Hridhayam Niranja Onaashamsakal! If this sounds like gibberish to you, it’s just me swishing you all a belated “best wishes from the heart, for a happy Onam” in Malayalam. Yesterday all of Kerala, and Keralites the world over celebrated Onam. This is not a religious festival and so everyone in Kerala, irrespective of their religious beliefs, celebrates Onam with flowers, new clothes and a festive traditional vegetarian meal (sadya) which is served on a plantain leaf. I shall do a write-up about a “Sadya” another time, as that is a post in itself! In the meanwhile, I’m sharing a traditional Kerala Sadya recipe for Chenai Kadala Kootu Kari.
Onam is celebrated over 10 days of the Malayalam month of “Chingam”. The festival starts with “atham” day and ends on “thiruvonam” day. Chingam signifies the end of the monsoons and roughly corresponds to 15th of August – 15th of September of the English calendar.
The central feature of Onam celebrations is the “Pookalam” (floral decoration/ carpet, usually round in design). It is laid out at the entrance to homes. The decoration is done fresh every day, and gets progressively bigger till the tenth day. The tenth day is when some of the most creative and beautiful flower patterns can be seen everywhere. Our “pookalam” this year was rather simple (see below) with the only three varieties of flowers we could find here.
In my childhood, we would go into the neighbourhood to gather flowers for the “Pookkalam”. As we got older, there were fewer flowers to pick in and around our home. Thos e who grew flowers would guard them with their lives from flower thieves during Onam. Stories were told of not just flowers, but the pots in which they were growing, mysteriously disappearing – plant and all! Now we all buy flowers from the flower vendors who appear during the season.
For Onam, Keralites traditonally get up early in the morning and start the day with a ritual bath. Then they wear clothes bought especially for the day, and usually a visit to the temple is part of routine. Children and some elders in the family get together to create the “Pookkalam”. The next item on the agenda is the festive lunch. These days, as traditional extended families give way to smaller nuclear families, celebrations are becoming smaller and less grand. Many families still make the effort to travel back home and get together for the occasion.
Since we are far from home, we usually have friends over to celebrate with us and share our festive lunch. I don’t prepare a full fledged Sadya, as there aren’t enough of us to do justice to that large a meal. Today’s recipe is one I usually cook for my festive Sadya.
This Chenai Kadala Kootu Kari or Elephant Yam & Black Chickpeas With Toasted Coconut is traditional Palakkad Iyer fare. It is also part of Kerala cuisine. Traditional Kerala cooking uses only the dark brown variety of chickpeas which is referred to as Kaala Chana (black chickpeas) in the North. In this recipe the brown chicikpeas is cooked with Elephant Yam and a paste of cumin, red chillies and coconut ground to a paste. The dish is finished with a little jaggery and toasted coconut.
This makes this dish spicy, and mildly sweet and sour and is one of my husband’s favourite dishes. The final addition of the toasted coconut is what takes this dish to another level, taste wise. This is an easy recipe to cook but requires a little planning. The chickpeas has to be soaked overnight and cooked the next day. Elephant Yam can cause an allergy in some people resulting in itching.Cooking the vegetable with turmeric and tamarind gets rid of this reaction so the vegetable becomes safe to eat.
Just in case you are allergic to Elephant Yam, it is a good idea to rub some coconut oil (any oil is ok) on your hands, inside and out. This prevents the hands from itching. I’m extremely allergic to most Elephant Yam, oil or not. So my husband who isn’t, always cuts the vegetable for me. I have no problems with eating it though.
Here is a picture of our Onam sadya (feast) this year. For a sadya or meal, one sits on the floor (or at a table these days), and the banana leaf is always placed with the narrow end of the leaf to the left of the person who is seated in front of it. There is a particular order in which various items are served and a designated place on the leaf for each item of food. I shall, eventually, do a separate post on this.
On this leaf, the dishes are described clockwise starting from the glass of water on the left. First is the Parippu Pradhaman (a sweet made of lentils, jaggery and coconut milk) in a bowl, Green Beans Poduthuval/ Thoran (stir fried but without coconut), Chenai Kadala Kootu Kari (recipe above), Olan (pumpkin and ash gourd/ winter melon in coconut milk), Pineapple Pachadi (pineapple cooked with a spicy mustard-coconut paste), Paalada Pradhaman (a milk based sweet with sun-dried flaked rice), Parippu ( lentils cooked with salt and turmeric), Rice with Tomato Morkootan/ Pulisseri ( tomatoes in a spicy yogurt and coconut gravy), Pappadum, Pulikyatchal (green chilli-ginger-tamarind chutney) and sweet and salty plantain chips.