Onam has arrived. It’s the biggest festival in Kerala, a southern state in India. Thiru Onam (the big day) is on Saturday. The day when Keralites worldwide celebrate with full pomp and splendour. At the centre of all Onam festivities is the sadya (feast). Sadya on Onam day is Onasadya. A no-brainer, isn’t it?
How do you eat Onasadya? All Malayalis (Keralites) know it. They would have learned from their elders. I learned it from my father, who said there’s a science to it. Onasadya is not the same all over Kerala. There are minor variations. I come from the south of Kerala and is only familiar with the variety served there.
Well, I digress. How do you eat Onasadya? Not with a spoon, certainly. That’s sacrilege for a Malayali. The spread on the banana leaf has to be eaten by hand. Including all the payasams. Even rice drizzled with rasam or buttermilk. You have to swipe them off the leaf. That’s the way to do it.
The structure of a sadya
Before you start, you have to understand how the food is served. There’s a structure to it. And science to it. We will come to that soon.
The tip of the leaf has to be to the left of the diner. The leaf is divided into two areas by the rib of the leaf. First on the leaf are the chips: two varieties, one is fried, and the other dipped in jaggery). They are placed to the left but on the side closer to the diner. Next is the pappadam, placed over the chips. A banana is kept near it.
Now, it’s the turn of the pickles. First up is the mango pickles, which occupies the top left part of the leaf. To its right will be lemon pickle followed by ginger curry. Then there will be kichadi and pachadi: there can be more than one variety. These are sliced Kerala cucumbers, beetroots or even fried bitter gourds lolling in a sauce primarily made of yoghurt (some of them include grated coconuts, green chillies and mustard).
Then comes the thoran, which can be made of any vegetable, cabbage or beans are more often used. The sliced or grated veggies are stir-fried with a coconut-chilli mixture. My favourite curry is next: avial. It’s an assortment of thinly sliced vegetables boiled in a sauce made of grated coconut (of course), blended with cumin seeds, green chillies and garlic. And a liberal sprinkling of coconut oil. Olan and kalan are supporting actors in the spread.
A tip to avoid over-eating
Here’s how I eat Onasadya, or any sadya. Let me start by sharing a small tip. Do not take more than two servings of rice at a time. Because there will be several servings of curries that are to be mixed with the rice. And you shouldn’t mix the rice with two curries at a time (Say like sambar and dal). Rice will be served repeatedly. So don’t you worry, you won’t go hungry.
The chips are for time-pass, they say. You can munch on it while you wait for rice and the sauce-like curries to be served.
Pour parippu curry (Kerala moong dal curry) on some rice, crush the pappadams on it. Drizzle the ghee, and mix it with your hand. And eat. You can have avial and thoran along with it.
When you are done, move some rice to the middle of the leaf, or ask for some rice. Sambar will be served. Mix it and eat. This is when I attack the kichadi and pachadi and the rest of the thoran and avial.
Take a break after payasams
When you are finished with the sambar mix, wipe the leaf clean. That’s basically setting the stage for payasams. Yes, payasams. Because there can be more than one. Ada Pradhaman is the first. Ada is cooked rice flakes, and it swims in a syrup of jaggery and coconut milk. I squash the banana into the ada pradhaman and slurp.
Next in the payasam queue is pal payasam, a relative of kheer. In some places, it is served with boli, a cousin of holige or puran poli. Hot pal payasam is served on the boli. Mix the boli and payasam, and wolf it down.
Wipe the leaf with your hand. Lick the fingers, if nobody is watching. Even if someone sees it, don’t worry. It’s a sure sign that you are enjoying the meal.
Take a break. Have a sip or two of water before moving to the second session. The spicy start was followed by the sweet interlude. Now, it’s the time for sour stuff.
At this point, I usually get asked why you have the sweets in the middle of the meal. With most other cuisines and food cultures, desserts are served at the end of the meal. This means the sweets and fruits signal the last phase of the meal. But not in a Kerala sadya, where the sweets are in the middle, separating two sessions.
The explanation is that it helps in digestion. The rice mixed with sour currries consumed after the payasams act as a lid, preventing reflux. Yes, the meal is heavy. So it’s natural that you burp or have indigestion. So the sour stuff keeps the payasams locked inside. And the sweetness won’t give you a headache.
The trick from now on is to have less rice: only one spoonful of rice for every curry (Ignore this tip, if you have a huge appetite). Rasam leads the sour curry procession. Mix it with rice and have it with pickles. Here’s when I attack the kalan and olan as well. When pulissery (a yoghurt based sauce) arrives to be mixed with fresh rice, I have it exclusively with the pickles. The same formula is applied when moru (buttermilk) brings the curtains down on the sadya.
When you are finished, the leaf should be clean. There should be no morsel of food left on the leaf. That’s how I eat Onasadya. Try it, and you will love it.