Once upon a time, a great king called Mahabali ruled Kerala. He was righteous, generous and much admired by his people. Being threatened by his popularity, Gods sent Lord Vishnu in the form of Vamana who took advantage of the King’s generosity and exiled him from his own country. Lord Vishnu allowed him to visit his people once a year.
Onam is the festival celebrated by Malayalees every year when their beloved King Mahabali comes to visit them.
Malayalees world over celebrates Onam, irrespective of the religion or caste, with much gusto and pomp. The ten days of Onam are full of cultural activities such as games and sports, music and dance, decorations of houses and obviously new clothes and gifts. The most prominent of them all being the cuisine. Especially on the last tenth day of the festival, it culminates into a grand feast fit for the king, called Onasadya.
Otherwise, carnivorous Keralites denounce meat gladly to partake a spread of 26 vegetarian dishes of Onamsadya. The preparations begin well in advance, starting from a collection of best quality ingredients. It is a family get-together and time for sharing, caring and bonding over cooking and serving and obviously eating.
The main course is parboiled red rice of Kerala called Matta. The accompaniments are a variety of side dishes. There are lentils and vegetables- both dry and curried along with yummy tangy mango pickle and zesty lime pickle. Even the order and place of serving each item is fixed. There are no spoons or forks – it is eaten with a right hand in the typical Indian style.
Usually, the men and children sit on the floor in a row and women serve them first. Later the men serve the women and take care of the cleaning.
The order and place of serving are sacrosanct. First, a pinch of salt is put on the plantain leaf followed by fried papad, banana chips and Sarkara Upperi (sweet chips). Then the curries and vegetables are served along the edges of the leaf and rice is served in the middle.
The rice is first eaten with Parippu (Moong dal) and ghee. Then with a course of Sambhar (Toor dal made thick with a lot of vegetables) followed by Rasam (very thin, spicy Toor dal). Then the two heavenly desserts are served. One made with milk and another with coconut milk- called Payasam and Pradhanm. They just melt in your mouth. Finally, rice is served again with Moru (tempered buttermilk). The sumptuous meal ends with a banana fruit.
Among the Onasadya special delicacies, Avial tops the charts. Avial has a lot of beans and carrots and root vegetables all boiled with salt and cooked in coconut pulp and tamarind. Coconut oil is generously poured on top with a handful of curry leaves for flavor. Each mouthful of Avial is an explosion of delicately balanced flavors.
Raw plantains and yams go into yummy Erissery and coconut pulp and coconut oil with cumin and mustard for tempering. Kalan is similar to Erissery but has hung curd added to it instead of coconut pulp, with a tempering of mustard.
Thoran is a dry vegetable dish, prepared from finely chopped Cabbage or beetroot. Flavored generously with a few mustard seeds and scrapped coconut. It adds a whole new dimension to Rice and Parippu. Inji curry is a curry made with ginger, tamarind, and jaggery- giving it a hot, sweet and sour mouthwatering taste.
By the end of it, your stomach says ‘no more please’ and your tongue is greedy for more. This gastronomical adventure, despite the generous amounts of coconut and oil used, is not too heavy on the stomach but you tend to doze off in total bliss in seventh heaven.