As Onam draws closer, we long for the Onasadhya (Onam feast), the typical feast that is one of the hallmarks of onam.
All Malayalees might agree with me if I say that the chef who designed the Onasadhya was the greatest the world has ever seen. Else, how could have a person designed such a brilliant variety of food, laid artistically and scientifically on a leaf, that gives out the perfect combination of stimuli, which tingles all the senses giving unabated joy? Certainly he or she must have been God sent and the greatest of all cooks!
Take all the celebrations across the world; each has its own unique dishes and food culture. Onasadhya could easily be the most delicious and wholesome and is considered to be the most elaborate and grand meal served by any civilization or culture in the world.
Onasadhya is, in all ways, unique. Served on a plantain leaf, with up to 26 curries that uses almost all kinds of local vegetables and grain, the treat is not something that one will ever forget. The dishes are different from one another but create a symphony of tastes in us.
Sadhya in those days
In the olden times, the Onasadhya was served with mainly four curry dishes, known as Nalucurry. These are Pulissery, Erissery, Olan and Mezhukkupiratty (Nalucurry) with Inchithairu, Sarkkara Upperi, Kaya varuthathu, Achar, Pappadam and Payasam. All together there are 11 essential dishes. At times, it could go up to 26. Sometimes the Onasadhya had 64 items- served in three different banana leaves! It would not be an exaggeration to say that our great great grandpas had big tummies.
It is so beautiful to see the Onasadhya served on a tender banana leaf, which is laid with the pointed end to the left. There is even an order of serving the dishes one after the other. Though many of my generation go for serving sadhya (feast) in marriages and other functions, they do not know the exact order of serving the dishes. The order varies slightly in different regions in Kerala.
The King of all..
While I was researching details for the Onasadhya, a story was suggested by one of my friends. The story is about Kunchan Nambiar, a witty, literary figure well known in Kerala. Once he was having a royal feast along with very prestigious people and the king. After finishing the meal he said, "Oh, I'm full, I can't have anything more." Hearing this the king, who wanted to test Nambiar, ordered for palpayasam (milk kheer). Nambiar couldn't resist the King. So he had the Payasam too. Then the King asked, "Dear Nambiar, you said you were full and could not take more. How is it that you had so much of payasam?" Nambiar smiled and said, "Your Highness, imagine a huge crowd. When your arrival is announced, don’t they make way for you to pass?"
The royal feast ends with the Maharaja, the payasam, winding up the feast on a sweet note! Payasam has a lot of variants, but basically there are two types. One made of milk and the other made of jaggery. The popular payasams are Adapradhaman, Kadala payasam, Cheruparippu Payasam, Semiya, Palada, Chakkapradhaman (Jackfruit), Ari Payasam (Rice), Pazhapradhaman (Banana) and Parippu Pradhaman (Lentil).
In the southern region of Kerala, known as Thiruvithamkoor or Travancore, payasam is served before pulisseri and in the middle and northern regions, known as Madhya-Thiruvithamkoor and Malabar respectively, the dish is served only at the end of the meal.
One is said to have enjoyed the meal only when one finishes all the courses with liberal amounts of rice. Further, during Thiruvonam, one is not expected to deny any curry and should not also waste food.
New Gen Onasadhya
Time and lifestyle of generations have changed and the Onasadhya tradition has also undergone changes. The hectic and busy life styles of the urbanized civilization have dimmed the scope for great feasts and elaborate customs associated with Onam, The strictly vegetarian meal is now served with meat and fish too, especially in the Malabar side, where people are fond of meat and fish. Nowadays, rarely do people make the grand feast; instead they make do with the bare essentials.
More over, the new generation chooses to order Onasadhya from restaurants or caterers rather than preparing the meal at home. Most of our restaurants offer Onasadhya during the festive season.
Even though the customs associated with Onam are getting obliterated, a dedicated group of youngsters and elders are looking to revive the old culture. They are trying to bring back those golden memories of Onam and also sustain the taste of an enticing feast of memories and warm relations. Let us hope the feast of Onam will continue to sustain its magical pull on our minds in the coming years.