Today marks the first day of Onam, the largest indigenous festival in Kerala. Legend has it that Mahabali, a beloved king from Kerala who was known for being just and kind, visits his residents during this period every year. A popular folk song we all grew up hearing describes his era as a time of peace, equality, and joy. A utopian society, if you will, devoid of deceit, conflict, child mortality, and sickness.
The festival usually falls in late August or early September every year. The exact day is calculated according to the Malayalam calendar, Kolla Varsham. Similar to the Gregorian calendar, it has 12 months, but the first month, Chigham, usually starts in August or September.
It is typically celebrated for ten days and some of the festivities include tying swings on tall trees, traditional dancing like Thiruvathirakali, snake boat races, parades, music, and games.
Floral arrangements called athapoo are laid every day on the ground in front of homes to welcome Mahabali.
The best part of the festival, as with most festivals, is the feast called sadhya! Over a dozen vegetarian dishes are served on a banana leaf, and most of them are traditionally vegan! A typical sadhya can have about 24–28 dishes served as a single course. I hope to share the recipes for as many dishes as possible this Onam season. Stay Tuned!
How to serve on a banana leaf – Sadhya serving etiquette
The banana leaf is always laid with the tip or tapering end pointing towards the left of the person sitting down to eat. Each dish has a place on the banana leaf and must be served in a particular order.
A typical sadhya has plantain chips, candied thick plantain chips, pappadam, and a banana on the lower left side of the leaf. Pickles go on the upper left starting with ginger/inji curry. Then come the kichadi and pachadi followed by mezhukkupuratti (stir-fry), thoran, and avial. Olan, kottucurry and erissery is served on another row below. Piping hot rice is served only after everyone is seated. The moong dal curry/parippu comes first, followed by sambar, rasam, payasams, and then pulissery. Bear in mind there are regional differences to the sadhya etiquette, and the above account mostly pertains to the southern part of Kerala.