“Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam”—this popular Malayalam idiom highlights the importance of the Kerala Sadhya to the festival of Onam and to Malayalis. The parlance loosely means that one must have the Onam Sadhya even at the cost of selling property or jewellery. We caught up with Chef Manoj Nair, General Manager at Kochi-based hotel Brunton Boatyard to quiz him on this elaborate feast, Kerala Sadhya, from God’s Own Country.
1. A Kerala Sadhya is a must for Onam festival and wedding celebrations. Some families host a Kerala Sadhya for birthdays and other celebrations as well. Certain temples organise special Kerala Sadhya during significant festivals and auspicious days, while there are others that serve Kerala Sadhya daily as a community service.
2. On an average, there are about 23 to 28 items on a typical Kerala Sadhya. The number of dishes on the banana leaf is said to reflect the wealth and prosperity of a household. At a Malayalam wedding, most families don’t spare any costs and there could be more than 30 items in the Kerala Sadhya. The Payasam in particular—because it is one of the most expensive items on the Kerala Sadhya due to the use of lavish ingredients—is fussed over. The variety of Payasams served in the Kerala Sadhya is directly proportional to one’s social status. Payasams can be made of several ingredients, such as rice, vermicelli, rice pasta, lentils and fruits. Coconut milk is mostly used, and sugar or jaggery are the sweeteners.
3. The science behind the plating and order of eating a Kerala Sadhya rests on Ayurveda. A Kerala Sadhya is always eaten by hand. Twelve to 13 items which are mostly dry or semi-dry are served on the top half of the banana leaf, and all the dishes in the Kerala Sadhya have varied textures and flavours. The bottom half of the leaf is reserved for rice and lentils/sambar/curry. As you progress through the Kerala Sadhya, you can pick and choose the side dishes from the top according to your palate.
4. Once you are seated, the rice is served with lentils and ghee. This is mild, non-spicy and a mellow start for the Kerala Sadhya to follow. Then comes the spicy Sambar that takes up most of your rice. Unlike other cuisines, the dessert in Kerala Sadhya, which is most commonly the Payasam, is eaten in the middle of the meal to cleanse your palate. Sip on peppery Rasam next to replace the sweetness, and then you go back to more rice; all to be washed down with a digestive buttermilk. This makes for a complete Kerala Sadhya dining ritual.
5. A Kerala Sadhya is always served on a banana leaf. The broader side of the leaf rests on the right. If you are satisfied with your Kerala Sadhya, you should fold the leaf away from you. Salt is the first item to be served on the banana leaf because if you feel any of the curries from the Kerala Sadhya are under-seasoned to your liking, you can add salt to taste.
6. On an auspicious occasion, before you and your guests sit down to feast on the Kerala Sadhya, a banana leaf filled with all the items is first offered to the Gods. This is also why you will never find any non-vegetarian delicacy in a Kerala Sadhya.
7. Wheat-based dishes find no place in a traditional Kerala Sadhya. Kerala is a rice and coconut bearing state. Most dishes on the Kerala Sadhya contain coconut (as a paste or grated or milk/oil) and the primary fodder in Kerala Sadhya is rice. Items like the now famous Malabari Paratha or the broken wheat payasam are new additions to the Malayalam cuisine and aren’t part of a traditional Kerala Sadhya.
8. The pickles served in a Kerala Sadhya are made of seasonal produce, such as mango, lime, gooseberry and ginger. They don’t contain vinegar, instead spices and oil act as preservatives.
9. The signature spices that are found in most of the Kerala Sadhya dishes are pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, bay leaf, mustard seeds and curry leaves—all locally produced and sourced.
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