I haven’t been eating much Indian food this year. Other than several visits to Maharajah Bhog, a current favorite, I’ve mostly been exploring Middle Eastern and African cuisines when I go out of late. I was headed out to the west side a couple of weeks ago to check out a Middle Eastern grill I’d heard about with a unique dish but on a whim decided to head down to Missouri City to sample the ‘newest’ restaurant serving the cuisine of the Spice Coast state of Kerala, Kerala Thanima. It’s been open better than a year probably but I had never been.
It turned out to be an inspired whim. I walked in on what was the last day of service of a sadya, a special celebratory meal. There was nothing on the website and I couldn’t read the poster in the window; the owner spoke so softly I thought perhaps talking was frowned upon so I didn’t ask many questions. These days, though, the Great Google can answer most of the mysteries of life with just a few clicks and after I got home and got to mousing around, I came to the conclusion I had experienced an Onam Sadya, a Hindu harvest festival meal which also celebrates the beginning of a new year and the return of the benevolent King Mahabali to check up on his subjects.
I was welcomed very graciously, of course, as would be expected at an Indian restaurant.
Sadyas are traditionally served on a banana leaf; here, a faux banana leaf was used. Some articles suggest the placement of the various elements on the leaf and the order in which they are served is dictated by tradition. Various pictures I’ve found online have not exactly confirmed that but it was true of the first elements, at least. The lower left corner of the leaf is the place for the banana chips, jaggery-coated fried banana chips, pappadum and baby banana. The upper left corner of the leaf is the place for the mango pickle.
The center of any traditional Indian meal is of course a starch with all the curries, dals, chutneys, pickles and sweets being accompaniments. Here a short grain rice occupied the center of the leaf. The server spoke so softly as he placed the elements on the leaf I couldn’t even recognize the names of typical dishes from Kerala I was familiar with until I sampled them but I understand the first thing ladled onto the rice was a dal or parippu which was drizzled with a few drops of ghee. After this picture was taken the server came around again and a sambar was ladled over the other side of the rice. To the right of the rice is aviyal, a typical mixed vegetable dish of Kerala; this version had many pieces of drumstick. In the upper left hand corner of this picture is cabbage thoran, a typical stir fry dish.
Unfortunately so far I have not been able to pin down the other elements in this picture or even whether they’re considered chutneys or whatever. There are many possible elements to an Onam Sadya and my senses of smell and taste were impacted by some medications I was taking and I wasn’t able to do a very good job of picking out ingredients other than by shape and texture. I believe these elements are either chutneys or pachadis or kichadis.
Toward the end of the meal an additional sweet was brought around in a small cup. Traditionally this would be either a payasam or a pradhaman. It was not as sweet as any payasam I have ever had and I detected no rice or vermicelli so I have guessed it was a pradhaman (never had one before that I know of) and it’s ingredients, as best I could ascertain them, best matched those for a Chakka Pradhaman or jackfruit pradhaman.
Everyone was eating with their fingers and even though a plastic spoon was provided I did my best to ‘do as the Romans do’ and I managed to get my plate more or less clean, though I was considerably less adept at it than the other diners I observed. By the time I finished, the dining room was almost empty and I did get a chance to chat with the owner just a bit. He emphasized that this was the last day of this special meal; the restaurant was shuttering for a day and then would resume its regular schedule and menu, which is not vegetarian as this meal was. He also emphasized that this will be done again next year at about the same time though not on the same dates on our Gregorian Calendar.
I had read about sadyas before and always expected that they were offered here in private homes and other private venues and never expected to encounter one offered publicly like this. There are many articles online about the Onam Sadya. For those who want to know more, this site and this site offer pictures of the many dishes that may be included and if you click on the pictures you will pull up further explanations and recipes. And more pictures from Google.