Sadhya, meaning feast or banquet in Malayalam, is not a word that a Malayali throws around lightly. We take our food too seriously for that.
In the Indian state of Kerala, a sadhya follows a certain structure and etiquette, and is served on all festive occasions including weddings and large family gatherings. The meal, served on a banana leaf, is a celebration of tastes, textures, produce and tradition.
While there is a standard understanding of sadhya, we decided to go more in-depth and truly get a perspective of what it means in modern-day Kerala.
Geographically, modern Kerala can be divided into three sections: south Kerala, central Kerala and north Kerala. Here, south Kerala spans the districts of Pathanamthitta, Alleppey or Alappuzha as well as the southern-most districts of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram.
Central Kerala straddles the expanse of Palakkad, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Malappuram and Kottayam – home of the Vembanad Lake.
The remaining stretch of Kozhikode, Kannur, Wayanad and Kasargode form North Kerala.
Thrice the deliciousness – three different styles of sadhya
The sadhya, however, refuses to toe these arbitrary lines on a map, and dishes and culinary customs overlap, serving a dose of socio-cultural history and geography with each mouthful.
The preparations of dishes and the method in which they’re served vary on the basis of princely states these districts were a part of.
The influence of the erstwhile Tranvancore kingdom spans from Trivandrum to certain sections of central Kerala such as Cherthala, Kottayam and Ernakulam, bifurcating into a separate culinary style called Madhya Thiruvithamkoor or mid-Travancore, hinting at the union of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin in the fifties.
“Although Travancore and Kochi regions have different food cultures, there’s no denying they do slightly overlap,” says Raj Kalesh, award-winning TV anchor of series such as the cookery show Ruchi Malayalam, and author of Ruchi Vattam, a book charting Kerala’s culinary history. The book is based on the foodie's extensive travels across the length and breadth of Kerala sampling food from different regions.
When you inch northwards, a section of central Kerala isolates itself into following what is known as the Valluvanadan sadhya – this is the style of cooking followed in parts of Palakkad, Thrissur, Malappuram, Ponani, and Erad, points out Kalesh.
And everything north of Malappuram follows the Vadakkan (northern) Malabar cooking. “But the Valluvanad region is also part of south Malabar,” adds Kalesh. So, yes, if you’re left both confused and hungry by Kerala’s intricate geographical make-up and its resultant gastronomy, know that you’re not alone. These regional styles are just broad brushstrokes and barely begin to encapsulate the multitude of flavours you’ll encounter in sadhyas served just kilometres apart.
Different strokes for different sadhyas
To simplify matters, we got our experts to list out the defining characteristics of sadhya etiquette and dishes unique to each region of Kerala.
Order of serving: Come rain or shine, you can always trust the Travancore sadhya to maintain the tradition-bound order of how dishes are served, says Priya Jayachandran, owner of the Mangalya Caterers, one of Trivandrum's leading caterers. “Other regions follow the same order to a certain extent too, but the Travancore region is almost obsessive when it comes to ladling out the parippu (a lentil curry) and ghee with rice before the sambhar.”
It always begins with the dry items (upperi) such as kaya varathathu (banana chips), sharkara varathiyathu (ripe plantain candied in jaggery infused with dry ginger and cumin). With each orzhichukari (main dish or a curry that can be poured like sambhar) a single helping of rice is served and you’ll get no more until the next round. At the end, after payasam (pudding) is served, a helping of rice and rasam (a soupy tomato, tamarind and pepper-based dish) is consumed to conclude the sadhya.
In Thrissur, Palakkad and Ernakulam, rasam is second in line to sambhar and sadhyas are concluded with a serving of rice mixed in with yoghurt or moru (buttermilk) and pickles, points out A.R. Ganesh of Ambiswami Catering Services, a renowned catering business based in Thrissur with a 61-year-legacy.
Number of dishes: Another one of the Travancore sadhya’s primary characteristics is the abundance of dishes.
“It’s definitely more elaborate than the other regions of Kerala and can easily go up to 30 dishes,” Priya explains. In fact, Trivandrum denizens are appalled that sadhyas up north of Kerala cap it off at a humble 15-20 dishes, says Raj. “The Aranmula valla sadhya that’s served after the famed Aranmula boat race is an epitome of this plenitude, with a total of 64 dishes being served.”
It goes one step further: The Aranmulla valla sadhya is prepared by cooks without a single dish ever being taste-tested. “The cooks inhale the aroma of the food to gauge if the ingredients have been added in the right proportion. They don’t taste it as the food is supposed to be served as an offering to temple deities and should be untouched.”
