for two decades.
Share your food stories with us on firstname.lastname@example.org