On Monday, when Malayalees across the world sit down to celebrate Thiru Onam with the traditional sadya (feast), fish and meat will have pride of place on some banana leaf plates – and not for the first time.
The feast prepared on the last day of the 10-day harvest festival Onam is widely considered to be an homogenous all-vegetarian, multi-course fare. But, as historian Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan points out, sadya has several regional variations in Kerala, and some of them include non-vegetarian dishes.
Besides the harvest, Thiru Onam also marks the annual visit of Mahabali, the widely-loved Asura King, to his people. According to legend, Lord Vishnu wanted to curb Mahabali’s powers and popularity, and met him while disguised as a dwarf, Vamana, who requested the king to grant him a piece of land big enough for him to cover in three strides. Once the king agreed to do so, Vamana grew to an enormous size. He measured sky and earth in two paces and asked the king where he should put his foot to complete the third stride. The king told him to put it on his head. Vamana did, and Mahabali was thus pushed into the netherworld. However, the king was granted permission to visit his people on the day of Thiru Onam.
Malayalees attach great importance to sadya, which can be gauged from an old Malayalam saying, “Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam” – people must not miss the Onam feast even if they have to sell their property.
Onam is a season to bond with family and friends. During this time, Malayalees who live far away usually try to return home even if it is for a day to meet their family and friends, and enjoy the delicious home-cooked feast. Women, who cook the sadya, usually begin preparations for it at least a month before the festival.
Onam sadya used to be a modest affair in the 1950s and ’60s when a maximum of nine dishes were served. However, the arrival of other dishes like sambar (a lentil-based stew with vegetables) and avial (made with mixed vegetables in a thick coconut and yogurt paste seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves) from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, led to an increase in the number of dishes served during the celebratory meal.
Now, a traditional Onam sadya is incomplete without banana chips, pappadoms, sweet and sour pickles, aviyal, sambar, dal, ghee, rasam, buttermilk, chutney powder made from grated coconut, and several payasams (rice puddings) eaten on their own or mixed with a small ripe plantain.
Not all vegetarian
“Though everyone celebrates Thiru Onam to welcome Mahabali, there is no homogeneity in the feast,” said Gopalakrishnan.
He said that the feast is quintessentially a vegetarian affair in Kerala’s southern and central districts, but people in the northern districts prefer to eat non-vegetarian food along with the other sadya preparations.
“The reason for this difference is not known,” he said.
It is little wonder then that the demand for fish and chicken in the state increases during the Onam season. In fact, the Kerala State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development Limited promoted a “fresh fish Onam combo kit” from August 31 to September 3 for its customers.
The North-South divide exists in the preparation of vegetarian dishes for sadya too.
Sadya expert Kannan, who is from the Kottayam district in South Kerala, said the number of sadya dishes prepared in the South is usually more than the number of dishes served for the feast in North Kerala.
“A traditional South Kerala Onam sadya will include parippu [moong dal topped with seasoning and ghee] and sambar, rasam, avial, thoran [a stir-fried vegetable, mostly cabbage, with grated coconut], pachadi [a yogurt-based gravy with grated coconut that can be made with either cucumber, pineapple, beetroot, okra or raw mango], one koottukari [a sweet and spicy mix of vegetables cooked with Bengal gram], two kinds of upperi [banana chips and banana chips coated with jaggery], pappadoms, pazham [banana], one uppilittathu [picked vegetables] and payasam,” he said.
He added that people from North prefer only one variety of upperi.
‘Traditional dishes disappearing’
Screenwriter and food lover Bipin Chandran said that it did not matter whether people ate vegetarian or non-vegetarian dishes on Thiru Onam. What concerned him was that traditional Kerala sadya preparations were gradually disappearing because of the popularity of newer dishes.
“No one has time to cook puzhukku [a dry preparation of root vegetables, raw bananas and red cow peas], which is our traditional food,” he said. “Almost all the delicacies that we serve in the Onam feast came from other places, but we have made it our own.”
Gopalakrishnan pointed to a more alarming trend. He said that people are losing interest in cooking and serving sadya during Onam. “It is a tedious process,” he said. “People don’t want to spend much time on cooking. I think this tradition will fade into oblivion soon.”
Gopalakrishnan articulated a thought that is likely to horrify sadya lovers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Keralites began to rely on easy-to-cook non-vegetarian dishes, such as biryani, during Onam,” he said. “Youngsters have already developed a craving for non-vegetarian delicacies. It will grow in the coming years.”