In Kerala, the south western state of India, every important celebration includes a festive vegetarian meal called a “Sadya”, which is served on a banana leaf. The number of dishes cooked and served for a Sadya is varied and can differ from family to family. However, certain dishes are a must. Today’s recipe, Kaalan – Raw Banana in Spiced Coconut and Yogurt Gravy, is one of those.
Later this week, Christians around the world would be celebrating Good Friday. This year, Hindus from Kerala wherever they may be, would be celebrating Vishu on the very same day. Vishu is celebrated in Kerala on the first day of “Medam” in the lunar calendar. This corresponds to approximately the 14th or 15th of April every year.
Vishu celebrates the harvest and is considered by many to signify the beginning of the New Year. It is customary to wake up on Vishu morning and the first see the “Vishu Kani”. This is an arrangement of various auspicious elements including gold, silver, freshly harvested rice, vegetables and fruit, coconut and the beautiful, golden and bright Konna flowers (Indian Laburnum/ Cassia Fistula or flowers of the Golden Shower Tree). The sight of the Kani the first thing in the morning is a hope and prayer for better harvests to come, and the year ahead will be prosperous in every way.
Everyone receives a “Vishu Kaineetam”, which is a small monetary gift from the eldest member of the house. Fireworks/ crackers are burst, then comes a ritual bath, and then the women of the house cook up the festive lunch or Sadya using whatever the harvest has produced for the season. This is a part of the day that everyone looks forward to.
Every family has it’s “must cook” dishes for a Sadya. This can differ for different regions across the state. For Vishu, some traditional dishes like the Vishu Kanji (a savoury rice and coconut milk gruel served for breakfast) and Vishu Katta (a rice cake made with coconut milk, cumin and ginger) are important for many Keralites. We don’t follow this tradition in our homes, though Vishu is a very important part of our celebrations.
There are some dishes, however, that no self-respecting Sadya would be without. These include Sambar, Kaalan, Avial, Olan, Kootu, Kichadi, Erisseri, Pachadi, Thoran and Payasam. The vegetables (and fruit if used) cooked for a Sadya would depend on the seasonal produce available. So a Vishu Sadya would feature a lot more of mangoes and jackfruit.
Kaalan is a dish made of either Raw Banana (Vazhakkai) Elephant Yam (Chenai), Ash Gourd (Elavan) or ripe Mangoes. Typically, a Kaalan is a creamy and somewhat spicy coconut yogurt based gravy with a slight tang from the sour yogurt used to cook it. Some recipes do not use cumin seeds for the coconut paste but we do at home. Here I’ve used Raw Banana or what is called “Pacha Kaya” in Malayalam.
I use chickpea flour while making Kaalan which is not a traditional thing to do. There are two reasons for this. If the yogurt used is not sour enough, it will split when cooking. Adding the chickpea flour prevents this and also gives the Kaalan a creamier finish.
Other types of Kaalan are Kurukku Kaalan ( a thicker variety) and Rasa Kaalan (traditionally a recipe from the Namboothiri community of Kerala). They all use the spiced coconut and yogurt base for the gravy.