Saturday, December 16, 2006

Upperi and Upkari

The wonderful Shilpa of Aayi's Recipes have been giving a fairly detailed description of the Konkani cuisine. I had been fascinated by the similarities between the cuisines of Kerala and the Konkan region. I would like to elaborate upon some of these likenesses.

A common term found in Konkani cuisine is 'upkari,' which is the stir fried vegetable dish with coconut. In Malayalam, it is 'upperi.' Especially in the central part of Kerala, 'upperi' is the generic name for all types of dry vegetable side dishes, with or without coconut. The term 'thoran' used to be more in usage in the southern parts of Kerala but now has spread out to other parts too. Generally a dish is called 'thoran' when coconut is added, with a seasoning of mustard, urad dal, green chillies and curry leaves. In some parts of Thrissur district, the coconut is added to the seasoning first and then fried to a reddish brown, before adding the vegetables cut finely. This is especially popular for cabbage thoran.

But, mostly, the coconut is added towards the end of cooking the vegetables, often with a dash of green chillies and shallots crushed together.

The mezhukkupuratti, on the other hand, has no coconut. In its purest form, mezhukkupuratti has only the seasoning of fresh coconut oil. Just a little water is added to the vegetables, which are almost stir-fried in a smattering of oil. This was the way the mezhukkupuratti was cooked in upper caste households where onion was taboo. Otherwise, a seasoning of onion and red chillies, sliced or crushed together, is popular. Sometimes, garlic also will be added, but the use of garlic was also taboo in many households.

In Kerala, a 'koottan,' and an 'upperi,' is the basic, must, combo for every meal. The basic minimum requirement of any decent meal !

Friday, October 27, 2006

മലയാളത്തില്‍ ഒരു കൈ

മലയാ‍ളം ഇന്‍സ്റ്റാള്‍ ചെയ്തിട്ട് ആദ്യത്തെ പോസ്റ്റാണ്. പരീക്ഷണാടിസ്ഥാനത്തില്‍ മാത്രുഭൂമി ഓണപ്പതിപ്പില്‍ ദേവകി നിലയങ്ങോട് എഴുതിയ ലേഖനത്തില്‍ നിന്ന് കുറച്ചു ഭാഗം പകര്‍ത്തിനോക്കട്ടെ -

“ഓണവിഭവങ്ങളില്‍ ഏറ്റവും വെദഗ്ദ്യം വേണ്ടത് കാളനുണ്ടാക്കാനാണ്. "
എന്റമ്മേ, ഇത്രയുമായപ്പോഴേക്കും വിയര്‍ത്തു പോയി. നീണ്ട നീണ്ട പോസ്റ്റുകള്‍ മലയാളത്തില്‍ കീച്ചിവിടുന്നവരെ പ്രണമിക്കാതെ വയ്യേ !

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Happy Onam !!!

So, the Onam is here. Sorry all of you out there, I could not post a line all these days. The Onam rush was already in the air. A newspaper office becomes a mad house (as if its not already...) during such times. Too much advertisement volume, unexpected changes in page planning, and, too many programme all happening at the same time which can not be carried anywhere due to the ad pressure ! All these, coupled with some personal hectic schedule, is enough to spend anyone spinning.

But, finally, the Onam is here. Here, and gone.

Hope all you had a beautiful Onam, wherever you are on the face of this globe. Hope you could capture that faraway magic from childhood days, when Onam spelt just magic, when we had no care, when freedom from school was the greatest freedom on earth and exam day became the doomsday.

I suspect that once we stop feeling the need to fear exams, the charm of Onam half disappears. Onam was the reward.

I still remember the rueful Onam days of a particular year when the examinations were held after Onam ! With broken heart which was only half-way into the studies, I was clutching a notebook and prancing about the kitchen and backyard !

So, here's our Onasadya, from my parents' place. Both of us reached home by Uthradam evening (night, to be exact). Rajan has taken more photos, but I can find only this one on the computer. So, here's for the time being.

I'm sorry, the banana leaf is not a perfect one. A little bit torn, not too tender, but it is a banana leaf from our own backyard !

The items on the leaf, from bottom left - injithayir, puliyinchi, vadukappuli narangakkari (lemon pickle), pappadam, varuthupperi, sarakkara upperi and pazhamnurukku (hidden beneath the pappadam, since that is the way to serve), kalan, aviyal, olan, erisseri, rice with sambar and a dollop of ghee. The payasam-s are waiting in the side wings.

