An Onam stereotype is a big feast, a bigger burp and an undisturbed afternoon siesta. The thiruvOnam feast is the most important feature of Onam —at least these days— and a feast well eaten distinguishes a well-celebrated Onam from a low-key one.
The feast, however, is not something that only placates the senses. The sadya, especially the authentic Onasadya, is in fact, a carefully designed nutritional package that nourishes, but does not overwhelm the system. A careful analysis would show that traditional curries that accompanied the sadya were selected in such a manner that they could regulate acidity in the system and ensure balanced nutrition. Even the order of the course of the meal ensured digestion and quick absorption of nutrients, leaving people feeling light after a sadya.
The leaf plate
The sadya is served on a plantain leaf that is freshly procured. When hot rice is served along with the curries, chlorophyll enters the body through the food. The subtle smell of the blanched leaf mixed with the delicate smell of various curries tickles the palate, which is an additional bonus!
When plantain is fried and served, it retains the proteins in the vegetable. Since oil is involved, only very little of it is served. Further, dry foods should be consumed only very less, as per our ancient wise.
A variety of the chips, sharkkaravaratti combines jaggery, dried ginger and chips. It stimulates acids in the stomach and also enhances circulation. The sweet increases metabolism which is required to ensure that the heavy sadya is properly digested. The fiber in jaggery is also very beneficial.
These two are starters; something to munch while the sadya gets going. There is also a saying that they prevented people from chatting while sitting in front of the leaf.
Pappadam is another source of protein and contributes to the taste of curries along which it is eaten. It is eaten with parippu, sambar or rasam.
Ginger soothes the digestive system. Considered to be the equivalent of a hundred curries, it has abundant fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C and also serves to balance acidity in the stomach.
Banana serves to neutralise acids in the food and also aids digestion. Depending on the variety, it can also calm gas in the stomach.
The main serving, rice, is full of carbohydrates, vitamins, fibre and vitamin B complex.
Parippu and Ghee
The sadya starts with parippu and ghee, a balanced diet of protein and fat. The curkumin from turmeric that is added to parippu eliminates free radicals. Fat is required to process other nutrients such as antioxidants and vitamins. Ghee takes up that role and ensures that the nutrients that go inside the body are digested properly, from start to finish.
Parippu and ghee is eaten first because it needs more time to digest in the body.
Pachadi, which these days have transformed more into a dessert, is essentially a source of vitamins because it does not involve much cooking. Eaten together with parippu, pachadi aides digestion thanks to the yogurt in it. The sweet and sour tastes in it make the bland parippu much tastier. Depending on what kinds of fruits are used to make pachadi, its vitamin content also changes. Mustard, a main ingredient, has omega-3 fatty acids in it, which is good for metabolism.
A mix of vegetables and eclectic tastes, sambar offers the perfect setting to gorge on rice, especially after having the first course with the rather bland parippu and ghee. A huge source of vitamins, Sambar has ingredients that burn away fat, controls gas and set the taste buds calling out for more treats!
Aviyal, which is eaten in combination with sambar, complements the latter with vitamins and nutrients. Since almost no vegetable is excluded from aviyal, it is a veritable source of nutrients that are good for the body. Since coconut oil is added raw to aviyal, important nutrients that are not destroyed by heat are provided as such to the body.
The thoran, made of cabbage/beans/leaves etc provides essential fibers and vitamins.
In short, sambar, aviyal and thoran ensure that vitamins and fibers are packed into the body in adequate quantities. The ghee that went before these vegetables would ensure that all the vitamins are incorporated into the body.
Kichadi, Koottukari and pickle
These three are eaten in between all courses and they enhance taste. Kichadi made of cucumber offers hydration during the course of the meal. It also contains vitamins A and C. kootukari, which is a bit spicy, sweet, and tangy, enhances taste, adds fuel for metabolism and the chickpeas used in it pumps proteins in between the major courses. Pickle spices things up and since it is a preserve, it keeps nutrients intact in it.
Payasam, the dessert, increases metabolism, induces sleep and also provides a sugar spike for the body. Depending on the paysam’s ingredients, you would have various kinds of nutrition from the sadya. For example, lentil payasam adds proteins. The milk used in palada, a payasam, adds proteins and essential vitamins to the diet. In some payasams, coconut milk is used which enhances fat metabolism.
Rasam, Pulissery and buttermilk
These three have a role in stabilizing acidity in the body. Pulissery is often had in the third course and adds the all important sour taste to the whole course. The sourness combats heat generated in the body due to increased metabolism, while neutralizing sugar and oily foods consumed earlier. Buttermilk, which is had after having payasam, reduces the 'kick' provided by the high-sugar payasam and also cleanses the system. It also reduces heat in the body. Rasam, a herbal concoction, brings acidity and flatulence under control. Consider these three as the 'peacemakers' in the body when you gorge on the sadya. So there, it is a happy Onam after all, if you play by the rules!