“Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam”—this popular Malayalam idiom highlights the importance of the Sadhya to Onam and to Malayalis. The parlance loosely means that one must have the Onam Sadhya lunch even at the cost of selling property or jewellery. We caught up with Chef Manoj Nair, General Manager at Kochi-based hotel Brunton Boatyard to quiz him more about this elaborate feast from God’s Own Country.
1. A Sadhya is a must for Onam and weddings. Some families host a Sadhya for birthdays and other celebrations as well. Certain temples organise special Sadhyas during significant festivals and auspicious days, while there are others that serve Sadhyas daily as a community service.
2. On an average, there are about 23 to 28 items on a Sadhya. The number of dishes on the banana leaf reflects wealth and prosperity of a household. At a Malayalam wedding, most families don’t spare any costs and there could be more than 30 items. The Payasam in particular—because it is one of the most expensive items on the Sadhya due to the use of lavish ingredients—is fussed over. The variety of Payasams served in the Sadhya is directly proportional to one’s social status. Payasams can be made of several ingredients, such as rice, vermicelli, rice pasta, lentils and fruits. Coconut milk is mostly used, and sugar or jaggery are the sweeteners.
3. The science behind the plating and order of eating a Sadhya rests on Ayurveda. A Sadhya is always eaten by hand. Twelve to 13 items which are mostly dry or semi-dry are served on the top half of the banana leaf, and all these dishes have varied textures and flavours. The bottom half of the leaf is reserved for rice and lentils/sambar/curry. As you progress through your meal, you can pick and choose the side dishes from the top according to your palate.
4. Once you are seated, the rice is served with lentils and ghee. This is mild, non-spicy and a mellow start for the feast to follow. Then comes the spicy Sambar that takes up most of your rice. Unlike other cuisines, the dessert, which is most commonly the Payasam, is eaten in the middle of the meal to cleanse your palate. Sip on peppery Rasam next to replace the sweetness, and then you go back to more rice; all to be washed down with a digestive buttermilk.
5. A Sadhya is always served on a banana leaf. The broader side of the leaf rests on the right. If you are satisfied with your meal, you should fold the leaf away from you. Salt is the first item to be served on the banana leaf because if you feel any of the curries are under-seasoned to your liking, you can add salt to taste.
6. On an auspicious occasion, before you and your guests sit down to feast on the Sadhya, a banana leaf filled with all the items is first offered to the Gods. This is also why you will never find any non-vegetarian delicacy in a Sadhya.
7. Wheat-based dishes find no place in a traditional Sadhya. Kerala is a rice and coconut bearing state. Most dishes on the Sadhya contain coconut (as a paste or grated or milk/oil) and the primary fodder is rice. Items like the now famous Malabari Paratha or the broken wheat payasam are new additions to the Malayalam cuisine and aren’t part of a Sadhya.
8. The pickles served are made of seasonal produce, such as mango, lime, gooseberry and ginger. They don’t contain vinegar, instead spices and oil act as preservatives.
9. The signature spices that are found in most of the dishes are pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, bay leaf, mustard seeds and curry leaves—all locally produced and sourced.
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