More on these curries and pickles later.

Now, a belated Happy Onam to all !

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mom's cooking

I was going through the archives of all other bloggies. One entry that I find really fascinating is the event, 'Ten Things I Miss Most from Mom's Cooking,' mainly because the entries contribute a lot to my quest on the regional food of Kerala.

Naturally, I too tried to compile a list, for myself. Then, I realised - there're hardly any for me !

Don't be shocked. It is true. I hardly miss much from my amma's cooking. One thing, I live just 1 - 1 1/2 hours away from home. Then, my childhood memories of food aren't that great, to be frank.

My memories of food from childhood, except for the splendour of Onam or pirannal sadya-s (birthday feasts), are rather bland. Non-happening. Nothing out of the ordinary.

My parents are pure vegetarians. No meat or fish has crossed the threashold of their house so far. In my mother's case it is quite interesting as her siblings are carnivores, as I used to describe. But they used to eat an occasional egg. Eggs appeared in our menu mainly for my sis and me, who turned out to be eggitarians. I introduced the delicacy of 'muttakkari' for the first time in our kitchen.

How I learnt to cook that 'muttakkari' is a story. During college days, I was very much politically active, travelling around a lot. We would stay at the houses of party comrades all over the place. Once, at a Muslim household in Kodungalloor, we were served vallayappam and the loveliest muttakkari that I ever tasted.

Afterwards, it was a Herculean task to re-create that taste. I had no recipe, but just remembered the taste. So I 'de-constructed' the taste and experimented and experimented, until ....... almost the same taste was created ! My mother and sister still follows the same method. I don't call it recipe, but just a method !

What I did was - I sliced up onions (sabola), as nicely as I could, longish way. Sliced ginger and garlic, also green chilies (now I don't, since developing allergy to hot taste). Then sauteed and sauteed everything, starting with garlic, ginger, till the onions turned transparent, got reduced in quantity and a heavenly sweet smell appeared. Then came chopped tomatoes, which were again sauted till the raw smell disappeared. Next was the turn of masala-s, corriander powder, egg masala / chicken masala (packaged), turmeric and chilly powders. Again, sauting the whole mixture till the raw smell of the powders disappeared.

Then, I poured water over the whole mixture, making a sizzling commotion. Into the water went salt to taste and it was left to boil, with occasional stirring, till the oil began to float on the surface. At that moment, goes in the boiled, shelled and cut-into-two eggs, slowly placed over the gravy and left to simmer for a few minutes, to let it soak in the masala.

The final touch, if needed. Saute chopped small onions in oil till very crisp and pour over the curry.

It's a long time since I made this curry ! For one thing, we don't make elaborate break-fasts. The lunch is mostly eaten out. And the dinner starts to get cooked around 9 - 10 p.m.

May be, one of these days !!!

More about my home food later.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Talking of Onam

Onam is almost round the corner ! Karkidakam is not over yet, but it doesn't rain much. A bit too hot for the past couple of days, even as the whole of northern India is flooded !

Can't help getting nostalgic as Onam draws nearer. I am feeling nostalgic even for the articles I had written.... written ten years ago !!! Ten years ! Can't believe it's been such a long time.

This article was written for the Onam Supplement of The Hindu in 1996, the year I started freelancing for The Hindu. I am posting it here. It's a bit too longish. But I hope you might find it good reading. For writing this article, I had some real research work, using the library of Kerala History Association in Ernakulam.

Unfortunately, I can't provide you with the link as The Hindu archives from 1996 are not available online.

Article for Onam Supplement (Aug 23, 1996)
The mystique of Onam

'Once upon a time there was a king called Mahabali who ruled the country in such a good manner that all people prospered and all were equals in his kingdom,' so begins the popular legend on Onam.

Who was this Mahabali ? Who was the Vamana who ousted him from the throne ? And why is Vamana worshipped during the festival celebrating the return of a king treacherously ousted by him ? Numerous are the contradictions and ironies underlying the legend of Mahabali, Vamana and the myth of Onam.

If stones could talk, the flagstones of the Vishnu temple at Thrikkakkara, the abode of Onam could have answered these questions, even narrate the whole story of Onam down the centuries. Thrikkakkara temple, one of the oldest temples in Kerala and celebrated in the writings of ancient travellers and Tamil Sangam literature is the centre stage of legends surrounding Onam. More than 13 centuries old, it is the only temple in the country dedicated to Vamana, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu who sent Mahabali to Pathala.

