Exams, drizzles and finger-licking food. That pretty much summed up Onam for me through school. It almost always came smack in the middle of terminal exams and during monsoons. Two things always made the festival really memorable: Pookkalam (flower carpet) and the Onasadhya (feast). Getting up in the wee hours and walking down the road with my brother to pluck flowers of different hues from random bushes along the way right from Atham (Day One of the ten-day long celebrations) through to Thiru Onam (Day Ten) for the Pookkalam in our little front yard felt really special. And no matter how the exam went or how hard it rained or how sultry it was, a warm, lovely feast waited at home when we got back from school. While we sweated it out in class, our parents sweated it out in the kitchen to make sure our taste buds exploded the moment we dug into the sumptuous vegetarian spread. The neatly arranged riot of colours, the aroma of vegetables, lentils, spices and coconut, and the cozy comfort of togetherness that was heartwarming.
‘The neatly arranged riot of colours, the aroma of vegetables, lentils, spices and coconut, and the cozy comfort of togetherness that was heartwarming.’
From the exam Onams to “real” Onams spent in Kerala, it’s now about shopping at Dakshin Stores for Madras bananas, banana chips, pappadams, sambar and rasam powders, ready-to-eat chutneys and pickles and instant payasam mixes for the sadhya. I have most recipes in my head, but my cooking isn’t complete unless I’ve made a few frantic calls to parents, aunts, even Malayali friends for ingredients and recipes, even as a dish is cooking! Several hours of chopping, churning, grinding, steaming and frying later, the sadhya is ready to be served hot on bright green plantain leaves. One last call to get the correct order and placement (you’ll be how surprised how important this is!) of each dish on the leaf,* and the sadhya is served! With the kids now in school, it’s once again about exams, drizzles and, hopefully, finger-licking food.
Onam celebrates the homecoming of King Mahabali (Maveli) who gave his people the Golden Era. In the Malayalam month of Chingam (August-September), people rejoice in the bounty of the harvest season with lavish meals fit for a king. The Onasadhya is as lavish as it can get. The sadhya list can be quite endless and daunting with pappadams, puliinji (sweet and sour chilli ginger chutney), banana chips, injithair (ginger in curd), pickles, rasam (lentil and tomato soup), moru (buttermilk), sambar, thoran (cabbage/beans stir fry with grated coconut), upperi (any fried vegetable), pineapple/mango/cucumber pachadi (a distant cousin of raita), vendakka/cucumber kichadi (okra/cucumber in yoghurt and crushed mustard and grated coconut), olan (raw pumpkin and ash gourd stew), ishtu ( vegetable stew in thick coconut milk), erisseri (ripe pumpkin curry with coconut), kalan (thick curd curry with yam and raw plantain), avial (mixed vegetable curry in coconut gravy), and pal payasam, semiya payasam, parippu prathaman, ada parthaman, parippu payasam for dessert. I have never succeeded in rustling up more than 8–10 dishes for the sadhya, but I have always made sure there is Avial. Here’s my Avial recipe which is a fantastic, easy, and quick microwave recipe.
Happy Onam everyone!
Quick and Easy Avial
2 cups Vegetables of equal proportion (ash gourd, potato, drumsticks, carrot, yam, plantain, stringy beans, carrots) cut into long pieces about an inch and a half thick
¾ cup grated Coconut
½ tsp Cumin seeds
½ tsp Turmeric powder (you could skip turmeric if you want your avial to be white)
2 green Chillies
¼ cup Yogurt (you could use tamarind pulp or raw mangoes for this sour punch)
1 small Onion or about 3-4 Shallots if you can find them
2 sprigs Curry leaves
Coconut oil for seasoning
Cooking avial in the microwave ensures that the vegetables don’t lose shape and each slice is cooked through. But gas-top cooking is perfect as well.
In a microwave-safe dish mix the vegetables, 1 slit green chilly, a sprig of curry leaves, turmeric and salt with water just enough to submerge the vegetables. Cook for about 7 minutes on high heat or till the potato is done and the water has evaporated.
While the vegetables are cooking, grind to a rough paste cumin and most of the grated coconut (keep aside 2 tsp).
Mix this paste into the vegetables, add very little water (a little more if you want the thinner, more liquid gravy version of avial) and cook for a minute.
Pound shallots, chilly, curry leaves and yoghurt and add to the vegetables. Cook for another minute. Drizzle a teaspoon of coconut oil over the avial, place a lid on the dish and let it sit till ready to serve.
Trivia: Legend has it that the Pandavas spent considerable time in Kerala during their exile. When the novice cook Bhima took over the kitchen, one of the first things he did was to chop many vegetables, boil them and mix in grated coconut, bringing forth into this world the avial, the king of sadhyas.
*From left to right on the Sadhya plantain leaf, place with the narrow end to the left: Chips, Pappadam, Banana, pickles, puliinji, injithair, olan, ishtu, kichadi, thoran, avial, errisseri, pachadi, kalan and parippu. Rice is placed in the middle. It is served hot followed by sambar, mooru and rasam. The payasam/payasams are served last either on the leaf or in a small steel glass.
About the contributor:
Marshmallow is a fussy-eater-turned-food enthusiast and sometime writer. Mother to two Bean-loving (British not French) kids and wife to a travelling spouse, M has been cooking since age 10.