Kanam Vittum Onam Unnanam
– Malayalam Proverb
Imagine crisp weather and beautiful glowing sunshine. Now paint lush greenery, a tad bit wet with morning dew or a light rain, along with a ton of coconut trees. Imagine smiles, laughter and happiness all around you. You can see kids dressed in their best running around playing with no care what so ever. All the adults are dressed in the traditional best and traditional jewelry adorn the ladies. Now, let us portray harvest and abundance in the picture. Then, visualize yourself relaxing in the soft and gentle breeze in the shadow of the swaying palms and trees. Close your eyes and experience the aromas of delicate spices and coconut oil wafting through the kitchen. Drown yourself in the culinary delight followed by an afternoon siesta in the cool breeze lulling you to relax and sleep. This would be the perfect Thiruvonam in Kerala – God’s own country.
Today is Thiruvonam – the culmination of the harvest festival of Kerala.
[Image Courtesy: Prajith Nair, my husband’s cousin brother. Do check out his facebook page at Prajith Nair Photography. Thanks so much Praju.]
Legend has it that King Mahabali, who once ruled Kerala, visits his people on this day. Mahabali was the Asura (demon) king who was believed to be a just and fair ruler and was loved by his praja (people). It is believed that during his reign, everybody was considered equal, everyone was happy and merry and no one lied or cheated. A true golden age.
In the heavens, gods grew jealous of his prosperity and asked Lord Vishnu to help them stop Mahabali from being a threat to them. Lord Vishnu took the avatar (form) of Vamana (a small Brahmin boy) and visited Mahabali. Mahabali welcomed Vamana, with courtesy. Mahabali was ready to fulfill whatever Vamana asked for, and the Brahmin boy asked for land that fit his three paces. Mahabali agreed and asked Vamana to measure out the land that he desired.
Vamana grew in size and measured all of the earth with his first step, all of the heaven with his second and he had no where to place the third step. Mahabali, to keep the promise that he made, bowed down before Vamana and asked him to place the third step on his head. Vamana, in doing so, sent Mahabali to Patala (the lower regions of the earth or the netherworld).
Vamana granted Mahabali’s wish to visit his people once a year. It is believed that on Thiruvonam day, Mahabali visits his people and they spare no effort to welcome him.
Onam is a 10 day festival starting on the Atham (Malayalam star) day of the Malayalam month Chingam (Aug-Sep). Everyday, from Atham to Thiruvonam, the front yard of the houses are decorated with pookkalam (an intricate floral carpet). Traditionally, the floral carpet is made with locally available flowers which the kids collect on the previous evening. Flowers like Thumbappoo and Mukkutti used to be an integral part of the pookkalam. These days, thumbappoo and mukkutti are available only in the rural areas and the urban folks use flowers like asters, marigold, roses etc to make the floral carpet. Well, it is the thought that counts!
In some parts of Kerala, starting on Uthradam day (9th day of the celebrations), clay pyramid structures (with flattened tops) are placed along with the pookkalam. These clay structures are called Onathappan/Thrikkakkarayappan and they symbolize Vamana. These are either placed on banana leaves or on a pedestal, decorated with flowers and rice flour paste and pooja (religious rituals) is performed.
Thiruvonam is incomplete without the Onasadya – a grand vegetarian feast. These days, TV channels have taken over the entertainment and compete with each other to show the latest hit Malayalam movies or special programs for Onam. After the delicious feast, the family members crowd around the TV to watch their favorite program(s).
Everyday of Onam calls for a celebration, but the Thiruvonam day is the most important. Preparations for the Onasadya start way in advance. Pickles and crisp savories are prepared on the Pooradam day (8th day of the celebrations) and dishes like Kaalan and Aviyal would be made on the Uthradam day (9th day of the celebrations). On the Thiruvonam day, the ladies of the house would be extremely busy in the kitchen, preparing the sumptuous sadya. The Malayalam proverb “Kaanam vittum Onam unnanam” says it all – it does not matter even if you have to sell your property, Onasadya should be enjoyed in all it’s grandeur and richness.
Onasadya is served on a fresh banana leaf and has more than 20 dishes. I have read that in the olden days, the number of dishes could be as high as 30-40!
Some of the dishes served are:
- Puli-inji (Sweet and sour ginger chutney)
- Mango Pickle (I make a green apple instant pickle since finding raw mangoes is not easy)
- Lemon Pickle
- Pappadam (Crisp fried lentil wafers which puffs up on frying.)
- Kaya Upperi (Crisp raw banana chips)
- Sarkkara Varatti (Thick raw banana pieces deep fried and dunked in jaggery-ginger syrup)
- Olan (Red cow peas and ash gourd in coconut milk)
- Elisseri/Erissery(Pumpkin and red cow peas in thick coconut Gravy)
- Aviyal (Melange of vegetables in a thick yogurt and coconut gravy)
- Koottukari (Yam, raw banana and bengal gram in a thick coconut gravy)
- Thoran (Vegetable stir-fry garnished with grated coconut)
- Kaalan (Raw banana in a thick yogurt sauce)
- Pachadi (Madras cucumber in yogurt and coconut & mustard seeds gravy)
- Parippu (Cooked and mashed lentils)
- Sambar (Lentils and vegetable stew in tangy tamarind sauce)
- Rasam (Thin tangy soup made with tomatoes and spiced with pepper and red chilli powder)
- Paal Payasam (Sweet pudding made with rice and milk)
- Pradhaman (Sweet pudding made with lentils or ripe plantains or rice flakes in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery)
- Rice (Par boiled rice)
- Sambhaaram (Buttermilk, may be spiced with ginger and green chillies)
Phew!!! Never knew that the essays I used to write about Onam back in elementary school would come in handy one day. I am glad I paid attention in class.