History and myth lay inseparably intertwined at the Thrikkakkara Temple which has about 18 important stone inscriptions dating back to 10-13 A.D. The inscriptions which were published in the Travancore Archeological Series in 1916 by Mr. T.A. Gopinatha Rao (1916) and Mr. K.V. Subramania Iyer (1923) are in 'Vattezhuthu,' the prototype of Malayalam.

Considered one of 13 'divyadesams' of Malanadu, Thrikkakkara or Thirukalkarai, as it was known in the days of the Kulasekharas, was the capital of Kalkarainadu, a fiefdom under the Kulasekharas, it is believed. But there is no documentary evidence to prove it. Nammalvar, Vaishnava saint and the author of 'Thiruvaimizhi,' who lived around 9th Century, had sung praises of the temple and the beautiful countrysides surrounding it. It was a important pilgrimage centre for the Sri Vaishnavas, who were slowly gaining ground over Buddhists and Jains. The temple also finds mention in Sukasandesam, an ancient literary work in Malayalam.

Though consecrated to Vishnu in the incarnation of Vamana, Thrikkakkara temple has a shrine of Siva also nearby. It is interesting to note in this context that though Thrikkakkara Appan or Vamana is worshipped during Onam celebrations, Mathevar or Mahadevar is also worshipped with equal fervour and the reason remains unexplained.

The presence of a multitude of 'Upadevathas' (subordinate deities) is another special feature of Thrikkakkara temple which helps in its identification from ancient literary works and inscriptions. The main temple of Vamana also has Bhagavathi, Sastha and Gopalakrishnan and the nearby Siva temple, Thekkumkara Thevar temple has shrines of Parvathi, Durga, Bhagavathi, Subramanian and Ganapathy.

From the Thrikkakkara edicts emerges a picture of the Kulasekhara empire which existed till about 1102 A.D., as well as the socio-political and religious milieu of the times. It is believed that Kalakarainadu constituted the present Thrikkakkara, Edappally and surrounding areas. The names of a few chieftains appointed as naduvazhis of Kalkarainadu by the Kulasekhara kings who ruled from their capital Mahodayapuram are mentioned in the inscriptions most of which were written during the reign of the Kulasekhara kings Indukothai Varma (944 - 962) and Bhaskara Ravi Varman I (963 - 1019). One record also mentions the existence of Arunoottuvar or the 'Group of 600' who helped and controlled the naduvazhis.

During the reign of Kulasekharas who were great patrons (and followers) of Vaishnavism, Hindu temples flourished in Kerala and Thrikkakkara was a major beneficiary of this royal patronage as can be seen from the inscriptions which mention generous to the temple.

By the turn of this century, Thrikkakkara Temple was in utter ruins with only the Adhishtana remaining. All the standing structures were dilapidated and the image of the deity was also broken down. After repeated pleas from the Vaishnavaites and the report of the Archeology Department the Maharaja of Travancore reconstructed the temple in its present form. Remnants of the old temple wall described by Nammalvar as 'kodimathil' can still be traced beneath the new structure and the pathway surrounding the temple.

The Thrikkakkara Temple that dates back to ancient times has no mention whatsoever about the Namboodiris, the community that held sway over Kerala after the advent of Hinduism. Neither is Edappally Swaroopam, the erstwhile principality with a Namboodiri ruler that had adjoined Kochi and had played a major historical role in Kerala, mentioned in the records. The temple and inscriptions might be older than the emergence of Namboodiris as a force and the formation of Edappally Swaroopam. But later the ruler of Edappally became the official priest there and till recently held the right to nominate the priest.

The inscriptions describe the celebration of Onam as an occasion when all local chieftains assembled at Thrikkakkara to pay their respect to the Kulasekhara Chakravarthi (Emperor). The festivities started from the star of Thiruvonam in the Malayalam month of Karkatakam and lasted for 28 days till Thiruvonam in the month of Chingam. The last 10 days saw the peak of celebrations.

Later the festival was confined to these 10 days beginning from the Atham star in Chingam. The records describe the celebrations in detail and the roles assigned to each king. It is not clear whether the festival had any religious significance at that time.

