Decoding the flavours of Onam Sadya

From Poppadum to Payasam, what’s the logic to the meal?

Sayoni Bhaduri

The beauty of a well-presented Onam sadya is the bright green banana leaf contrasted with colourful bits and bobs of a variety of mouth-watering dishes that celebrate the colourful and cheerful spirit of the festival. A trademark visual for Onam that highlights the eating experience also captures the vibrant beauty of God’s own country. From banana chips to payasam, the array of dishes served in an Onam sadya is an epicurean delight for those, who relish the diverse flavours of Kerala cuisine. However, this spread can often be mindboggling. “I’ve seen a lavish and elaborate sadya go up to more than 50,” says Thomas Fenn of Delhi-based restaurant Mahabelly. 

Is there an exact number of dishes that need to be served in an Onam sadya? “There is no real logic or any hard and fast rule regarding the number of dishes served for Onam sadya,” answers Sandeep Sreedharan of Mumbai-based Curry Tales. Onam sadya is one of the ways the people of Kerala celebrate King Mahabali’s annual homecoming. A simple and small sadya with a total of 10 dishes is often the norm at many Malayali homes. 

Dishes served on an Onam sadya may vary, but they all pay homage to nature and her ability to satiate our needs. What better way to celebrate the bounty of nature than to showcase them in some of the most popular dishes at a harvest festival? As a result, the ingredients and cooking style are largely based on which part of Kerala you are in. 

Some of the vegetables that are intrinsic as part of the Onam Sadya include a vast range of tubers, pumpkin, plantains, amongst others. “The flavour profile of an Onam Sadya spread covers all primary tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and, sweet and sour. The sadya is also great ensemble of textures in food,” explains Sreedharan. 

There are however a few primary dishes without which an Onam sadya is deemed incomplete. For instance, a sadya meal will never be complete without sambar (no self-respecting south Indian meal ever is!). While Sambar forms the primary lentil dish, a separate Bengal gram and beans dish (Kootukari) is also a must-have. Yogurt plays an important role in the ensemble, whether on its own with tempering or as a core ingredient in other dishes such as the pachadi. Other key roles go to rasam, tomato-rich or pepper-heavy is up to your predilection, chaas/buttermilk known as morru in Malayali, poppadum, banana chips, and payasam. Here’s how to make a quick Onam Sadya at Home.

Sreedharan describes a sweet start to the Onam Sadya where small Mysore bananas are mashed along with ghee and sugar and sprinkled with crushed papad on top before consuming. The most surprising bit of an Onam sadya is that while is it is predominantly a vegetarian affair, it is not limited to that. Fenn says that depending on which part of Kerala you belong to; non-vegetarian dishes may also be included in an Onam sadya. For instance, northern Kerala is known to be more partial to non-vegetarian dishes as compared to central and southern Kerala. “Often less than 5 per cent of Onam sadyas include non-vegetarian dishes,” adds Fenn.

There is no defined progression of an Onam sadya meal. “Hot items are served first, moving onto dishes served at room temperature,” adds Fenn. The sadya is designed to wake up your palate and your taste buds. There is no fixed combination, you can pick and choose your combination from the sadya.” The idea is to explore new flavours which will be very distinct and different than any other on the plate. So, if you haven’t yet had your share of the Onam delicacies, make one at home or head out to the nearest restaurant serving a sadya today and let the feast begin. 

Here are some more trivia about a Sadya that you must know.

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