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GulfWeekly joined the Indian expat community for the Onam Sadhya, a special annual vegetarian autumn harvest festival feast, served on a banana leaf and featuring 24-28 items.
While Onam was celebrated a month ago, The Indian Club Bahrain extended its celebrations for a full month, culminating in the Sadhya this weekend, where they served over 2,000 people.
The Sadhya, which means banquet in Malyalam, featured 27 items served as a single course to almost 500 people per round for five consecutive rounds. Every aspect of the feast, from the preparation to the consumption, has both spiritual and rational logic behind it.
The meal can only be prepared in large quantities by approved chefs. This time, the team was led by Chef Shynjith Kannur and Chef Jayaprakash Palakkad, who were flown in from Kerala for the occasion.
For each round, there was a 15 minute prep, which involved lots of collective chanting and more importantly, the serving of the “side dishes,” collectively called kootan, meaning curry. There is a time-honoured traditional order of serving these items and men and women were putting a tiny amount on each biodegradable plate, I mean, leaf.
As we talked to Stalin Joseph, the president of the Indian Club, the aromas of the food wafted over as volunteers laid out pappadums on each pappadum. Others spooned a myriad spectrum of curries in what seemed like a well-choreographed dance, with the aromas tantalisingly providing the musical notes for the afternoon. Stalin said: “I actually grew up in North India, so even for me, I learn something new every time. What blows me away is that there is a specific way of eating everything.”
There are too many dishes to name, but a few standout ones were koottukari (a magical mixed spicy-sweet vegetable concoction), parippu (a spiced lentil soup) and three different pickles – lime, lemon and mango. Each dish has a designated spot on the leaf. The pickles are served on the top left corner and the banana on the bottom left corner, which helps the servers easily identify and decide on offering additional helpings. The most common ingredients in all the dishes are rice, vegetables, coconut and coconut oil as they are abundant in Kerala.
The main grain is boiled rice, which is the last thing actually served. Everyone was seated, hungrily eyeing the food in front of them before the rice-man appeared with a bucket of rice. Once the rice was served, the sambar and parippu were not far behind. At first, I wondered how they would manage to serve such a liquid dish on such a flat plate.
But my motherland’s engineers did not disappoint. Two small craters were made in the mountain of rice into which were poured the sambar and parippu. As the rice mingled with their new spicy sidekicks, our resident Sadhya expert and lifelong Keralite, Gopal Nambiar informed me that the parippu has to be the first dish consumed, which I dove into with gusto.
To the uninitiated, one thing that may stand out is the lack of cutlery. Mildly familiar GDNonline editor Stan Szecowka stared at his plate in astonishment, as though waiting for it to serve itself to him, before being saved by a spoon.
I chose the traditional route, electing to eat with my right hand. Everything has to be mixed with the rice, to make eating it easier, and somehow, eating it as finger food instead of electing for the British route made it taste all the better. I loved the parippu, going for seconds and the avial, a mixture of 13 vegetables, cooked in coconut.
As the meal wrapped up, we were brought some buttermilk and a spicy soup called rasam to help digest the meal as well as the dessert, payasam, a pudding that is supposed to be had with the mini-bananas served on the plate.
As we were hurried out, lest the next round be left ‘hangry,’ I remembered why I love South Indian food. It is always served as a whole meal with several dishes each serving a digestive function and I have never felt lethargic after a meal. From the pickles to the rasam at the end, each part tastes delicious, is good for you and perhaps most importantly on a working Friday, is not the gateway to food coma.
I hope to make the Onam Sadhya an annual tradition not just for the food, but for the sense of community one gets when breaking rice with a group of 400 or so relative strangers.
l Scan the QR code to watch the festivities.