The festival of Onam that first began to be celebrated at Thrikkakkara has spread from there, spanning caste and creed, penetrating the farthest corner of the world where Malayalees have reached, even as the cold inscriptions from a bygone era remain silent spectators for all the pomp and splendour of the celebrations raging around every year.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tales from the past

I hope all of you must be aware of the gagging of blogs that takes place in India. Though this step was resorted to by the authorities with a good intention (of preventing dangerous rumours and malicious campaigns from spreading over the Internet in these sensitive times), the result was a bit too much, with all the blogs including those which stand for democracy, secularism and peace getting blocked from view in India.

Let's hope the situation will be normal soon. And, meanwhile, I am posting as the Blogger dashboard is available here. But to view the blog, I've to use some proxy servers and not even through the view the blog provision on the dashboard can I access my blog.

This time, I thought that I'd continue on the theme of Onam, with the help of a book excerpt, translated from Malayalam.

'Avasanathe Smartha Vicharam,' (The Last Caste (Morality) Inquisition), the autobiography of late A.M.N.Chakyar who was the former Registrar of Kerala University, gives an interesting documentation of the social and religious life of Kerala, especially that of the Namboothiris at the turn of 20th century. Chakyar, originally a member of Namboothiri community, had to sport the sirname of 'Chakyar,' as a fall-out of the practice of 'Smartha Vicharam,' under which his father was ostracised on the charge of having had illicit relationship with a married Namboothiri woman. The father committed suicide before the community could enact their ritual banning on him. So, the children were in turn formally expelled from the community and the new sirname was a result of that. That he managed to obtain higher education (read English education, in those days), and rose to a high official position, retiring as the Registrar of the University of Kerala, was the latter part of the story.

(More of the obnoxious practice of Smartha Vicharam, that had been observed by the Namboothiri community till the first decades of 20th century to ensure the purity of their women, later).

In those days, social status and wealth of individuals and families depended upon the area of land in possession. Land was wealth. Chakyar says, ‘Our Illam (a Namboothiri household), sat in the midst of a vast purayidam (purayidam, in Kerala, is the plot in which the house is located. The word derives from 'pura,’ meaning house and 'idam,’ meaning space. This may vary in size depending on the family’s financial status) of about five acres.

'We used to get an annual ‘paattam,’ of about 1500 para (a measurement) of paddy, from about 25 acres of karinilam-s located quite nearby. Besides that, the family owned other landed property also, which were leased out on paattam worth Rs. 1500 in cash per year.'

‘We also owned another illam named ‘Chelakkal,' at Udayamperoor village in Vaikkom Taluk of Kottayam district in the erstwhile Travancore. This illam was located in a large plot of about 30 acres. The paddy fields there fetched us an annual income of 300 para-s of paddy, while the ‘karabhoomi' (land other than paddy fields) generated an income of 1500 rupees in cash. Each of the illam-s had a nellara (granary) located in the middle of the nalukettu for storing the paddy we got as paattam. '

From the English text translated by Chakyar himself: “The Illom was situtated in in a 5-acre free-hold garden land in Thekkumbhag\om Village, Kanayannur Taluk, Ernakulam District of old Cochin State. When I was born (1907) and during my childhood, the Illom was at peak of its prosperity under the benign management of my grand father. We had in our neighbourhood some 25 acres of Kari Nilom (paddy lands), leased to tenants, fetching 1500 paras of paddy annually, and we had also some other garden lands yielding a rent of about Rs. 1500 /- in cash.

“In Udayamperoor, Vaikom Taluk, Kottayam District, of old Travancore State we had another Illom – Chelakkal – situated ina sprawling 30 acre plot and it also had some landed properties around, fetching Rs. 1500/- in cash and 300 paras of paddy per annum.

“The wooden barn which formed the central part of each Illom building was so designed as to accommodate the quantity of paddy it collected in a year…._]

He describes the daily routine during summer visits to the Chelakkal illam – ‘Meals were frugal, with a curry made of either mangoes or jack fruits, uppilittathu (pickles in brine) and moru (buttermilk). Any deficiency of vitamines must have been solved by our splendid diet of ripe jack fruits and mangoes which abounded around the house.'