Number of helpings: Another unique element of the Travancore sadhya is the fact that the side dishes or thodukarrigal (roughly translated to dishes that are touched) are only served once. “These are dishes such as the yoghurt-based kichadis (cucumbers or beetroot cooked in yoghurt tempered with mustards and curry leaves) and pachadis (sweet yoghurt-based dishes), avial and thoran,” explains Priya. “More please,” is a major faux pas here.
The only exclusion is the Aranmulla sadhya where guests are served endless helpings of their favourite dishes.
In north Malabar and the Valluvanadan region as well as Ernakulam (which falls under Travancore) guests are served seconds and thirds of their favourite dishes. “It’s a sign of respect for the guests and a mark of hospitality. Their refrains for more signifies the food is good,” explains A.R. Ganesh of Ambiswami catering.
Meat up: The Malabar sadhya along with a harvest bounty of fresh vegetable-based dishes has its own unique epicurean ace in the hole – a smorgasbord of meat and fish dishes, which in other parts of Kerala are verboten. "In Kannur, beef is a must at a sadhya even in Hindu households," emphasises Raj. Such is the prominence of the meatiness of fish fry, beef roast and chicken curry to palates of those from the Malabar region that Ambiswami caterers, who are strictly a vegetarian enterprise, concocted a vegetarian meen curry (fish curry) to hold fast to their Malabar clientele. “It’s bitter gourd cooked in the traditional fish curry gravy.”
A piece of sizzling meen porichattu (fish fry) served next to the thoran might make people from Thrissur and even Trivandrum districts do a double take but not in Kollam, which interestingly is part of the Travancore region.
What’s in a name: Plenty depending on which part of Kerala you’re sat in while relishing your sadhya. If you request for kichadi at a Valluvanadan sadhya or a sadhya served in Thrissur and Palakkad, your server might serve you a quizzical look.
“The kichadi down south is called pachadi in the northern regions,” explains Raj. “Similarly, what’s called thoran (vegetables stir-fried in grated coconut) or mezhukkupuratti (veggies stir-fried in shallots and oil) is called upperi in the Valluvanadan region.” In a Travancore sadhya, the term upperi refers to the category of dry snacks that include banana chips and sharkara varatiyathu or candied banana.
In Thrissur what is called puli inji (a spicy and tangy pickle-like concoction of ginger, tamarind and jaggery) is addressed as inji puli in the neighbhouring district of Palakkad. In Travancore sadhya it’s called inji curry and has a flavouring that enhances the pungency of the ginger as opposed to the northern inji puli where the tamarind’s sour tartness is allowed to rise to the surface.
What is called koottucurry in central Kerala and features a mouthwatering blend of yam, ash gourd, chana dal cooked in grated coconut and jaggery has an entirely different identity in the Travancore sadhya.
“It’s called the vada koottucurry here and we add miniature medu vadas into it,” Priya says. “It’s spicier and uses garam masala as well as whole brown chickpeas.”
Up in the Malabar realms, the dish adopts the moniker masala kottucurry and a spicy flavour profile along with completely different ingredients – potatoes or cauliflower, tells Ganesh. It’s a far cry from its sweeter southern counterpart.
Deliciously different, deliciously debatable
Unique dishes of regional sadhyas that give them distinct identities are aplenty. More interesting though are recipes that alter their character and tenor as they flow through the 14 different districts of Kerala. Much like the Malayalam language. “There’s an adage in Malayalam which loosely translated means ‘six malayalis have 100 malayalams.’ What it means is that as you work your way through Kerala you realise that the language’s dialect and slang changes and varies every few kilometres. I think it applies to our taste in food as a people too,” says Raj.
Two popular staples of the sadhya that rear their heads in various places in alternative preparations are the sambar (toor dal cooked with vegetables in tamarind broth) and avial.
The great sambar divide is much more binary and splits the state into the southern Travancore region that eschews roasted coconut and the northern Malabar region that adds it with gusto.
The Travancore sambar is watery in consistency, whereas the Malabar sambar attains a grainy thickness from the coconut roasted with the standard chilli and coriander powder masala and ground to a paste.
In both the north and south, the vegetables traditionally added to sambar are eggplants, banana, okras, tomatoes and drumsticks and taro.
The only vegetable unique to the Travancore sambar are the banana peppers, says Priya.
