Ona Sandhya, they say, is not a feast; it is a feeling. It might never be the favorite food for a lot of Malayalis, but the nostalgia and the bon homie that the sadhya inspires is huge, making it a cherished and loved meal, especially for those who are away from home and miss the ten day celebration – preparing flowers for the athapoo (floral arrangements), new clothes, stories of Mahabali (I almost wrote Bahubali, oops, been pondering on why Katappa killed him too much!), the impending harvest and what not. Interestingly, for a largely non-vegetarian state, 97% on an average as per the data from the Central Government’s Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014, the fact that the Sadhya is entirely vegetarian, seems a bit of an anomaly.
The meticulous way in which the condiments that fill up the banana leaf in front of you in a set order, the banana chips, the pickles, the curries, the chutneys, the two types of payasams, the sambar, the rasam, the rice drizzled with generous portions of ghee; all of it creates such a riot of color on your plate, I mean leaf. And all those people serving you, who have no greater purpose than to gently send you into a food coma with the sadhya.
Like every year, this year too, I made 22nd Parallel as my destination of choice to celebrate Onam. The Ona Sadhya they serve is unmatched. Moreover, they serve and feed you with so much love and compassion, that I actually end up eating lot more than I could manage.
I reserve my table and reach the place. You don’t see a lot of people reserving a table for one, leave alone reserve tables at all (it’s a dying art). But I did make a reservation and reached on time. Tables were laid out, covered in white, with banana leaves laid out and ready to serve. I settled in my seat and awaited the arrival of the delicious preparations. Deepti welcomed me with a big smile, Ajit manned the kitchen, while their father monitored the serving to ensure that service is in the perfect order, that each dish goes at its right place on the leaf and everything is perfect. Deepti and Ajit are the family who own the restaurant.
The leaf in front of me is a riot of colors, and as Ajit remarked, this time they even managed to get some pink in there too. (woohoo!) Each attendant comes with a particular dish, places it where uncle instructs, in the perfect order. I request Deepti to explain what is what, I have had the Sadhya every year for three years now, and I still forget it each time, most of it. She happily explains everything, I still forget a lot of names. I start off with the spoon. She comes over and requests to avoid the spoon if I can to get the right flavor. Thanks to my long nails, I generally stick to the spoons and forks, but for once I decided to let it be and get down to use the fingers. I keep requesting second and third an fourth and fifth helpings of rice with generous drizzles of ghee until I am one of the first persons who came in and one of the last to leave.
With some hard-work from memory , here’s what all I had in the Sadhya –
Choru – Rice. I stuck to brown rice. I would any day choose brown over white when it comes to rice.
Olan – A preparation from white gourd and coconut milk, with ginger and coconut oil with a nice subtle flavor
Rasam – Tamarind and tomato based watery dish, seasoned with spices like black pepper, chilli, asafoetida, coriander, etc. Very helpful with digestion (And necessary considering the amount of food you are going to eat)
Puli Inji – One of the stars of the Sadhya. A lip-smacking combination of sweet, sour and spice, that had me asking for more and more and more. It is made of crushed ginger and tamarind.
Pineapple Pachadi – If I didn’t already love the way pineapple is used in Malayali cuisine, I would do so now, after eating this very delicious Pachadi. Pachadi id generally a gravy of coconut grounded with mustard and green chilli. And this one even had pineapple in it. Super love. I remember taking four helpings of it.
Beetroot Pachadi – The pink on my leaf. This one is a pachadi with beetroot in it and a bright deep pink color that makes my already beautiful full leaf, even more beautiful.
Sambhar – This is sambhar at its best. I even gulped down the remnants straight off the cup in end after rice was done. It is mostly a lentil-based vegetable stew.
Avial – The beauty of avial lies in its simplicity. It has grated coconut with vegetales, seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves.
Parappu Pradhaman – It is like a moong dal and jaggery payasam, thick and delicious. You definitely can’t and won’t and shouldn’t stop with one serving.
Erissery – Pumpkin with a ground coconut paste curry. Goes well with rice and ghee and sambhar.
Kalan – Pumpkin, pepper, yoghurt, grated coconut, jeera, chilli and turmeric, cooked and blended to get a perfect and delicious Kalan.
Thoran – This one I had one of the maximum helpings of and is one of my most loved dishes on the leaf. It is coconut oil sauteed cabbage, cooked yet crispy.
Payasam – Four bowls to make me go full and still hoping to ask for one more. Super delicious payasam, rich with dry fruits and milk.
Buttermilk Sambaram – I drank up bowls and bowls of it. It is like another version of what we Gujaratis call as Vaghareli Chhas. It is light and amazingly superb.
Sarkara Upperi/Varatti – These are jackfruit or yam chips coated in jaggery, crispy and nice
Nendran Banana chips – Reminded me of school days when I would raid the tiffins of my Malayali classmates for those special yellow banana chips
Pickle – A delicious tangy mango pickle, I so loved it. This is not your normal mango pickle, it tastes quite different. It is very nice tangy and I managed to eat a lot of it with rice and sambhar.
Papaddam – Delicious crispy fried papaddams. I couldn’t have enough of it
Parippu – Parippu is simple, and very delicious boiled lentils made into a smooth curry that goes amazing with rice and ghee
With this is a small heap of salt, marking not just the auspiciousness of the occasion but also of the “sab-ras” nature of salt. Also, if one wishes to add a bit more salt to any of the dish to suit their taste, it could be used for that.
After this, I was almost to the point of asking if they would be able to provide me a bed or even just some space to doze off because I could hardly get up from my chair. That is how much I ate. But worth every morsel of it. For Ajit, it would be no less than a Masterchef Pressure Test, and I am pretty sure he aced it like a pro. Deepti, take a bow for the lovely hospitality. And uncle, thanks for making sure we had it perfectly. And the entire 22nd parallel team, thanks for making my Onams so special.