Food was frugal and inexpensive and consisted mainly of rice savoured by one curry of mango or jack gruit alternating, buttermilk and pickles. Ripe mangoes made up for any vitamin deficiecy.” – from Chakyar’s translation. ]

Onam was the big event of the whole year. Chakyar gives a fairly detailed descriptions of the Onam celebrations at his illam – ‘The 'kudiyaan-s (people who had taken lands on lease from the mana) and other farmers in the village would bring ‘onakkazhcha’ to the local landlords. These included vegetables grown by them, like bananas, pumpkins, yams, cucumbers etc. People who made oil using chakku (oil presses) would bring coconut oil, those who would press sugar cane would bring jaggery, the konkani or pandaram community would bring pappadams, the weavers would bring thorthu with kara (a short cloth with border used as a bathing towel), the velan-s would bring olakkuda, muram, kutta etc. (woven out of bamboo). In return, the karanavar (eldest male member) of the household would distribute ‘onappudava' to all of them.’

‘Muslim vagabonds from Malabar would visit the ‘janmi' households during Onam season singing folk songs and playing thappu. They were given bananas (both raw and ripe), upperi (banana chips) etc. '

The Onasadya as Chakyar describes will give a shock to all those present-day feature writers. You will not find the elaborate fare that bandied about in tourism brochures. It appears quite simple, even frugal, given the present-day standards.

‘Sadya (the feast) was prepared at our illam both for the noon and evening meals on all the four days of Onam. But the sadya was not as elaborate as it is now. The traditional dishes were four varieties of curries, four types of 'uppilittathu,' (pickles) and prathaman. The four curries were kaalan, olan, erisseri and pulisseri. The four types of uppilittathu were lemon, mango, puliyinchi and inchithayiru. These four pickles and payasam continue without any change even today. Sambar, rasam, aviyal etc. were unheard of in those days. Pazham nurukku and varuthupperi were the integral parts of the Onam season.'

Note the absence of avial, now marketed as a classical Kerala dish !

He also gives a mouth-watering list of mangoes which were abundant in the purayidam-s of those days.

“The tasty Panchasara maanga (Sugar Mangoe) , almost as big as a coconut without husk, the tiny ‘Sarkkara Manga,’ (as sweet as jaggery), the fleshy Varikka manga, thukalan, vellari, chara, the sour thonnappuliyan…..

Thukalan was best for uppumaanga (mango pickled in brine), chaara for the hot uppilittathu (pickle) and ‘chethumaanga,’ (another hot pickle in which the mango is used in slices) and kadukkacchi was the chosen one for making kadumanga, (another popular mango pickle of Kerala). The tiny Sarkkara Manga was best fot the varutha acchar (fried pickle) and the varikka for ‘adamanga.’”

Now, how about this ? Any of the Malayali blogger friends know of the names of local varities of mangoes ? Share it with all.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Green banana leaf

Last year I had started a blog under a different sign-in name. In fact, I had opened adukkala before that, but did not feel like posting in it. So, this one, Green Banana Leaf was supposed to carry all that I'm now telling through adukkala. And, I had not made adukkala public at that time.

Now, I'm a bit confused. For one thing, I love that title - Green Banana Leaf. And, I like the couple of posts I made in it. I think Antony of Bachelor Cooking visited it once. But, not many people had found it. Here's the link -
Green Banana Leaf - do check it out. I thought of copying the posts onto adukkala. But then though I'd guide you over there.

Well, may be I could maintain both. In some different ways. May be.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Banana chips from far-away

RP's banana chips hurled me backwards, towards a distant morning.

A sunny, late August (or was it early September ?) morning when the sky is full of puffy, white clouds and the leaves glisten with the humid green after soaking up the monsoon rains. The sky has just broken clear. The earth is still moist. And the sunlight filters in, yellow and unearthly.

The tile-roofed shed in the backyard of my home bustles with activity. The 'shed' is the multi-purpose space just outside the house, where the coconut husks and fronds for fuel are stored. Two aduppu-s, the permanent stoves made of earth, are also located there for professional cooking on special occasions.

Here takes place the annual ritual of my childhood that ushered in Onam - the making of upperi-s and pickles.

In those days, my parents engaged a professional cook for these tasks, mainly because of the taste. The special dishes for Onam would get the proper taste in the hands of a professional cook, they believed. And it was true also. Not that we were exceptionally rich. Rather, that was the custom in my father's household. For special occasions, professional cooks were hired. Women of the family were not expected to slog off too much over heavy cooking sessions. Rather, they were expected to remain hostesses, graceful and delicate, handling only the mildest routine chores.

So, Appukuttan Elayathu made his appearance on the appointed day. Elayathu was his caste name, and he was a good professional cook, held in high esteem locally. Out of respect for my father, he would deign to cook at our home.

