Onam, which is Kerala’s biggest harvest festival, is celebrated by Malayalis worldwide to welcome King Mahabali. Family members, from the youngest to the oldest, wear new clothes to mark this festive occasion. Men wear new shirts with the traditional white ‘mundu’ and women wear the traditional two-piece attire of Kerala ”set and mundu” or the one piece Kerala saree with a gold border.
The traditional Kerala feast, known as the “Onasadhya” is the most anticipated moment on this day as all family members are seated together for this annual festive feast.
Decades ago, the entire feast would be prepared by the women of the house but nowadays, there are five star hotels that lay out elaborate Ona sadhya and there are several caterers and home delivery options by local eateries too.
The traditional Onasadhya used to have 26 items, there are food bloggers who say that traditional Onasadhya used to have over 60 items. However, at present, this has been reduced to less than fifteen.
It begins with an elaborate plating that is a visual feast in itself. Sweet, spicy, tangy – you name it – every flavor and texture is present in the onasadhya, including a small banana at the end to wrap up the sadhya, just before one moves on to taste the special milk dessert of Kerala – payasam, which is cooked in different ways from region to region and community to community.
In some parts of Kerala, the Onasadhya is not complete without fish fry and other non-vegetarian items. Several hotels across the state also offer special non-veg special ”Fish Curry” thalis as part of the Onasadhya.
This thali serves sea food items as part of the Onam Fish Thali and has items such as Prawn Theeyal which is made with a base of ground coconut and spices, spicy fish curry and so on. These dishes are unique to the place where it is made and therefore, it tends to be called as “naadan” food.
Sparkling clean banana leaves are placed with their tapered ends facing the left. The placement of each curry follows a specific order and is followed while plating. On the banana leaf, a potpourri of different dishes with varying flavors are served in a specific order, with the mound of piping hot rice at the centre and a dollop of ghee-flavored “parippu” or dal occupying the right hand corner.
Generally, the first ball of rice is savoured with this dash of golden colored parippu, following this piping hot sambar is poured into the rice and then it is mixed with other ingredients.
The much anticipated dessert “payasam” is served at the end of the sadhya on the banana leaf itself. It is a tricky affair to savour this traditional milk dessert without messing up the leaf. Many people opt to taste the dessert in a glass instead. However, many die-hard foodies say this does not taste as delectable as it does when payasam is served on the banana leaf.
Cultural activities are also organized across the state such as the eye catching “Valamkali” or traditional boat race, which showcases beautifully decorated boats with oarsmen singing and competing at one go, as people cheer them along. The colorful “Puli kali” or the tiger dance is another activity associated with Onam.
Onam celebrations have undergone many changes but the showstopper is always the Onasadhya and how delicious every item tastes, particularly the payasam.