“Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam” is a famous Malayalam idiom highlighting how vital the Kerala Sadhya is to Malayalis during the Onam festival. It loosely means that one must have the Onam Sadhya even at the cost of selling property or jewellery. We caught up with Manoj Nair, General Manager at the Kochi-based hotel Brunton Boatyard, to quiz him on the elaborate feast, Kerala Sadhya from God’s Own Country.
1. A Kerala Sadhya is a must for the Onam and wedding celebrations. Some families host a Kerala Sadhya for birthdays and other special occasions as well. Certain temples organise special Kerala Sadhya during important festivals and auspicious days, while others serve Kerala Sadhya daily as a community service.
2. On average, there are about 23 to 28 items on a typical Kerala Sadhya. The number of dishes on the banana leaf reflects the wealth and prosperity of a household. At a Malayalam wedding, most families don’t spare any costs, and there could be more than 30 items in the Kerala Sadhya.
3. The Payasam is particularly fussed over because it is one of the most expensive items on the Kerala Sadhya, thanks to its lavish ingredients. The variety of Payasams served in the Kerala Sadhya is directly proportional to one’s social status. Payasams are made of several ingredients such as rice, vermicelli, rice pasta, lentils and fruits. These ingredients are usually cooked in coconut milk, and sugar or jaggery is used as the sweetener.
4. There is Ayurvedic science behind the plating and order of eating a Kerala Sadhya, which is always eaten by hand. All the items in a Kerala Sadhya have varied textures and flavours. Twelve to 13 items that are mostly dry or semi-dry are served on the banana leaf’s top half. The bottom half is reserved for rice and lentils, sambar and curry. As you progress through the Kerala Sadhya, you can pick and choose the side dishes from the top according to your palate.
5. Once you are seated, the rice is served with lentils and ghee. This is a mild, non-spicy and mellow start to the Kerala Sadhya. Then comes the spicy sambar that takes up most of your rice. Unlike other cuisines, the dessert in Kerala Sadhya, which is most commonly the Payasam, is eaten in the middle of the meal to cleanse your palate. Sip on peppery rasam next to replace the sweetness, and then you can go back for more rice. All to be washed down with digestive buttermilk. This completes the Kerala Sadhya dining ritual.
6. A Kerala Sadhya is always served on a banana leaf. The broader side of the leaf rests on the right. If you are satisfied with your Kerala Sadhya, you should fold the leaf away from you. Salt is served first. If you feel any of the curries are under-seasoned, you can add salt according to your taste.
7. On an auspicious occasion, before you and your guests sit down to feast on the Kerala Sadhya, a banana leaf filled with all the items is first offered to the Gods. This is also why you will never find any non-vegetarian delicacies in a Kerala Sadhya.
8. You won’t find any wheat-based dishes in a traditional Kerala Sadhya. Kerala is a rice and coconut bearing state. Most of the dishes on a Kerala Sadhya contain coconut (as a paste or grated or in the form of milk or oil), and the primary fodder in Kerala Sadhya is rice. Items like the now-famous Malabari Paratha or the broken wheat payasam are new additions to Malayali cuisine and aren’t part of a traditional Kerala Sadhya.
9. The pickles served in a Kerala Sadhya are made of seasonal produce, such as mango, lime, gooseberry and ginger. They don’t contain vinegar—instead, the spices and oil act as preservatives.
10. The signature spices in most of the Kerala Sadhya dishes are pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, bay leaf, mustard seeds and curry leaves. All of these are locally produced and sourced.