The preparations would start much earlier. Selecting the right bunch of bananas was important. The markets would get flooded with bunches of nenthrakkaya (the banana/ plantain species unique to Kerala). The raw bananas should be matured just enough. A few days more or less would tell upon the taste of the chips. The size of the fruits also mattered. But, the biggest issue was the price.

During Onam season, the price of bananas rocketed skywards. Just like all other vegetables. Mostly, the Government would step in, offering bananas and vegetables at subsidised rates at special markets. These 'Onachantha'-s would be crowded like anything, with people making beelines to make the most out of the subsidised rates.

I don't quite remember the 'good-ole-days,' when the bunches from own land used to arrive for the Onam. And, I didn't belong to a family which celebrated Onam drawing upon the labour of its tenants, through the obnoxious custom of 'Onakkazhcha.' As far as I could remember, they had cultivated their land by themselves. (But, more about that later).

So, the bunches of perfect bananas were ready in the tiny store room. Oil, jaggery, chukku, jeera and all other necessary paraphernalia were also ready. The uruli was brought down and scrubbed to a sheen.

Appukuttan Elayathu, like all the traditional cooks, (dehannakkar), had a rhythm of his own. His hands moved in a mechanical rhythm, as he went about the chores without haste, as if he had all the time in the world left. Lighting the stove, putting the uruli on the fire, pouring oil, adjusting the fire till the oil began to boil and in between, skinning the bananas. Only when the oil was bubbling would be take out his banana-cutter. It was almost a mandoline, but which had provision only for slicing bananas.

Then came the wonderful sight I'd waited for. The discs of bananas flying off the metal blade straight into the bubbling oil, hissing like a 'thalachakram,' and turning yellow right in front of your eyes. A few minutes later, he would take the pot of salt water, waiting for the right moment to sprinkle over the frying chips.

The yellow, crisp discs were collected from the oil, drained and transferred to a 'muram.' I don't know how many of you are familiar with a 'muram,' woven out of bamboo strips, a common household utensil in the olden days. Even these days, muram-s make their appearance at the market, but more for a decorative purpose than any utilitarian one !

Making 'sarkkara upperi,' was a bit more complicated and not as colourful as the yellow ones. The bananas would be cut into thick chunks, fried and kept away. Then the jaggery would melt in the big uruli, till the syrup reached the correct consistency. The fried banana chunks would be poured into the syrup, followed by a finely powdered mixture of jeera and chukku (cumin and dried ginger), which provides the punch of 'sarkkara upperi.' Within a few seconds, the whole syrupy mixture would turn dry, with the jaggery firmly adhering to the chips in an even coating.

The biggest treat was the left-over powder of jaggery and jeera-chukku powder. It would be scrapped from the bottom of the uruli and kept in glass jars. To be licked off as a savoury snack, or even added to coffee.

Appukuttan Elayathu is no more. He had stopped cooking a few years back, as he grew older. My parents started to purchase packets of chips for Onam from the local caterers, as is the common practice these days. Even 'payasam,' is ordered for Onam. You can purchase either 'palada,' or 'pazhaprathaman,' or 'parippu prathaman,' which has that perfect, professional taste.

Well, times they're a'changing.... And, whatever be the changes, the spirit of Onam still lives on.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

So friends, here is the article I was promising you. I had written this for an Onam Supplement of The Hindu, a couple of years ago. In 2004, I think. As is the case with every feature article, especially written for supplements, this one was also cooked up in a fast-food manner. Not that much well-researched, I mean. Just a bunching together of the points that I knew all along. So, here it is...

Eating differently during Onam

After all, Onam is a festival for feasting. No wonder, it was the harvestf estival, which saw the end of the dark, monsoon days of Karkidakam. The month was perilous even for the rich. For ordinary people it meant rainy days without work, without food.

So naturally, Onam became a celebration of food, and of all good things inlife. A good crop and the mild weather lifted up the spirits. Interestingly, almost all the Onam proverbs and sayings centre around eating. In Malayalam, celebrating Onam is ‘Onam Unnuka,’ which meanseating. Then there is the classic sample ‘Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam,’ whichadvises that Onam should be celebrated at any cost, even by selling offland. Many sayings also allude to the days of hunger which might follow thefeasting.

The general scarcity of food that existed in olden days must have caused this celebration of feasting. Notwithstanding our blabber about ‘those goodol’ days,’ those were days really short of food. Even the rich could just manage decent meals. Nature was harsher, and social rules even harsher.

