What happens when a Bong and a Mallu sit cross-legged on the floor to eat sadhya? They chat about the treats displayed on the banana leaf, and end up drawing comparisons between the two food cultures. Sounds familiar?
I had only heard stories of the traditional Kerala feast called sadhya during my stay in Pune and then Mumbai; experiencing it first hand was therefore much needed. So when my Kochi-based friend, Sumitra told me she'd be travelling to Mumbai to celebrate Onam with her mother and granny, I invited myself without any hesitation.
As per the plan, the Nair women hosted an elaborate Onam special lunch, all dressed in their traditional finery. It featured a whole lot of dishes - kalan, kootu curry, olan,avial, sambharand thoran - and a variety of sides such as two types of pickles (one made with fresh Kerala lemons and the other with tamarind and jaggery), papadums,ethakka upperior banana chips (salted and sweet), cut steamed banana and payasam. No chapatis, only rice! It goes without saying that everything was served one by one with care.
The best thing about food is that it makes way for not only conversations, but also revelations. For the uninitiated, sadhya is not restricted to Onam. It's a celebratory vegetarian meal and is served on special occasions, weddings and festivals alike. Something I cannot imagine given my Bengali roots, which heavily rely on non-vegetarian food to mark special days.
Traditionally eaten off a banana leaf sitting on the floor, the meal is a wonderful combination of sweet and tangy flavours, however preparations differ across the state. When it comes to adding tanginess to the dishes, north Kerala prefers to use curd, and south relies on raw mango and tamarind. Use of vegetables like plantains, yams, beans, carrots, red pumpkin and drumsticks is in abundance when it comes to a typical sadhya.
After being exposed to Udupi sambhar all my life, I was pleasantly surprised with the flavours of the one on my banana leaf. It tasted of fresh coconut and was way thicker than what we're used to eating in Mumbai. It was one of the best sambhars I have eaten so far.
No guesses for how we ended the meal - yes, payasam! Prepared with rice, milk and sugar, the paladapayasam was another thing that reminded me of payesh, a dish similarly common with celebrations back home in Bengal.
If you have missed eating an Onam sadhya this year, make sure you get hold of your Malayali friend or visit the many restaurants in Mumbai to get a taste of this festive meal next time. Happy Onam, folks!