Reflections on an Onam Feast

Updated: Oct 11

Covid’s unique contribution to our way of living is the proliferation of entities supplying cooked food at home. Thanks to one such place, Kanthari near where we live, we had a rich Onam feast served on plantain leaves. Onam is the harvest festival of Kerala. It commemorates the mythical King Mahabali, celebrates the end of the monsoon season, and welcomes the harvest. Onam celebrations extend for 10 days at the end of the Chingam, in September. Celebrations include grand processions, racing of the famous snake boats, and traditional folk dances. The Onam Sadya, a feast consisting of nine or more vegetarian dishes is also an indispensable part of the festival. The Kerala version of the Indian thali is organic and is realized on a plantain leaf. It had a spread of the usual suspects of an Onam Sadya, sarkara upperi (banana chips), mango pickle, lime pickle, puli inji (curry made of ginger, tamarind, green chillies and jaggery), pineapple pachadi (curried raita), olan (dish made from ash gourd and lentils), erissery (Recipe made using ground coconut paste and finally seasoning with roasted coconut.),avial (a mixture of many vegatables), puliserry (curry based on curds), kootu curry (made from black chickpeas), sambar (dish consisting of lentils and vegetables), rasam (a thin, very spicy southern Indian soup), spicy buttermilk, bananas, papad and of course boiled rice. After finishing a meal, the protocol is to fold the upper half of the banana leaf towards you to indicate that you have approved the food served (1). The folding away from you indicates censure. A fully cleaned up banana leaf is an expression of perfect approval: like giving hundred marks. Food, as a part of living, allows us to find how people imagine their worlds. Food closely reflects culture. In the Rome of antiquity, for the affluent, food was pleasure. Hindus venerated food as God, as they found God in everything. Christians said grace before meals acknowledging God as the provider of food. In the European tradition, food gets served sequentially. Soup is the first to be served followed by salads. Then the main course makes its entry and the last in the sequence is the dessert. Each course is accompanied by a a wine and served with a specific set of cutlery to eat with. The formality of serving can ascend to theatrical heights of performance in formal banquets with the servers responding to the commands of a chief server. The Chef conducts the choreographed course. India provides the antithesis to this ordered march through the courses. Everything is dumped on the plate simultaneously. The measure of refinement is provided by having a particular spot on the plate for a particular dish. Eating begins with mixing of different dishes. So you mix the rice with sambar and papadam and often pickles creating a dish that is unique to you. You transform by your genius what is served into what you eat. In Kerala the formal feast, the ‘Sadya’ on festive occasions like Onam etc has a different protocol. The food is served on a plantain leaf and the sequence of serving different dishes is also faithfully followed. At the end is the ‘payasam’ a sweet dish with different variants. Food plays a very dominant role in Chinese culture. Hence strong traditions regarding food have developed in China. Each food symbolises something, wealth, long life, children etc. Although a Chineses meal may start with soup and appetisers, soup is more likely treated as a beverage. Chinese cuisine has many thin soupes to suit this role. Chinese cuisine does not have a main course; like in India. All food items appear together. People share the food from the same dish. Chinese usually serve fruit as dessert. The desserts are often a combination of sweet and savoury items like taro or red bean paste. Chinese cuisine believes that food should harmonise. For example, cookbook author Helen Chen (2) writes that her mother never served two spicy dishes or two beef dishes in the same meal. A contrast in taste and textures is the sought -after goal. Examples are serving something crisp along with something soft or complementing a bland food item with a spicy one. Dressing up the dish to stimulate visual pleasure is also important. “Indian-Chinese food is the preparation of Chinese food to suit Indian taste buds,” says Pemba Tsering (3) of Kolkata’s How Hua restaurant. “Authentic Chinese food is generally supposed to be bland. Indian-Chinese food is prepared with additional spices like chillis, onions and so on” Jennifer Liang (4) has divided the history of Chinese migration in Calcutta into three distinct phases. She found that the first wave of immigrants arrived in Calcutta in the nineteenth century. Another group who are the ancestors of the present day Calcutta Chinese came in the early twentieth century. The end of the Second World War saw another wave arriving. The Indian-Chinese food originated in the 1700s, with the arrival of Chinese travellers in Calcutta. With their settling down, a community developed in Kolkata, and Cantonese and Hakka cuisines began to appear on menus all across the city, not only in restaurants but in small roadside stalls as well. One of the main reasons how traditional Chinese food got hybridized in its Indian ‘avtar’ was because the early immigrants had to make do with whatever was available. Quality deteriorated while the variety of the ingredients diminished. What has survived are the classic Indo-Chinese dish of fried rice and chilli chicken (3). While Chinese restaurants have flourished in India, the converse has not happened. It is quite likely that the flavours are a little too rich and spicy. Another factor contributing to this is that the Indian community in China has never been big enough to influence the market. The hybrid food has invaded the middle east, perhaps due to the large Indian presence there. Indian food is very region-specific. It is said the palette changes with every district. Nothing illustrates this more than the Gujarati food, which I relish, having spent a long time in Gujarat. Gujarati cuisines varies across the state. Kathiawadi style is spicy and hence liked by south Indians (5). But what we find strange is that sugar or jaggery gets added to the food, creating a unique taste which has to be cultivated. The standard fare consist of khichidi, dhokla and varieties of pickles for sides. The thali contains everything; from the starters to desserts and can be enjoyed at any part of the meal. The bajra roti is a popular bread. In desserts shrikand and doodh pak rank high. The most popular dishes here are bhakri’s, eggplant curries, stuffed chillies, undhiyo, patra, dhokla, dhokli and chunda. References 1. P Subramaniam 2. Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking Paperback — February 12, 1996 3. 4. Liang, ‘Migration Pattern and Occupational Specializations’, pp. 395–401 file:///Users/admin/Desktop/Liang%20Jennifer~%20An%20Insiders%20History%20.pdf 5.

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