The times have changed, along with Malayali’s markets and habits. Food availability has increased manifold, in variety as well as quantity. Season is no limit for the market now. Mangoes and bananas flood the shops round the year. And no wonder, Ona Sadya has become a homogenous affair. At least the popular version of the Ona Sadya projected by the mass media as the lavish spread on the sparkling green banana leaf, beamed at us from hoardings and miniscreens alike. Now we cannot imagine Ona Sadya withoutsambar, aviyal, kalan, ishttu, koottukari, upperi, puliyinchi, narangakkari and palada prathaman.

Yet, how many of us know that many of these dishes were late entrants in the Malayali menu ? Or that Sadya itself differs drastically from the North to the South ?

To begin with, sambar and aviyal, now indispensable in any Malayali sadya, were absent even by the turn of 20th century. They do not appear in any olden writings on food. ‘Ashanam,’ the portion of the four-part 'Purusharthakkoothu,' dealing with food and eating, which describes a gargantuan feast devoured by gluttons, do not list sambar and aviyal in the menu though rasam is mentioned as ‘mulaku vellam,’ (chilly water). These dishes arrived later, from the neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

The major difference between the Onam feast of northern and southern Keralai s regarding non-vegetarian fare. Eating meat or fish on Onam day is astrict no-no in the central and southern Kerala, but the northerners, especially in Kannur and Kasaragode districts, splurge on meat. Mutton is almost a must. Saraswathi Sukumaran, a native of Kannur district, remembers that the habit was not much in vogue a few decades back. But,according to Prasad hailing from Thalassery, mutton had been the treat of Onam for years. Earlier, people would slaughter lambs locally, booking orders in advance, remembers he. Now shops and cold storages have taken over. At the same time, even habitual non-vegetarians in Thrissur and Palakkad districts abstain from flesh during Onam.

The ubiquitous pazham nurukku, the chunks of boiled plantains (nenthrappazham),eaten with crushed pappadam-s is also a feature confined to central Kerala,especially the old Cochin and Valluvanadu regions. People in other parts are apparently unfamiliar with this delicacy during Onam. But for central Keralites, there is no Onam without the syrupy sweetness of the pazham nurukku.

Making it is a ritual itself, starting with procuring the right bunch of raw bananas which are ripened at home. At least for one week during Onam,breakfast becomes nothing but pazham nurukku, pappadams and upperi. Visitors are invariably served it at every home and it is the No. 1 item for the Sadya.

These days we think payasam is indispensable for Onasadya. But many from the Valluvanadu region will vow otherwise. Even now, many homes there do not make payasam. Instead, a mixture of coconut scrappings and jaggery is served as dessert in some places.

Almost all over Kerala, frying banana chips means the beginning of Onam preparations. But in some regions, like Punaloor in Kollam district, the chips are not of banana alone. A whole range of vegetables like, chena (elephant-foot yam), chembu (colocasia), payar and bitter gourd are fried and stored days in advance. Other crispies like ‘kaliyadakka,’ (nothing to do with betelnuts, but a round crispy made of rice flour) as well as murukku were made during Onam, remembers Reghunathan, a native of Punaloor. He also remembers that a thoran of 'chenathandu and cherupayar,’ (stem of yam and green gram) was invariably served the day before Onam. The reason was simple. Yams were dug up for the Ona Sadya, and the leftover stem which was edible and nutritious could not be wasted !
In most of Thrissur district, making ‘ada’ as part of the offerings toThrikkakarayappan is an important custom. The special ‘poovada,’ with thumpa flowers sprinkled with the filling was used for puja. Onam breakfast consisted of adas, pazham nurukku, pappadam and upperi. But, even in some other parts of Thrissur district like Cheruthuruthi, no ‘ada’ was made for Onam, but during Vishu.

One description of Onasadya appears in the autobiography of late A.M. N.Chakyar (‘The Last Smartha Vicharam,’ describes the social persecutions he had to endure in childhood as a result of Smartha Vicharam, the evil custom practised by Namboothiris in the past). It gives an idea of Onasadya in a prosperous Namboothiri household during the turn of 20th century - ‘At our illam, sadya (the feast) was prepared for both the noon meal and evening during varieties of curries, four types of ‘uppilittathu,’ (pickles) and prathaman. The four curries were kaalan, olan, erisseri and pulisseri. The four types of uppilittathu were lemon, mango, puliyinchi and inchithayiru.These four pickles and payasam continue without any change even today.Sambar, rasam, aviyal etc. were unheard of in those days. ‘Pazham nurukku and varuthupperi were the integral parts of the Onam season.’