How we welcome Mahabali
As a kid, for me, Onam was just another holiday from school. I treated it like any other holiday – spent time watching TV or reading books and taunting my
little sister 🙂 . The highlight of the holidays was the Onam shopping we did. We used to go with my parents, my aunt & cousins to almost all important sales and other events in Ernakulam. We shopped till we dropped and if we ran out of items to buy, we just window shopped. Oh! How can I forget the IRDP (Integrated Rural Development Project) fair? This fair was organized every year for Onam and something I looked forward to visiting. I loved to visit the plethora of shops selling tools, furniture and crafts.
I really started ‘celebrating’ Onam only after my marriage. At my husband’s house, Onam is celebrated with much fan fare. When we were in India, we made it a point to visit my in-laws for every Onam. I used to look forward to this celebration – needless to say, the Onasadya prepared by my mom-in-law had a big role to play in my anticipation.
During Onam, I used to help my sister-in-law make the pookkalam in the morning. It takes some creativity to come up with different designs for the pookkalam every day. Now, every time I have to do it on my own, I wish my sister-in-law was with me to help me out. This year, my husband and Sonshine helped me out with the pookkalam preparation. They realized that it is not an easy task to get the perfect design and so, came up with the simplest of all designs.
Decked in the traditional Kerala dress – the gorgeous Veshti and Mundu – I would ‘try’ to help my mom-in-law with the Onasadya preparation. I was not of much help because I always felt that my movements were restricted in the veshti and mundu. I
was am jealous of my sister in law and my mom-in-law who are as agile as as one can be even in the traditional veshti and mundu.
Once all the dishes are prepared, it is first served to Lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles (you guessed it right; Hindu Gods have division of labor 😉 ). Mom-in-law would first light the Nilavilakku (traditional lamp) and offer the food to lord Ganesha on a banana leaf placed in front of the lamp. This offering is done to thank Lord Ganesha for all the grace he has showered on us.
Then we would sit at the dining table (or on a mat on the floor) and she would serve us all the lip smacking dishes she has prepared.
How to relish the Onasadya
Onasadya with more than 20 dishes to its repertoire is a very elaborate and glorious vegetarian feast. The meal is served on a banana leaf which is placed with the tip of the leaf pointing to the left and is eaten with no cutlery.
To the extreme left, you will find the pappadam and a ripe banana. Then you will see Naalu keeriyathu/Kaaya Upperi and Sarkkara Varratti . Next comes the pickles – ginger, mango and lemon pickles are the most common ones served during Onasadya. Moving to the right, you will find a variety of dishes – Thoran, Olan, Koottukari, Pachadi, Kaalan and Aviyal. Rice is served in the lower half of the leaf along with Parippu on the side and a generous serving of ghee. The rice is un-husked and has a faint brownish red hue to it.
After a little rice is eaten with Parippu and ghee, Sambar is served on the rice. At this point of time, you can dig in and follow whatever order you want and enjoy all the dishes. You will be served second or third servings of rice or any side dishes that you may want. You can also eat rice with Rasam followed by Sambhaaram and rice.
Then Payasam(s) are served. Usually, the payasam is served on the banana leaf itself. The aroma that the banana leaf imparts to the hot payasam cannot be described in words, it has to be experienced. These days the payasam is also served in cups – ease of eating, perhaps. I have also seen people having one more serving of rice with sambhaaram once they have eaten the payasam(s). But my family likes to end the Onasadya on a sweet note.
I have noticed many regional differences in the way a dish is prepared in different regions of Kerala. None of these dishes that I prepare for Onam use onion or garlic – this is my personal preference. In some parts of Kerala, people do use onion and garlic in these preparations. And the way I prepare these dishes is how my mom-in-law prepares this – typical North Kerala style – sans onion and gralic.
Our Onasadya in the US
After moving to the US, I have not always found all the required ingredients to make the Onasadya dishes in the most traditional way. I have adapted some of the dishes to use the easily available vegetables instead of the traditionally used ones without actually compromising the authentic taste. For example, I do not find raw mangoes to make the mango pickle; so I make an instant Granny Smith Apple pickle instead of mango pickle. And to make Olan, I use Zucchini (instead of ash gourd) along with red cow peas. I was experimenting with the idea of a ginger pickle; so instead of Puli-inji, I served the Ginger Pickle. We also do not get the fresh, puffy, Kerala pappadams here. So, we went with Appalams. And lastly, it is not easy for us to get hold of fresh banana leaves to serve the sadya. So, we have stocked some fake banana leaves (thin paper plates shaped like a banana leaf) during our last India trip.
Being almost on the other side of the globe and being far away from your near and dear ones is not easy, especially during festivals and celebrations. Fortunately, we have a lot of good friends here and we get together during Onam and enjoy the sumptuous feast in the potluck style. This is when friends your become your family!
Onam celebrates culture, creativity, abundance, togetherness and harmonious existence with nature and with each other. Onasadya is a very vivid example of this celebration. The dishes celebrate the variety in the harvest. The rich coconut flavor and the taste of the dishes make your taste buds dance. Not all the ingredients in these dishes are indigenous to Kerala, but are extensively used in Kerala cuisine, there by making the Onasadya a true culinary celebration. The dishes satisfy every craving you have – starting from the salty and ending on a sweet note and every other taste in between. Onasadya is indeed a majestic meal. Truly Royal!
Though you will find many regional, religious and cultural differences in the way Onam is celebrated in Kerala, the underlying meaning and significance is the same – harmony and peace.
Wish you all a very happy and prosperous Onam!!!