Being absolutely drawn to all kinds of seafood and meats, I usually stay away from vegetarian foods. I have never found a taste for it and feel the only way it does really appeal to me is when it is surrounded by a lot of ghee (clarified butter) or cashew paste. Considering that, and if calories were ever a bother, I would naturally gravitate towards the delicious smorgasbord of poultry, bovine and crustacean delights! But if there is one thing I would recommend anyone visiting Kerala to never give a miss, it is the complete vegetarian traditional meal (which almost passes of as a banquet) called the ‘sadhya.’
Photo from Flickr
How did the sadhya originate?
When the first Brahmins came to Kerala and introduced Ayurveda to the world from their own inheritance of knowledge from the early Buddhists, they introduced vegetation that would not only be used for medicinal purpose but also influence the cuisine of Kerala. Many dishes on the sadhya were conceived with an Ayurvedic approach to diet.
Kerala, being originally and mainly agrarian in nature, the traditional Kerala sadhya was meant to consist of everything that was the fruit of the farmer’s produce. A good year’s harvest would call for a grand celebration and the entire village or community would gather to offer a feast to the Gods in thanksgiving. The women of the house would prepare the 24 (sometimes 26) separate items that make up this traditional banquet. This sadhya with its array of delicacies later became central to every celebration including marriages and household ceremonies and festivities.
Serving the Sadhya
The varieties of dishes that comprise a sadhya vary in texture, taste and color and their placement on a fresh green banana or plantain leaf heightens the freshness of the meal making it more appealing. There is also a particular manner in which each item is placed on the leaf followed by a course-wise serving of rice with various gravy items. The sadhya usually is served during lunch because of the sheer enormity and variety of dishes.
The plantain leaf is collected a day before the celebration and heated over fire with brisk movements in order not to burn them. The heat makes them pliable. The leaves are laid on the floor equidistant from each other in rows allowing an aisle space for the servers to move and serve each individual attending the feast. The narrow end of the leaf points to the left of the guest.
The items are placed on the leaf starting from the left bottom corner. During the meal, you are served with warm or hot cumin or ginger flavored water that is medicinal in value. If you find the meal a tad too spicy, the hot water would make things a bit worse in which case you can carry along your own bottled water.
What’s on the leaf platter?
Although every item tastes so unique with vegetables and a fine blend of spices, there is one ingredient that pervades and lends its flavor to most of the dishes in the meal and that is the coconut. Also known as the ‘land of coconuts,’ I don’t think there is any other cuisine that has found so many uses of this simple fruit. They use the kernel, the shell, the milk and the cream. In fact, in Kerala, they have a use for every part of the coconut tree and the coconut. Most of the dishes are prepared and tempered in coconut oil.
Dry items like pappadams and banana chips of two varieties (salted and coated in brown sugar-jaggery) and a banana are placed at the left bottom corner. The placement of the rest of the items follows on the top half of the leaf in a clockwise fashion ending at the top right hand corner. After the pappadams and chips, three types of pickles are served- big lime pickle, a hot and sweet ginger and tamarind preparation called ‘inji puli’ and a mango pickle.
Then come the vegetarian main course delicacies like thoran (cabbage, carrot or beans stir fried with a mustard and red chilli tempering, olan (white pumpkin and lentils cooked in coconut milk), avial (mixed vegetables blended with coconut and spices), kichady (a blend of yoghurt and cucumber), pachadi (main vegetable cooked in a coconut gravy with a tinge of mustard), erissery (made with yam or pumpkin blended with coconut) and kootu curry (dried, hot and sweet preparation of banana and coconut). A pinch of salt follows. The rice is served in the middle of the bottom half of the leaf.
Rice and tapioca are the staples of most households. In Kerala people prefer the par boiled rice which is also called the ‘red rice’ or ‘choru’ in Malayalam. The color of the rice grains has a tinge of red or brown in them because of being boiled with the husk, thus retaining its nutrients.
The first course consists of a simple ‘dal’ or ‘parippu’, made of yellow lentil that is poured over the rice. A generous topping of ghee follows and the combination is meant to be eaten with pappadam and seasoned with salt. This is like an appetizer for the rest of the meal and the remarkable simplicity of the combination of rice, lentil, salt and pappadam bring on a nostalgia for the often overlooked simple things in life that bring warmth and delight to the human heart and soul.
The next course follows with rice topped with sambar (a thick gravy of lentils and vegetables flavored with tamarind and asafetida), pulissery (a coconut and yoghurt based gravy delicately flavored with mango or banana), kaalan (yam cooked in a spicy yoghurt base) and rasam (spicy pepper water flavored with coriander leaves and chopped garlic).
The final course (almost) is the favorite of those with a sweet tooth. Usually two or three different types of ‘pradhaman’ or ‘payasam’ are served. They all essentially refer to a sweet dish having a thick liquid consistency but the former has a more elaborate form of preparation using a variety of ingredients. The varieties may include a rice or ‘paal’ payasam (boiled rice steeped in thickened, sweet milk, flavored with raisins, cardamom and cashew nuts and sometimes even small pieces of pineapple) or ada pradhaman (puffed rice flakes prepared in the same manner as above occasionally with a tinge of jaggery), a ‘parippu’ pradhaman (boiled and pulverized green gram sweetened with brown sugar and blended with coconut milk, chakka pradhaman (made of jackfruit) or godhambu pradhaman (made of broken wheat).
By now, you would feel so stuffed that getting up from the floor without falling on the person next to you would pose a considerable amount of stress on your already intoxicated nerves! But it isn’t over yet… another small serving of rice with a ladle full of buttermilk that follows might just do the trick to allow you to digest this enormous meal, a banquet fit for the Gods. And before you leave the place, you are presented with a banana to help aid the digestion and burn the excess ‘carbs’ away (although, I must tell you that hadn’t crossed my mind until now.)
The evening after…
Have very little plans of moving around after a sadhya because the overdose of coconut makes you extremely sluggish and drowsy and the only thing left to do is find yourself a bed and a pillow and switch the alarm and ringer off on your phone.
I almost forgot to tell you that the traditional manner of eating a sadhya is sitting cross- legged on the floor without the usual clutter of cutlery you may be used to. That is because the entire meal is eaten in that position with your palm and fingers cupped into a ladle. For those who are already backing out… don’t fret too much. There is a provision for you to join the elderly, arthritic people sitting on chairs and tables, but you would still need to eat with your hand! I must admit that the thought of sitting cross-legged and hunched on the floor with nothing to support your back to eat this enormous fare off a banana leaf is a bit daunting, but nevertheless, it is an experience you will never regret. Besides, you always have the table and chair to resort to.
Where tradition meets modernity, the concept of sitting on the floor is however becoming less popular, although I feel it is in these very little details that one gets the true and traditional ‘sadhya’ experience.