Thus, customs change, habits change. But the sadya still survives. And these days it has become trendy. You could go to any posh restaurant and have sadya comfortably. Or else, it will arrive at your door-step, packaged neatly, conveniently.
(Courtesy: The Hindu)

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ona Sadya

It seems I will have to put aside my laziness regarding this blog. People are visiting it ! Even if I haven't posted a word in months !

So, thanks to all who followed the links in the comments I left in their posts and took the trouble of dropping in. Thanks, Reshma, for the kind advice about the 'word verification.'

Immigrant in Canada had been asking about Ona Sadya. So, I thought, may be I could write something about that - a favourite topic of mine. A couple of years back, I had written a feature about Ona Sadya for my newspaper. Sorry, I don't have the story here, will have to retrieve it from archives and post.

Now, about Ona Sadya, which means the festival meal, or feast prepared on the day of Onam. I really appreciate the interest shown by Immigrant in Canada to learn about the Ona Sadya. So, I'm sure she'll be quite surprised to learn that there is no such thing as a 'typical' Ona Sadya !

Well, it's true. From north to south, the items, ingredients and basic character of Ona Sadya differs drastically. The Sadya differs from region to region, from caste to caste. And, it has transformed radically down the years.

The typical 'Sadya' or feast of Kerala took its origins from the kovilakam-s (palaces of the Kerala rulers), and at the illam-s (households of Namboothiris, the Brahmin community of Kerala). The cooks at most of the palaces, had belonged to the Tamil Brahmin community, who were an integral part of Kerala's society from a long a time back. These royal cooks developed the strict vegetarian cuisine followed in the kovilakam-s, introducing many flavours from their own country across the Western Ghats. It is said that avial, celebrated as one of the hallmarks of Kerala cuisine, was invented by these cooks. Similarly, sambar and rasam, the quintessential Tamil dishes, were introduced into Kerala by them.

Even a cursory glance at the history of food in Kerala will tell that sambar became a common household curry quite recently. Many referances from the early decades of 20th century about the sadya do not include sambar, or rasam. The basic dishes for the sadya originally came in multiples of four. 'Chathur vibhavangal,' four dishes, which were kalan, olan, erisseri and, madhurakkari, or the sweet dish. It must have meant, the payasam.

Kalan, olan and erisseri remain the fundamental basics of any traditional sadya in Kerala. Especially in central Kerala, these curries are a must for any 'pirannal sadya,' the birthday feast. Then, the 'uppilittathu.' Which literally means, 'those pickled in salt.' ! They were mango, lime, then, puliyinchi and inchithayiru. Puliyinchi is the special dish made in central Kerala for Onam. Large quantities of tamarind pulp and jaggery are boiled in 'kalchatti-'s (stone vessels) over low flames for hours. Chopped green chillies and ginger are added to the boiling mixture. Finally, once its done, seasoned with mustard, fenugreek, curry leaves and more chopped green chillies and ginger.

This can be stored for long. Inchithayiru (ginger in curd), is literally that. Chopped and slightly crushed ginger and green chillies added to beaten curds. And, salt, of course. This was a remedy to prevent any tummy upset from over eating ! This is also a must for the birthdays.

The fried items are the next. Besides pappadam, Ona Sadya should have banana chips. Both plain chips and sarkkara upperi. For VIshu Sadya, banana chips are replaced by jackfruit chips. Then, a variety of vegetables are fried raw. These include elephant yam, brinjals, bittergourd and bananas fried without removing their skin. At least four varities of these chips.

Nobody in Thrissur district can think of an Ona Sadya without the 'Pazham nurukku,' or boiled / steamed bananas. During the season, the markets are flooded with huge bunches of 'nenthrakkaya,' specially cultivated for the season. The prices rocket like anything. These days, the Government often steps in with the Civil Supplies and other agencies offering bananas for subsidised rates.

The 'pazham nurukku,' should be served on the upper left hand corner of the leaf, under the pappadams. It is eaten in the end, mashed with crumbled pappadams.

For a long time, that sharp blend of sweet-salt used to be the taste of Onam for me.

And last but not least, the payasam.

But, more about it later.