It is the kitchen and the front yard of our homes that make main venues of the elaborate Onam festivities. While the kids have great fun making beautiful 'pookkalam' (colourful flower carpet) in the front yards using myriad flowers or playing on the swing, the elders would be busy in the kitchen cooking the delicious dishes to serve Onam sadya.
However, the kitchens that are filled with laughter and love and aroma wafting from the tasty curries have now become something of the past for the new generation, who prefer enjoying instant Onam sadya at their favourite restaurants.
In the olden days, the kitchens in the Kerala households would get ready to usher in the Onam frenzy as soon as the Malayalam month of Karkidakam ends. The first step would be to dry the firewood that have become wet and cold in the heavy Karkidakam rains. The firewood stove was the superstar in the kitchen in those days when there weren't any gas stoves.
Preparing the various masala powders for the Onam dishes comes next. The turmeric, chilli and coriander powders were freshly made by drying the ingredients under the sun and grinding it at home itself. Packed coconut oil wasn't sold in the mills or shops in the those days. Fresh coconut oil was prepared by boiling the coconut milk and extracting the clear, unadulterated oil. As coconut oil is required in huge quantities to prepare all the dishes for Onam, it would be made and stored in the households as soon as the Malayalam month of Chingam begins.
It is usually from the day of Atham that the kitchens became active and buzzing with relatives and families who gathered to celebrate Onam. They began by cleaning each and every corner of the kitchen and making it ready for the days to come. The banana chips, sharkkara varatty and cheeda would be made on the Atham day itself.
Soaked rice was powdered on ural (traditional stone grinder) to prepare neyyappam and cheeda. Usually, the neighbours would gather to help prepare the rice flour as it was a pretty difficult job.
Spicy and flavoursome pickles were prepared next. The mangoes that had been brining from the month of Mithunam would be ready by Chingam, to be made into delicious pickles. The vadukapuli naranga (wild lemon) pickle was an unavoidable item for the Onam feast.
Preparing the 'poovada' (a traditional snack with grated coconut filling) to be offered for Maveli was a special celebration in the kitchens. Rice flour and grated coconut are the main ingredients of this dish. Sugar and salt aren't usually added in the poovada as it is believed that Maveli doesn't like such flavours.
The kitchen becomes the liveliest spot in the household on the day of Thiru Onam. The men and women in the family, after the ceremony which receives Maveli into their homes, would get busy in the kitchen, preparing vegetables for sadya dishes.
The breakfast on the Thiru Onam day would be boiled banana with crispy papadam. It must be noted that breakfast dishes like idly and dosa were luxury items during those days, and they were seldom cooked in Keralite homes. The fresh bananas grown in the family's backyard would be boiled for breakfast. Papadams, meanwhile, enjoyed a special status for being a crispy dish that is served only during the Vishu or Onam in a year.
By 11 am the elaborate and extravagant sadya or feast would be served on plantain leaves. During those days, vegetables were hardly purchased from shops to prepare the dishes. Most of the vegetables were organically grown in backyards and fields. Plantains and snake beans, yam stem and green gram stir fry, kaalan, bottle gourd olan, cucumber kichadi, pumpkin eriserry and sambar were some of the special dishes that were served on a sadya platter.
It is the delicious payasam (dessert) that completes a perfect sadya. In most houses, unakkalari or brown rice payasam was made, with jaggery and coconut added for taste. Sugar, meanwhile, was used rarely in the dishes during those days.