The sadya (traditional feast in Kerala) was in full swing at a function in Thiruvananthapuram. Piping hot sambar was followed by rich, aromatic ada pradhaman (jaggery-based payasam cooked with steamed rice flakes in coconut milk). The guests had their fill, got up, folded the banana leaves and left. The servers were flabbergasted because the sadya was only half way through. After the different kinds of payasam are served, pulisseri, rasam and moru (spiced buttermilk) round off the feast.?
Caterer Priya Jayachandran, who runs Mangalya, still remembers how flummoxed she was when the guests from the north of Kerala assumed that the sadya was completed when the desserts were served!
Navigating a sadya
If one were to travel from southern Kerala to the north, the?ingredients of the sadya, the way the dishes are cooked, placed on the banana leaf and the order in which they are served changes.
Even if the food has been ordered or cooked, thanks to YouTube tutorials, are you sure how and in what order the food has to be served? What goes on the top half of the ela (leaf)?
Newly-weds Murali K and Sandhya Rajendran (names changed on request) remember the confusion when they celebrated their first Onam together with a sadya. The banana leaves were washed and dried. That is when they realised they had no clue how to place the banana leaf. Should the tapered end face right or left? And what about the plethora of dishes that had arrived from the caterer? There was no instruction on how to serve it and where it should be placed on the ela.
Starting with the banana leaf that is placed with its tapered end to the left, there is a method, a certain rhythm about how the culinary extravaganza is best indulged in.
Served on fresh banana leaves, the?sadya?encompasses curries, desserts, fries, pickles, fruits and even salt, each of which has a precise place on the leaf.
Ranging from a minimalistic?sadya?with around 12 sides to opulent ones with more than 50 sides, like the one served at the Aranmula Parthasarathy temple, the?sadya?at many places is not even the vegetarian cornucopia of goodies that one assumes it is. In several places in the State and in certain communities,?sadya?is incomplete without fish, chicken or pork.
For now, let us talk about the traditional?sadya?served at festivals, birthdays, marriages and other celebratory events.
VR Vijayakumar, manager of Vinayaka Caterers in Ernakulam, says a traditional sadya consists of rice, parippu, sambar, kurukku kalan, thoran, aviyal, kichadi, pachadi, koottu curry, ishtew, pickles, pappadam, two kinds of banana wafers), banana, paalada payasam and a jaggery-based payasam.
“One can add as many curries as one wants but these are the basic ingredients of a sadya. As one go towards the South, the kurukku kaalan is replaced by the pulisseri and the koottu curry by the vada koottu curry. The payasam that is a must is paal payasam (cooked with rice) with boli and ada pradhaman. Even in the matter of pickles, the puli inji (ginger pickle) is not found in the South. It is plain inji curry, which is spicy and not a confluence of sweet, sour and sweet notes as in the puli inji,” he explains.
In Kozhikode, chena varuthathu, inji thayiru and white lime pickle are usually made for the sadya, says Amrutha C of Amritanjali Events and Caterers in Kozhikode.
Priya believes the Travancore sadya is the most elaborate one. Wizened servers train greenhorns on how to serve a sadya with military precision.
“There are stipulations about where on the leaf a dish should be served. Let’s suppose the leaf is divided into two — the top and bottom half. A team of servers begins from the bottom left of the leaf and first places salt, banana wafers, salted and the sweet jaggery-coated upperi, pappadam and a cheru pazham (a banana). Meanwhile the next person will put teaspoons or sometimes a dab of the three pickles — mango, lime and ginger — on the top right of the leaf. Then comes the curd-based kichadi and pachadi followed by aviyal and thoran.”
Olan, vada koottu curry, and others are served beneath the first row of the sides. In southern Kerala, paripppu, ghee, sambar, pulisseri, rasam, moru etc are served only after hot matta rice (red rice) is served on the bottom half of the leaf.?And if you happen to enjoy a?sadya?in these parts, remember, there is no second helping of the curries that have been served on the leaf.
However, even the way the food is served changes drastically as one moves to Ernakulam and Malabar.
“From Ernakulam onwards, sambar is served with the rice. And from Thrissur, the rice is of the kuruva variety, which is round and white, and not the matta in southern Kerala. The parippu and ghee is served in a corner on the right of the leaf. And rasam, moru, payasam and so on are usually kept in small containers near the leaf,” says Amrutha.
Priya says with a laugh that in Thiruvananthapuram and surrounding areas, sambar precedes the payasam. “The jaggery-based ones comes one after the other, ending with the boli and milk-and-sugar payasam. Only then comes the pulisseri, rasam, etc… ending with the moru,” adds Priya. And yes, to drink there is either water boiled with cumin (jeeraka vellam) or dry ginger (chukku vellam). At present, taking into consideration, convenience and health concerns, bottled water is served.
There are also variations in the way the sadya is prepared. Software professional Athira Krishnan, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram who hails from Alappuzha, says the way the aviyal is cooked differs. “Usually a little curd is used to add flavour to the dish while we use tamarind or green tomatoes. I have heard that slices of raw mango can also be used,” she says.
In Kollam, the pickles could be curd-based. White lemon pickle, erissery etcare included in the feasts in Kollam.
Vijayan points out that koottu curry made of yam, horse gram and vanpayar (red cow peas)becomes the vada koottu curry in Thiruvananthapuram. Potato and onion are cooked in coconut milk with masala and finally deep fried balls of ground urad dal is put into the curry. Priya says it is one of her favourites and should be had with rice, parippu and ghee.
“奥丑颈迟别 ishtew, a must for sadyas in Ernakulam, can now be replaced with olan depending on the tastes of the customer. Till a few decades ago, olanwas not served for auspicious functions,” says Vijayan.
All the caterers say that since people shift from one place to the other, even in Kozhikode and Kochi, boli is now served for sadya if the client is from Thiruvananthapuram.
“In the capital city, boli from Thiruvattar, a small village in Kanyakumari district is much sought after,” adds Priya.
The versatile caterers now seek the choices of clients to serve them the kind of sadya they are accustomed to.
As the Onam fervour moves into top gear, the caterers have their hands full as the festival coincides with the wedding season in Kerala.
“For more than 31 years, I have not enjoyed a sadya at home for Onam. We derive satisfaction when our customers have a sumptuous Onam with no hassles thanks to caterers like us,” signs off Vijayan.