Onam, Kerala's festival, food, family, cooking and the memory of its lost history and fame.

For me, Onam is many things: a festival of food, cooking, family meetings, the harvest season and a celebration in memory of Kerala's glorious past and history. 

Food, cooking and family.

Onam Sadya image
Onam Sadya Image Credit Getty Images.

Food is the primary thing in our life, bearing around all our satisfaction, exaltation, comfort and social acceptance.  Cooking food and feasting is the mother of all festivals.  All my Onam food memories centre around my mother.  I have never seen a cook better than her.  Our kitchen is full of food aromas when she gets busy cooking. 

She cooked a variety of items for Onam, which I had yet to count.  And she was my teacher not only in mathematics but in all cooking.  She trained me in the customary serving of the food.  Our customary social plate, fresh banana leaves, has become synonymous with Onam globally. 

Onam Sadya.  

Sadhya serves food items per the customary standard that varies from place to place within a small geography alone.  The dishes and the recipe change from community to community in a small area.  Towards the northern side of Kerala, meat dishes are customary; in the south, they are vegetarian; in the middle, they are primarily vegetarian. 

Vegetarian dishes in a typical Onam Sadhya.

The Sadhya is had-eaten.  We need some education to eat it correctly because the dishes are served following an order.  This order is purposed to balance the food essence to avoid possible indigestion and for body health.

The Sadya and the categorisation of the dishes.

A.  The main dishes.  

  • They are the rice and the stews.  

B.  The stews include:

  • B1.   Parippu, a dish made of boiled dhal or green gram, Sambar, Kalan.  
  • B 2.  Aviyal, Pulisseri, Olan, Erriserry, Kootucurry, Kichadi, and Pachadi.

C.  Chips: 

  • Plantain chips made in different shapes and sizes, 
  • Sarkarapuratti, plantain fried in large pieces and (laced with jaggery and a spice mixture of ginger, small jeera cinnamon), pappadam and ghee.

D.  Pickles:

  •  Mango, lime, and ginger. 

E.  Fruits:

  • A variety of bananas and lime.

F.  Payasam:

  • Rice, or semya(vermiselli)
  • Pradhaman, out of Ada, green gram, etc

G.  Post sweet items.

  • Watered curd (Sambharam) 
  • Rasam.

How is Sadya served?

  • Step 1.  Items from B2 to E are spread on the banana leaf before you sit by it.  
  • Step. 2.  Once seated, someone serves the rice and parippu sauce.  You mix some rice with pappadam and ghee and eat.  Then, sambar is served to be eaten with another portion of the rice.
  • Step. 3.  Halfway through the Sadya, item F is served, which is sweet. 
  • Step 4.  Last serving items in G.  They are to counter the sweet rasa of the payasam.

So, you can see how laborious the Sadya serving alone.  I have yet to mention something about sourcing each vegetable from the market and the cooking.  At the household level, the tasks rested with females-sourcing, cooking and serving.  There was a say there once celebrate Onam selling what is most valuable to you.

Changing scenarios

Things are slowly changing now.   Many households do it within their means with limited items on the plate.  Things are getting expensive day by day, and better exercise caution.  Some are getting delivered from the nearby food outlets. 

Traditional Sadya is becoming mainly an online display, TV, YouTube, blogger show, or organised initiative.

Onam coincides with the harvest festival.  

The Monsoon in Kerala commences at the start of June after the summer when the farming starts.  And by August and September, the first crop is ready, and the harvest and plenty begins.  Or Onam has become synonymous with plenty for the Malyayaless, materially and emotionally.  Live like Onam is a common phrase among them.

Celebrating Kerala's lost glory and fame.

Kerala has been known since the traditional world order and is famed as the producer of rare spices.  Businessmen from the far reaches of the Middle East and Europe have sailed to Kerala to buy spices in return for gold and money.  It was the organised efforts of the Kerala people who inhabited there long before the start of the commons era.  

Unfortunately, Kerala lost that glory and its history.  It reminds one of the saying: history is the 'victor's' story.  So, to me and like-minded many, Onam is to celebrate in memory their lost history and glory. 

Our Onam Sadya in the South.

Image of our Onam lunch 2023
Our Onam lunch 2023, Cape Town, RSA.

In Capetown, we cook dishes and celebrate Onam minimally at home on the assigned day.  And in groups, small or large, when the time suits.  Typical vegetables for cooking food for a traditional Sadya are generally scarce in southern Africa.  That doesn't dampen our cooking spirit; we are great improvisers. 

This post is a 4/10 part of Blog Chatter Half Marathon 2023.