Living in the UAE, it is strikingly obvious that Indian food cannot be lumped into one generic category as so many non-Indians do. In fact, each of the 29 states that make up the colourful nation has something unique to tantalise the taste buds with.
As the ten-day harvest festival of Onam is being celebrated by Keralites across the world, I previewed an authentic Onam sadya or feast for the first time. The sadya is considered the highlight of the festival and takes pride of place as extended families gather together in celebration.
Eat your heart out
The Kerala Kitchen Restaurant Group in Dubai prepares 3,000-4,000 meals during Thiruvonam, the final and most important day of Onam, which, this year, falls today. Ranjith Venketeswaran, General Manager, Kerala Kitchen Restaurant Group, guided me through the meal.
Initially, this feast of 24-26 different dishes seems an enormous proportion of food to consume in one sitting, and I start to wonder if the famous Malayali proverb, kaanam vittum onam unnanam — meaning ‘one must have the Onam lunch even when one is forced to sell his property’ — is true.
But you can eat as much or as little as you like of the vegetarian dishes. The first surprise is that they are served on banana or plantain leaves, and you eat using only your right hand. “Would it be offensive if some ignorant diner used the wrong hand?” I asked.
“Not at all. You can even eat with a knife and fork, or spoon if you wish,” said Venketeswaran. But there’s no need, for once you master cupping the fingers to form a ladle and lever the food into your mouth using your thumb, it’s easy as pie.
Each dish is served on a specific place on the leaf in a certain order. The narrower tip of the leaf points to the diner’s left. Here, banana chips fried in coconut oil are placed alongside a very salty dried chilli, a small banana in its skin and papaddams made from besan or chickpea flour.
After this, sour gooseberry and lemon pickles are dotted at the top of the leaf, starting from the left and continuing to right, followed by avial cooked using drumsticks (moringa oleifera), green beans, potatoes, yam and brinjals. Then on the far right comes thoran, a dry dish of cabbage or beans made with grated coconut. Inji curry — a sweet ginger and tamarind pickle — is also usually served, but it wasn’t available for me.
In its allotted place is madhura curry, the restaurant’s speciality, which consists of pineapple, banana and mango pieces in a spicy yellow gravy. It’s made using chillies, sugar and turmeric and is my favourite — it’s creamy, sweet and spicy, but the spices enhance the flavours rather than take over its personality.
In the middle of the leaf sits unpolished red rice (great on the roughage front), which can be divided into individual piles to stop the paruppu (tempered yellow lentils), sambar (a mix of lentils, brinjals, drumsticks, other vegetables and spices), rasam (a thin, spicy tomato soup), pulissery (yoghurt-based curry with ash gourd), ghee and moru (spiced buttermilk) from spilling off the leaf into my lap.
Binu Ma-thew, Head Chef, Kerala Kitchen Restaurant, who is from Kochi, says many recipes use similar basic ingredients but the flavours are changed by using special core vegetables, such as with kichadi (beetroot) and pachadi (betel nut and mango). However, there are many more variations of the latter.
Many ingredients such as the ash gourd and bitter gourd are loaded with nutrients. Thoran consists of the bitter gourd and while it has many health benefits, particularly for diabetics, I’ll definitely be steering clear of this spiky vegetable. It did strange things to my tongue.
But the sweet semiya payasam (semolina cooked in milk and thickened with sugar) rectified the sensation. Ada pradhaman, a jaggery-based dessert of rice flakes, milk and sugar, is also served at the end of the meal (see page 6 for the recipe).
It’s fascinating that Onam, which welcomes the spirit of the mythical king Mahabali, who is said to visit Kerala during the festival, is celebrated today in much the same way ancient Keralites did centuries ago.
Kerala Kitchen Restaurant’s outlets in Karama are offering a special Onam sadya today and on Fridays and Saturdays all month. It costs Dh38 per person. Call 800 557 or 04 337 6406.