Sadhya – An exposition of culinary culture

Though food choices and eating habits might have changed dramatically across the modern world, in Kerala, Malayalees have retained centuries-old traditions.

Families eating from banana leaves at a long table.
Families celebrating Onam with a Sadhya in Michigan (image credit: Ajita K.)

Since the arrival of Arab traders, the Portuguese, and then the British, Kerala has witnessed various cultural influences on its kitchen and food preferences. It’s no wonder that Kerala has developed a unique culinary culture as its people have incorporated different flavors into its dishes, introducing delicacies that they continue to relish at home and at festival time.

My observation is that most Kerala households don’t have time for ready-to-eat, ready-to-cook meals that come out of cardboard packets.

Kerala has preserved its traditional ways of preparing meals. Malayalees do not ‘decide’ on breakfast, lunch, or dinner or hurry preparation. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes. They plan and prepare their dishes meticulously and in an elaborate manner, whether it’s a Sunday or a weekday.

 Modernity has not truncated the Kerala cooking tradition. Spices are freshly ground, coconut is fresh, and curry leaves are plucked right off the tree. Peeling, dicing, chopping, marinating—it happens almost every day in the Kerala kitchen.

Tools to create mouthfuls of magic

Certain utensils play an important role in making Kerala cuisine world-class. In some modern homes, traditional aduppus (wood-fired ovens) enjoy pride of place alongside gas stoves and microwaves. You may find an ammikallu (grindstone) next to the food processor, along with other traditional utensils like the uruli, puttu kutti, appam chatti, and meen chatti.

Nothing comes close to its taste when fish curry is cooked in a chatti, the traditional clay pot. Together, the clay pot, the kudampuli (the Malabar tamarind), and slow cooking make magic. Chattis can retain and circulate moisture through the dish, making the fish tremendously flavorful. The secret magic of the chatti is that it is unglazed.

Produce for the feast sometimes comes from a family’s small kitchen gardens – a source of pride in ancestral homes, and even in new homes in America!

Kerala mastered the art of slow cooking long before it became a fad or movement. Like the chatti, the uruli, a wide-mouthed traditional brass vessel still extensively used in households, is ideal for slow cooking and is known to retain the natural color and flavor of the ingredients.

Breakfast: A Blend of Taste and Nutrition

Kerala’s traditional, home-cooked breakfasts are one of the best in the world, both in terms of taste and nutrition

Puttu is steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut, along with kadala curry – chickpeas simmering in a coconut-based gravy. Round, lacy appams are made from fermented rice flour and a stew of vegetables and fresh coconut milk. Idiappams, steam-cooked string hoppers – create breakfasts made from scratch and fit for royalty.

Kerala cuisine is mostly vegan. Unlike North Indian dishes, coconut milk is added to enhance flavors instead of dairy products like milk or cream.

Onam Sadhya – Flavors explode on a banana leaf

The Sadhya epitomizes Kerala’s gastronomic culture. It’s a traditional multi-course meal prepared for special occasions like Onam, festivals, weddings, and birthdays. Usually, it features a vegetarian medley of curries, stir-fried vegetables, pappadams, pickles, chutneys, and desserts like payasam and prathaman, but areas like Kozhikode and Malappuram add non-vegetarian dishes to the meal.

Preparing a Sadhya is not an easy task. The meal features at least two types of coconut-based curries – coconut-based cabbage or bean stir fry, pulissery made with sour curd, tangy homemade mango pickle, and fish curry – fresh, hot, and served with boiled red rice on a banana leaf. Traditionally, the scrumptious Onasadya showcases the rich produce from just-harvested fields as well as the flavors of Kerala.

Traditional Kerala food on a banana leaf
An Onasadhya – a traditional feast served on a banana leaf

Like its preparation, serving and eating a Sadhya also requires a bit of patience. It is traditionally served on a ‘thooshanila’, a banana leaf with a nimble tip, laid in such a way that the tip is towards the left. The fresh banana leaf is said to enhance the flavor of the dishes served hot on it, always from the left to the right.

It is, however, eaten by hand from the opposite direction, sitting on the floor in the arthapadmamsana (half lotus) position, which is said to ease digestion.

Onam honors the legendary Mahabali

Celebrating Onam in Kerala is akin to a journey into its soul. The harvest festival celebrates the legend of Mahabali, a generous and benevolent ruler who brought prosperity to his kingdom.  Onam is celebrated over 10 days every year (from 19th to 29th August this year). It welcomes back Mahabali whose rule established values like egalitarianism and tolerance in Kerala’s social fabric. The Onasadhya is central to any Onam celebration. The banquet is served on banana leaves featuring more than 25 dishes, including a variety of sweet payasam.

For most Malayalees, the Sadhya is an emotion, and Kerala cuisine is an elaborate glory that continues to enchant generations.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 17 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from...