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)