Onam is a much-anticipated event for the people of Kerala. First long break; weather clears up by then, no rains, fresh harvest and there is a lovely breeze all around. In order to welcome their beloved mythical King Mahabali, people make ‘flower mats’ known as Pookalam in front of their house, and the little ones pluck and collect flowers while the elders come up with creative designs. The base has to be cow dung. Only the bravest can dip their hand into the dung and make a perfect circle with it in the front yard. Celebrations also include several traditional dances, music and games that differ from different places in Kerala, that are collectively called Onakalikal.

Perhaps the most iconic highlight of this vibrant festival is its traditional feast, popularly called the Onam Sadya. Families gather in homes a few days before ‘thiruvonam’, the day of the feast, a grand nine-course meal consisting of over 20 dishes, including rice, sambar (a lentil-based vegetable stew), avial (a mixture of 13 vegetables), rasam (a spicy-sweet-sour stock) and payasam (rice pudding). The women take over the kitchen and cook for the entire clan, the pre-prep is done an evening before and the cooking brigade completes chores by 12:30 in the afternoon and get ready to serve the Sadya in their “mundu neriathu” in batches on banana leaves.

Interestingly dishes served are prepared based on the science that nutrition is the key to good health. The Sadya is a balanced and nutritious meal, which ensures proper digestion and optimum absorption of nutrients by the body. There is a logic to all aspects of the Sadya – the ingredients chosen to prepare the dishes, the way the plantain leaf is laid and the order in which the dishes are served. The plantain leaf is placed with the narrow end to the left and the broad end to the right because most Indians eat with the right hand, and serving rice and curries on the right side of the leaf makes it easier to eat them. The condiments and chutneys are served on the left of the leaf. 

The meal starts with raw banana chips followed by a sweet sharkara upperi, which is made of deep-fried plantain coated with jaggery and dry ginger. This combination activates the salivary glands which set the digestive system in readiness for the meal. Poovan Pazham (yellow banana), a smaller variety, adds flavour to the payasam if you mash it and combine well. Remember to include a poppadum (a thin, crisp, round flatbread) for that additional crunch. Other accompaniments include, inji curry prepared with tamarind, jaggery, and ginger, naranga, a spicy and tangy pickle made using lemons, mango pickle and thairu pachadi, a paste made with coconut, green chili, cumin seeds and curd. Other dishes include olan, a delectable curry made using ash gourd, red lobia and coconut milk, Ullli theeyal (pearl onions sour and spicy curry), kalan, a sour curry made with buttermilk or curd and vegetables like plantain and yam. Grated coconut is likewise included which adjusts the sourness of the buttermilk or curd.
Mezhkkupuratti is another popular choice, made using thin slices of yam or raw banana that are boiled with spices and then finally fried in coconut oil and red chilli flakes. Then there is thoran (mixed vegetables and grated coconut). Kootu curry (made using a couple of legumes and vegetables), parripu curry (made using plain moong dal, red chillies and sesame seeds). Rasam and spiced buttermilk are the beverages served in the Sadya.

Sitting on the floor and eating aids in proper digestion, promotes blood flow and improves the flexibility of your body.