Thiru-Onam or Thiruvonam is a major rice harvest festival of food, colour, and frolic celebrated in Kerala. Onam is known for its Onam Sadhya for Onasadhya feast. Today, the hype for Onam Sadya is palpable even outside the state, among non-Keralites eager to have the exotic experience of trying the Onam food.
You will be surprised to know that the preparations for Onam begin 10 days in advance. Each of the ten days leading to the main celebration day has a name and significance. These days are Atham, Chithira, Chodi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketta, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradom and Thiruvonam (the final day).
Onam festivities witness natives dress up in Mundu and Kasavu and prepare Pookkalam (a floral design) outside their homes. There is also grooving to the beats of the ‘puli kali’ (tiger dance), ‘thumbi thullal’ (women’s dance) or ‘Kummattikali’ (colourful masked dance) dance forms. However, the 26-dishes-long course food menu of Onam Sadya is the main highlight of the festival. Sadya means an elaborate feast in Malayalam. The mouth-watering dishes prepared in Onam contain over 60 ingredients which beautifully present different flavours.
The top 10 Onam Sadya dishes you must try
1. Paal payasam
Paal payasam is a popular type of sweet dish in Kerala cuisine. It is also known as Unakkalari in Malayalam and tastes divine. Not only does it taste amazing, but Paal Paysam also looks exotic! The mild pink colour rendered by the slow-cooked red rice leaves you with a soothing smile as you eat this payasam after your Onam meal.
2. Varutharacha sambar
Sambar tops the list of items on a South Indian main course menu. It is a popular choice for Indians. However, the varutharacha sambar is a Kerala-style sambar that’s different from other types of sambar. It is made of mixed vegetables, roasted coconut and a variety of spices. When served with rice in the Onam Sadya feast, the varutharacha sambar tastes heavenly and makes you want to devour all the Onam food!
3. Puli inji
The power of pickles in uplifting the flavours of a meal cannot be undermined. However, puli inji is no ordinary pickle. It is a sweet and sour ginger pickle comprising ginger, tamarind and jaggery as the primary ingredients. It is usually served as an appetiser in the Onam Sadya feast.
4. Mor Curry
A savoury side dish made of buttermilk, mor curry or mor kuzhambu or pulissery is best tasted with rice and a dry spicy vegetable dish. It is an integral part of the Onam feast and is considered good for the stomach.
5. Ada payasam
Payasam (kheer) is a speciality in Kerala. Ada pradhaman is a traditional Kerala payasam made of coconut milk, jaggery and rice ada or rice flakes. Usually consumed as a dessert post the main meal, Ada pradhaman payasam contains pieces of rice batter soaked in a thick concoction of coconut, jaggery, and cardamom.
Needless to say, coconut and curry leaves make an inevitable part of traditional Malayali dishes. Aviyal is one such delicious dish that brings out these signature flavours of the land. It is prepared as a semi dry dish of vegetables cooked in a curd and coconut paste and tempered with coconut oil and curry leaves. Aviyal goes really well with rice, is a healthy food option and tastes amazing when served with pickle or thoran.
Yet another gravy item to adorn the Onam Sadya platter, erissery is a thick gravy dish made of ground coconut, pumpkin, fried coconut and fried shallots. A perfect accompaniment to your Onam food thali, erissery is love at first bite for ethnic food lovers!
Thoran is another popular Onam Sadya dish made of cabbage, raw jackfruit, beans, carrots and grated coconut. It is a dry vegetable dish (or sabzi as we call it) that’s stir-fried and served along with rice, curry or sambar.
9. Upperi or sarkara varatti
Who doesn’t love the Kerala-special banana chips that melt in the mouth and have an overpowering taste of fresh coconut oil? It's a renowned souvenir from Kerala and a widely loved snack item. Upperi or sarkara varatti is nothing but sweetened banana chips. Upperi is prepared by dipping the banana chips in jaggery syrup and then coated with powdered sugar. A popular snack in an everyday context, upperi is an integral part of the Onam Sadhya feast!
Kalan is a typical Keralite delicacy made of plantains (unripe banana), coconut and curd. This yoghurt-based sour cream curry is a comfort meal that cannot be missed in Onam Sadya. Kalan may appear similar to Moru Curry or Pulisserymade but both dishes have distinct flavours. Kalan is best served with steamed rice or Kerala matta rice.
Frequently asked questions
1. Why are so many food items made for Onam?
The rich cultural connotation linked to Onam makes the Onam feast such a grand affair for both Malayalis and non-Malayalis. The effort that goes into preparing the food for Onam Sadya and the underlying attempt at honouring the homecoming of the mythical king Mahabali makes all the difference.
2. What is special about Onam food?
Onam is a festival celebrated in Kerala that marks the beginning of the harvest season. It is a festival of merrymaking where people feast on more than 20 dishes known as Onam Sadya. So naturally, Onam food is special for the Malayali community. It signifies a grand vegetarian feast (although there could also be non-vegetarian dishes on a Sadya) that represents harmony among different flavours. It features the use of locally available ingredients in making delectable traditional food that’s usually consumed together with loved ones. Onam Sadya food has the essence of flavourful food eaten in a harmonious and communal setting. Thus it is a special feast eagerly awaited by Keralites every year.