Come Onam and visuals of vibrant floral pookalams (rangoli), women dressed in traditional kasavu sarees clapping their hands to the rhythms of traditional instruments rush to mind. But for most people today, both inside and outside Kerala, the lavish sadhya is what they instantly resonate with, when talking about the annual 10-day harvest festival that culminates with Thiruvonam on September 8. On this day, the return of King Mahabali to Kerala is celebrated with great splendour.
What happens in a sadhya?
Traditionally vegetarian, this sumptuous meal usually consists of around 26 courses, covering all sorts of flavors – sweet, sour, salty, spicy and umami (salty). “Some of the usual dishes are Kalan (curry of raw bananas made with yoghurt and ground coconut), Olan (compote of butternut squash, pumpkin, cucumber with long beans and dried kidney beans in coconut milk), the Avial (seasonal vegetables flavored with cumin in a stew made with coconut, shallots and turmeric), Inji curry (ginger with palm sugar and tamarind with asafoetida) and the very popular payasam. One fruit that has a ubiquitous presence in sadhya is the banana, in both raw and cooked form. A whole ripe banana is also served, a symbol of prosperity,” shares Printo Pauly, sous chef at St. Regis Mumbai, which hosts a delivery sadhya for foodies on September 8.
“Onam is held in honor of the return of the benevolent King Mahabali, so tradition rightly demands that you do not skimp on the wealth, scale and opulence of it,” notes Thomas Fenn, partner at Mahabelly, Delhi, which offers a delicious spread. to customers on September 7, 8 and 9. He adds: “Coconut in various forms (milk, grated and roasted) and curds are a common thread in most recipes. Herbs like ginger, mustard seeds and curry leaves are also absolutely essential.
All the ingredients used in the delicacies embody the spirit of Kerala’s harvest season and the diversity of the region’s rich and abundant produce. Seasonal vegetables such as butternut squash, cucumber, yams, pumpkins, etc. are an integral part of it. Ancient tradition holds that the feast means eating new grains and fresh produce, together as a community.
Serving a sadhya
Before digging into this amalgamation of flavors, one must know how a sadhya should be savored. “The whole feast is served on a banana leaf, which has antibacterial properties and a natural antioxidant called polyphenols. Traditionally, a person is supposed to sit cross-legged on the floor and the banana leaf is placed in front of them, the tip pointing left. Salt is the first item to be placed, followed by banana chips and sharkara varatti (caramelized banana chips with jaggery and cardamom), at the bottom left of the sheet. Various pickles, inji curry , pachadi (a form of raita), kichadi (a sour curd coolant), avial and thoran (stir-fried vegetables) would be served on the top half from left to right.After that, rice is placed in the middle, topped with ghee and parippu (boiled dal), followed by sambar, pulisery and kalan in the second round.The meal ends with payasam and buttermilk.After the meal is finished, the sheet should be folded and closed with the hands, meaning sati sfaction,” says Vetri Murugan, head chef at Zambar, Gurugram, who will be hosting customers for a delicious Onam sadhya from September 7-9.
While the dishes are served from left to right, the meal is traditionally eaten from right to left, seated facing east. “A balance of protein, carbohydrates, acids and fats is the only way to consume sadhya, and the bottom line is that it all starts with the banana leaf itself,” notes Rishikesh Rai, Executive Chef, Vivanta New Delhi Dwarka.
“The ceremonious way of serving and eating in stages is a big part of the indulgence,” says chef Arun Sundararaj, director of culinary operations at the Taj Mahal, New Delhi. He adds: “Sitting down for the meal is healthy for ingestion and digestion. Additionally, it is traditionally eaten without any cutlery, thereby engaging all five fingers in the mixing and eating process.
Sadhyas and their growing popularity
A practice once reserved for the homes of Keralites, Onasadhyas have now entered the realm of mainstream food, with its popularity spreading to the homes and restaurants of non-Malayalis. According to the chefs, one of the main reasons for this is the curiosity for different cuisines and the growing desire to embrace a myriad of cultures and customs. “I think sadhya is the gateway drug to Kerala cuisine in northern India,” Fenn quips, adding “It’s vegetarian, there’s a lot of color and table drama involved in its service, not to mention very elaborate with no less than 25 items on the sheet.This year and last, the number of home chefs and non-Malaysian restaurants offering sadhya during Onam has increased significantly, which is quite encouraging. forget that the pravasi Malayalis really spread the gospel of Onam.
Another key reason, according to the chefs, is the growing acceptance of vegetarianism and veganism, both of which can be catered for in a sadhya. Most dishes can easily be replicated with coconut milk and plant-based yogurt, without compromising on taste. “Most of the dishes (in a sadhya) are also gluten-free. With the rise in demand to experience local cuisines across the country, people are eager to experiment,” says Rohit Chadha, Executive Sous Chef at JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, which offers a special sadhya on September 8.
Author tweets @srinidhi_gk
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