“I’ve had Malappuram residents attend a Travancore sadhya and ask the cooks ‘is this what you call a sambar, friend?” laughs Raj while emphasising how both variations are delicious in their own way.
While Malayalis love to tussle over whose sambar is better, Maharashtra takes the cake to having actually created the dish. The lentil-based curry is said to have originated in the kitchens of Maratha (Indian kingdom - 1674–1818) ruler Shivaji’s son Sambhaji, who accidentally added tamarind to his dal curry in the absence of his chef.
Similar claims of authenticity plague the avial, too, and nothing troubles a Malayali’s meal than telling him or her avial is from Udupi, Karnataka.
The aromatic mixed-vegetable dish cooked in coconut, cumin and green chillies ground in yoghurt and tempered with curry leaves and coconut oil is a delicacy that appears in various guises. It sidesteps yoghurt and uses tomatoes in Kollam to attain a tanginess; in Travancore cooking it uses tamarind pulp and the vegetables are cooked to a mushier consistency, explains Raj.
While in Valluvanad, yoghurt lends the dish its sourness. In places like Palakkad, avial retains the yoghurt’s white colour as turmeric, that is favoured by other districts to colour the dish, is ignored. Ernakulam and Trivandrum also like adding a few raw mango slices to give the dish a tangy edge. Raw plantain, snake gourd, winter melon, carrots and drumsticks all cut equally into finger-length pieces are the standard vegetables that are the avial’s highlight. Depending on where in Kerala your avial is from, eggplants, French beans and even potatoes and bitter gourd might make an appearance.
And depending on where you’re from, it’s either a delight or violation of a much-loved recipe.
Rice too, points out Ganesh, has preferred variants in each region. In South Kerala they prefer the matta rice (red rice), in Central Kerala it’s cherumani rice (small grained) and in North Kerala its ponni (white parboiled) rice.
It’s the star of the sadhya, the one dish that rules them all. It also varies from location to location.
In Trivandrum the boli is king. A sweet tortilla-like dessert made of chana dal kneaded with white flour flavoured with cardamom and a sprinkling of nutmeg and a whole lot of white sugar, it is the stuff every sadhya-eater eagerly looks forward to sopping up hot paal payasam with off the banana leaf at the end of the meal.
“Boli is meant to be eaten with paal payasam (milk-based rice or vermicelli pudding) and it’s a close cousin of the Maharashtrian puran poli, which in turn has its origins in the Karnataka sweet called holige,” points out Priya.
A quick rootle into historical archives shows that the Maratha rule in parts of Tamil Nadu between 17th and 19th centuries lent some Maratha diwans (government officials) to the neighbhouring Travancore kingdom, mapping how boli found its way into Trivandrum’s hearts, imaginations and appetites.
Boli is shockingly though a non-entity in the rest of Kerala.
In Valluvanadan sadhya it is the paal ada pradhaman (milk-based dessert with flakes of rice) that holds pride of place. “People judge how satisfying a sadhya was based on the perfection of the paal ada pradhaman,” explains Raj. The whole sadhya could have been a dud but the paal ada pradhaman could tip the scales in favour – “it’s the hot commodity that occupies diners’ memories and tastebuds,” says Raj. “Even caterers spend a lot of time and effort on mastering it.”
In fact, the sweet dish made of rice flakes cooked in fresh milk, ghee and sugar skyrocketed to its current heights of popularity only in the last 60 years because of Mr. Manickan Ambi alias Ambiswami, the founder of Ambiswami catering.
The stalwart cook mastered the art of thickening the milk by incessantly stirring it over a slow flame in a traditional brass vessel (ottuurali) until most of the milk’s water content evaporates and the milk solids attain a pinkish hue.
“The perfect paal ada pradhaman is supposed to attain the tone of a lotus flower,” explains Raj.
“Historically, pazha pradhaman (ripe plantains cooked in jaggery and coconut milk) was the definitive payasam. When Kerala started running low on good-quality bananas, caterers turned ingenious and focused on the cow’s milk-based versions of pradhaman,” the TV show host adds, sharing a nugget of information Ambiswami shared with him in an interview.
In the Malabar sadhya, dessert goes above and beyond payasam and includes halwa – the jelly-textured delicacy of Kozhikode, and coin jalebis, mentions Ganesh of Ambiswami.
The prominence of jalebis (zulabiya in Arabic) reflect North Kerala’s Arabic ties through trade and the region’s Mappila cuisine – food unique to the Mappila (Muslim) community of North Kerala.
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