There is the fun and frolic of designing of beautiful and elaborate floral patterns called Pookalam, snake boat races, and dances like PuliKali, Athachamayam and the traditional dance of Malayali women known as Kaikottikkali.
By Vivek George
Onam festival 2019: Today Kerala is all set to embrace its annual harvest festival Onam. The festival is a cultural homage to the mythical King Mahabali, the benevolent ruler of yore. Today, Onam is officially the cultural festival of the state and a national festival since 1961. In a country with festivals dime a dozen, Onam may be the only festival that is celebrated without praying to a specific deity. This festival is celebrated across all sections of Kerala’s society over music and good food.
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Traditionally, a harvest festival, Onam today is a time for homecoming for lakhs of Keralites. There is the fun and frolic of designing of beautiful and elaborate floral patterns called Pookalam, snake boat races, and dances like PuliKali, Athachamayam and the traditional dance of Malayali women known as Kaikottikkali.
The one thing that I enjoy the most, and which I am certain is the highlight for all Keralites, is the fantastic onam sadhya -the grand feast. To know how indispensible the sadya is to onam, I am invoking an old Malayalam proverb – ‘Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam.’
A rough translation of the proverb implies ‘make sure you have the Onam sadya even if it means you sell all of that you own.’ The local lore is that that that the scent of the food will attract King Mahabali’s attention to homes and he will visit and offer blessings to the family.
Onam sadhya: Ready-to-eat feast catering becomes big hit!
Unlike in the past, where entire families come together to cook and enjoy the Onam sadhya, today local eateries, hotels and restaurants organise ready-to-eat sadhyas. This season is also a busy time for neighbourhood caterers as most families conveniently choose to enjoy the occasion by outsourcing the Onam sadhya part.
Notably, the Onam season catering is flourishing in Kerala and outside the state, where large Malayali expatriate population is on the rise. For those travelling to the Gulf, a few airlines are even offering the Kerala Onam sadhya in their in-flight menu during the Onam time. Businesses and companies use this season to organise mega sadhyas as a thanksgiving for their key clients and staff. Kerala Tourism is also offering ethnic Kerala cuisines and as part of responsible tourism, most home-stays are also permitted to serve sadhyas to tourists.
Onam festival 2019: How to eat the Onam sadhya
Onam sadhya is traditionally served on a banana leaf and relished best without the use of plates or cutlery. Historically, it is believed that the onam sadya should have around 60 dishes included in the menu. Unfortunately, over the years, many of these dishes disappeared from most places with several recipes long forgotten. Nowadays, a traditional sadya has around 26 items. but even there are places in Kerala like Aranmula where you can still find the sadya with 64 items – a foodie’s dream.
What are the most commonly served Onam sadhya items?
The commonly served Onam sadhya items include:
- chips (banana, yam & sharkara peratty)
- pickles (mango,lime,puli inchy),
- curries (olan, avial, erissery, kalan,kichadi,pachady,veg stew, parippu,sambar & rasam)
- dry preparations (thoran & mezhukupuratty)
accompaniments include boiled rice, pappadams, banana and buttermilk.
In the final course of Kerala, Onam sadhya comes the traditional desserts, which include payasam, boli and paan. All these dishes are only consumed in small portions, so that all the unique flavours can be savoured.
Onam sadhya: Vegetarian or non-vegetarian?
An interesting tidbit pertaining to the Onam sadhya menu is that it varies according to geography and communities. What you eat in southern Kerala might not be similar to what you will find in the North.
Don’t mistake the Onam sadhya to be always vegetarian as you may find a chicken dish on your sadya leaf in Kozhikode or a fish curry & fry being served in Kollam as well as certain parts of Kannur.
Minor changes to the style and order of dishes being served are also common. In Travancore, for instance, you start off the meal with parippu (dal) while in all other places, sambar features first and parippu only appears as a side dish. The North Kerala-South Kerala cultural diversity exists in the preparation of vegetarian dishes for the Onam sadhya too. Let’s not forget that the style of eating an Onamsadhya also changed and today many folks don’t sit on the floor to have sadhya.
All Malayalees can be proud of commemorating this festival all these years cutting across caste, creed or religion. In 2018, floods played spoilsport in the celebrations but thankfully this year, things are not so bad.
Let the spirit of Onam give us strength to overcome adversities and keep our hopes high.
And enjoy your Onam sadhya!
(Vivek George is a well-known management professional and a keen observer of trade and commerce in Kerala. Views expressed here are personal)