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.