When a magnificent meal continues to be painstakingly prepared by many to serve many others, accompanied by the trappings of symbolism and sumptuousness, it is both, a nod to tradition and an ode to timelessness.
Dished up on a plain banana leaf but dressed up by a plethora of fine fare, this contradictory meal is also a great equaliser as it refuses to concede to any religious convictions or social creeds. Everyone is welcome to eat, and it is emphatically inexpensive.
What may look like vegetable power is truly a powerhouse of customs and camaraderie, as it unites people over food and festival.
With origins long forgotten but originality still at play, and steadily multiplying numbers of fans, fanatics, purists and perfectionists around the world, the Onasadya can easily stake claim as Kerala’s best gift to the world.
Here is looking at some of its rules, rationales and arrangements.
While Kerala’s sadya or ceremonial vegetarian feast on a leaf is served to celebrate many occasions, the Onam edition differs in that it is largely prepared at home. Convenience stipulates that items such as jaggery-coated, deep-fried banana chips be store-bought, but every true-blue Malayali family aims to cook the entire meal at home, and every family member to serve it.
Entirely vegetarian, with rice as its hero, the Onasadya celebrates Kerala’s monsoon harvest with an abundance of fresh produce that is steamed, simmered, stewed or sautéed, predominantly with the milk, cream, and flesh of coconut. An unwritten rule demands that a minimum of four accompanying curries be placed on the leaf, while the maximum is decided by households and restaurants. Contemporary caterers in Kerala are known to serve up to 51 items at this feast on a leaf.
The banana leaf has a place and a position for every dish, although this may vary between communities and cultures. Although the order of serving may also differ, the leaf is typically divided into four sections. The top half will feature enhancers and appetisers in the left corner, and accompanying curries (dry) placed from right to left. The centre of the bottom half is reserved for eating the rice and pouring curries, while bananas and desserts occupy the bottom left.
Traditionally served on a straw mat laid on the floor – but more so atop tables and benches – the Onasadya is dished out in panthi, lines or circles of seated guests, with hosts seating themselves only at the last panthi, after serving everyone else.
The banana leaf is placed with its uncut end to the left of the guest. Food is eaten with the right hand, without the use of cutlery, and cupped fingers often double up as ladles or bowls.
The main component of the meal, rice, is only served after guests are seated, and at best, there are only two spoons with each separate course for pouring. The pouring dishes are typically sequential: lentil with ghee first, followed by sambhar, pulissery and/or kalan, and ended with digestives such as rasam and seasoned buttermilk. The desert, one or more payasam can be eaten with rice, banana, pappadum or all three.
Guests are expected to fold their leaves neatly when the meal ends.
Given the amount of peeling, chopping, dicing and grating involved, preparations begin a few earlier, although purists say all dishes must be readied between dawn and 10am on the day of the meal.
Typically, neighbours, friends and family members pitch in for the making and serving of the meal, involving great amounts of interaction and coordination. It is not amiss to have a vastly diverse and motley groups of guests at every sadya. This is particularly true in the UAE, where the Onasadya can bring together Arabs and Africans on the floors of homes and attract Filipino fans to Kerala restaurants in the country.
Rajnish Narayanan who heads digital marketing at Brand Energy Digital, with offices in Toronto and Dubai, fondly recalls many editions of the Onam festival his family has celebrated here. “Dubai is the best second home anyone from Kerala can ever wish for. With such a large Malayali community and everything easily available, Onam does not lose even a bit of its grandeur on these foreign shores.
He also says he is unashamedly nostalgic about the feast. “We have had many versions, and multiple guests over the years. The delight of getting together with friends and family every year to enjoy Onasadya is truly one of the most memorable parts of our long stay in Dubai.”
A treat for new-age vegans, vegetarians and the gluten-intolerant, hearty meat-eaters surprisingly have no misgivings when it comes to sitting down for a feast that does not feature anything from their everyday diets.
“The tribute to the harvest and the toast of Onam does not take away anything because it is so rich, so diverse, and so fulfilling a meal,” says Roshan Nair, resident of Sharjah and freelance nutritionist and fitness consultant.
“No one will want a morsel for hours after this meal, that is how satisfying it is. But most people don’t realise how much nutrition each dish provides.” Take Avial for instance, he explains, the vegetables cooked with fresh grated coconut are simply loaded with nutrients and antioxidants.
He also cites the example of another Onasadya classic, the guilt-free Kootu Curry. “Chickpeas are a rich source of protein and have a very low glycemic index. This dish is perfect for those who have diabetes, insulin resistance or are trying to watch their weight.”
The importance of the sadya to Onam is captured in the famous Malayalam adage, Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam, which roughly translates to: one must eat the Onam sadya even at the cost of selling one’s property.
Sisters-in-law Rona Manikath and Bindu Roby have been jointly planning and making the family Onasadya for several years now, and they say the charm never seems to wears off. “When I was growing up, my grandmother adhered to the rigid and rigorous Travancore Onasadya rules,” says Bindu. “She would perhaps be heartbroken at seeing some of our current-day customs, but I think this is an ever-evolving tradition. My children will be doing something very different 15 years from now, but it is all in the name of Onasadya.”
Rona adds another dimension of fulfilment when she says, “It is hard for many people to imagine royal and vegetarian, or leaf and feast in the same breath – until they have eaten one of these meals. After that they simply get converted.
“Vegetarian here does not imply sparse – there are numerous dishes and everything is refilled to request. You can eat as much as you want,” she says, urging everyone to try it.
The Onasadya is the kind of feast that can make you waddle out, seemingly inebriated on vegetable curry. But here is a surprising fact: many communities from the northern parts of Kerala include one or more non-vegetarian dishes on their leaves.
Other curry classicists will turn up their noses in disdain at the very thought of including vegetables that are not indigenous, seasonal or traditional. Yet, novel introductions and novelty items don’t just abound but continue to grow in leap and bound, in a brigade led by litchi pachadi, tofu avial, apple rasam, pineapple payasam, grape olan, and other whatnots.
“Onasdaya is the taste of everything - sweet, sour, salty, tangy, bitter, burnt, pickled and preserved,” says Roshan Nair. “It is also all the good health you can get in a single serving.”