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This past weekend, as a friend’s wedding betokened a visit in God’s own country, I fell in love with Kerala all over again. The provenance of nature’s bounty on this sliver land off the Arabian Sea is breathtaking! From the rolling Nilgiris in Munnar to verdant backwaters of Alleppey and the striking beaches of Kovalam – Kerala is mesmerising. Incidentally, my visit coincided with the beginning of Onam celebrations in the state. A 10-day ritual of festivity, it lives up to its popular fable of God visiting his own country!
The Onam Story
While there are a couple of other stories around Onam, primarily a harvest festival, I will tell you the one which is most popular. Once upon a time, Kerala was ruled over by King Mahabali. Mahabali, the grandson of Hindu mythological figure Prahalad, was a demon or asura king. However, demon or not, he was deeply beloved by his subjects. His rule is said to have heralded the golden era for Malayalis, a time where there was no place for discontentment or dishonesty; all were treated equally, irrespective of caste and creed. Perhaps this explains why Onam is a festival deeply rooted in the hearts of all Malayalis, across religious boundaries. A devout follower of the Hindu God Vishnu, he is said to have been a blessed king, renowned for his work of honor and generosity. Up in the heavens, the Gods grew envious of the reverence for Mahabali and approached Vishnu for assistance.
On a fateful morning, just as Mahabali completed an auspicious ritual and prepared to meet his priests, he was approached by a young brahmin named Vamana. As was his custom, he asked of Vamana “What do you desire? seek and it shall be yours!” Vamana asked for land, only as much as he could cover in three strides. Mahabali‘s advisor-priest Shukracharya realised that this was no ordinary boy, but Vishnu in disguise. He promptly advised Mahabali to take caution. A humble Mahabali, disregarding Shukracharya’s advice, contended that it would be dishonorable for a king to go back on his word. As soon as Mahabali granted Vamana’s wish, the young boy grew in size to mythical proportions. With one stride he covered the earth and sea and with his second stride he covered the skies and heavens. Vamana looked down and asked of Mahabali, where must he put his foot now. Mahabali offered his head to Vamana and thus the brahmin stepped onto the demon king’s head, pushing him down to the netherworld. Impressed by Mahabali’s virtues, Vishnu is said to have rewarded Mahabali with the fiefdom of the netherworld amongst other things. The boon we are celebrating though, is Mahabali’s return to Kerala for a day every year to visit his subjects. The carpet of flowers (Pookalam, colourful processions and the grand feast of Onamsadya is for welcoming back their legendary King, and usher in the golden age of Kerala again.
Onamsadya Feast Offerings
An integral part of Onam celebrations, the lavish Sadya is what every foodie looks forward to, Malayali or not. Served on the second day of Onam, Thirvanonam (September 14th this year), when Mahabali rises back to earth, it is a multicourse affair served on a banana leaf. Traditions around the feast differ as you travel through Kerala households and Onamsadya is not always vegetarian; fish curry is a popular serving in Malabar (North Kerala). However, most of us are more familiar with the Travancore version of a vegetarian banana-leaf feast. Most customs agree on placing a banana leaf with the pointed end towards the left of the diner and the popular dishes, which can range anywhere from 13 to 64, include (to be partaken in this order): banana, crisps, pickles, chutneys, vegetable preparations such as thoran, avial, pachadi, khichadi, etc; rice (white rice or unpolished Kerala rice with sambar, then rasam and finally yogurt/buttermilk. Sweets such as payasam or pradhamam may be consumed just before the curd-rice or to conclude the meal. You end the meal by folding the banana leaf, towards yourself if you enjoyed the meal and, in the unlikeliest of scenario, away from yourself if you are unsatisfied.
Where to feast on Onamsadya in Chennai
Bordering Kerala and with a large population of Malayalis, it is not too hard to find a great Onamsadya in Chennai. If you have not scored an invite to your neighborhood Malayali home, you can head out to these places for a great Sadya feast: Popular Kerala restaurants such as Ente Kerala, Kumarakom and Sanjeevanam lay out great feasts. If you want to dine in luxury, then it is hard to go wrong with South Indian fine dining institutions such as Dakshin at the Crowne Plaza and Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel. Other great options include Krishnavilasam, The Dining Room at Park Hyatt and Madras at Raintree Teynampet. Many of these eateries will be serving the Sadya well after Thiruvaonam, so you can enquire ahead and book a table.
A self proclaimed food geek and coffee nerd, Amit Patnaik enjoys his time in the kitchen as much as he loves dining out. He runs the food blog Pursuit of Yummyness and contributes to The Hindu in Chennai.