The Ona-sadya is prepared and relished on the day of Thiruvonam, the most important day of Onam. This elaborate and grand feast is a nine course meal. The grandeur of the feast is symbolic of the prosperity that the subjects of the Kingdom enjoyed under the rule of the legendary King Mahabali. This sadya or feast is served on tender banana leaves and people sit on a mat laid on the floor and eat this meal using their hands. It is a purely vegetarian meal. Rice forms the base of the meal with side dishes consisting of various gravies, fried chips, pappads, pickles, chutneys and payasams. In ancient times there was said to be 64 dishes and these were served on three banana leaves layered one over the other. How one person can actually eat so much in one sitting is definitely food for thought.
Around 25 dishes are served in a standard sadya. Earlier, people would indulge in lavish Onam feasts, but of late, the number of dishes on the banana leaf, has come down. At informal, small sadyas, 13 essential dishes are served with two payasams are served for dessert, instead of four.
A sadya is usually served for lunch as it is a very heavy meal. Preparations begin the night before and the entire meal is prepared and ready by ten in the morning of the feast day. In the villages, it is a social occasion where neighbors pitch in to help with the chopping of vegetables and grating coconuts. They also volunteer to serve the food to the guests.
This scrumptious vegetarian spread consists of a spectrum of dishes that are meant to tickle your taste buds – salty, spicy, sour and sweet. Rice is the main dish. It is served with various preparations of vegetables collectively called ‘kootan’. Minimum three varieties of desserts called payasams are served at the end of the meal. Coconut forms the base of almost all dishes: it is used in various forms like coconut paste, grated coconut, coconut bits, coconut milk and coconut oil. Kerala is after all the ‘Land of Coconuts.’ Traditionally onion and garlic are not used in these food preparations.
There is a specific order for serving the dishes on a banana leaf. From left to right, the order is as follows: Banana chips, Banana sarkaravaratti, Mango Pickle, Lime Pickle, Injicurry, Olan, Kichadi, Thoran, Aviyal, Kootucurry, Pachadi and Kalan. The fresh ripe plantain is placed on the bottom left corner. This order of placement helps the serving waiters to identify and offer additional servings. All the curries are served first and then rice is added.
There is a method and order in eating the dishes too. You are supposed to begin with the chips, followed by the tangy sweet and injipuli chutney. This is said to open up the taste buds and prepare you for the feast. Then rice is eaten with parippu curry and ghee along with crispy pappadam. This helps in speeding up the digestion. Various other gravies for the rice, like sambar, pullissery, rasam, etc are served one by one. Rice and other kootans on the banana leaf are replenished as needed, by the serving staff. Thereafter, two kinds of payasams or pradhamans are served. Unlike in other cuisines, the sweet is eaten in the middle of the Sadhya meal and not in the end. Finally, the rice is served again with spiced buttermilk. The Sadhya is then finished off with a ripe plantain.
Tradition dictates that the meal should be followed by vettila murukkan. Betel leaf with lime and arecanut is believed to aid the digestion of the meal.
Classic Onam Dishes:
- Banana chips
- Banana sarkaravaratti
- Mango Pickle
- Lime Pickle
- Cabbage Thoran
- Beans Thoran
- Parippu curry
- Moru Kachiyathu
- Palada prathaman
- Parippu prathaman
- Pazha prathaman
- Gothambu prathaman
- Semiya payasam