The “Sadya” Experience


This post marks the beginning of my new feature addition to the blog. While my blog is made up of posts on my travel experiences as well as a bucket load of recipes, this new additional feature will basically comprise of majorly my food or dining experiences around. And no, these are not aimed as restaurant reviews but the complete experience, maybe a bit of trivia around it, a bit of history and more.

Today, being Onam, my article will feature my experience of an authentic Keralite Sadya lunch that I had experienced at the Taj Vivanta in Bekal, a tourist spot in Kerala a couple of years back.

For those unaware, here’s a bit of history on what Onam is all about. A Keralite friend helped me with the story and frankly, there is a great deal of resemblance of this story with that of the Greek Goddess of harvest, Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Of course, there are differences in the storylines but the gist remains the same.

The Onam story highlights the history of King Mahabali, essentially a demon king but extremely kind and much loved by his subjects. He was a just ruler owing to which, his popularity spread around. The lineage of Gods got insecure of his rise and approached the higher god, Lord Vishnu to help them gain higher ground. Vishnu agreed and in the guise of a dwarf approached Mahabali to grant him a boon of giving him an area of land that could cover three of his footsteps. As was his nature, Mahabali never refused anything to anyone who visited him and granted him his boon not realising that it was actually Lord Vishnu in disguise. The dwarf form grew in size and with one foot covered the entire earth and with his other foot, covered the higher world of the gods. Mahabali realised that he had been fooled but he since he didn’t have anything else to offer. Being the one to always honor his word, he offered Vishnu his head to let him place his 3rd foot and thus attained salvation in the process. Vishnu was pleased to see his kindness and integrity and offered Mahabali a wish.

Mahabali didn’t ask anything for himself but requested that he be allowed on earth once every year to check on his subjects and their welfare. His wish was granted and the festival of Onam is celebrated in honour of King Mahabali’s return. It is the time of the year when everything is ready for harvest.

Now, Onam being celebration time is time for the traditional Sadya, which is essentially always had as a lunch meal. Special note – having a Sadya can make you really really drowsy and you need a good nap-time after having it. Hence, always recommended as Lunch and not dinner.

Bekal beach

I had been on a holiday to Bekal a couple of years back. We had stayed at Vivanta by Taj – a wonderful property there by the beach. The resorts had just recently commenced their operations there and were a few months into service. The hotel, as any Taj property, was amazingly homely and the customer service impeccable. We even had the Chef visit us while we were just checking in and offered her insights into the local food, the specialties around the region and more. There were small artificial ponds created inside the hotel with fishes in there, which you could feed as well. The chef gave me some bread and I was set to spend some good time feeding the fishes in the ponds there. Now this may seem something trivial to quite a few, but I had never fed a fish before and just watching it jump at crumbs that I threw in was quite fun.

We spent our day mostly by the beach that day and the evening relaxing around the property.

However, the next day morning, we were introduced by the restaurant staff to the concept of Sadya lunch that the hotel hosted for its guests. You had to let them know in advance if you wanted to have the Sadya, which is the celebratory lunch had by Malyalees, traditionally on Banana leaves. We agreed and were asked to be present in the area that they had allocated for the lunch at a particular time.

We were greeted by men in traditional Dhoti’s and Kurtas in the lunch area and were seated on a table laden with fresh Banana leaves – which is traditionally is used as the plate for lunch. One of the men, who were our guide and server for the day, offered to give us some insights in this kind of lunch. He was a local from Kerala and took great pride in his cuisine.

He gave us some printed details (Compiled by Vivanta for guests) specifically for this lunch experience and some details were indeed a revelation. Let me share a few here

  • “Sadya” translates as banquet in Malyalam (Language of Kerala)
  • It is traditionally a vegetarian meal served on a Banana leaf.
  • All dishes served in this meal are always to be had with your hands. No cutlery is to be used at any time.
  • A traditional Sadya can have anywhere between 24 to 28 dishes in a seating.
  • The individual dishes are always placed in certain specific orders on the banana leaves. (As an example – pickles are always served on the top left corner of the leaf)

A very interesting detail they gave us was some insight into the Vedic wisdom on why do we eat with our hands (If you have noticed, most of the Indian cuisine requires you to eat with your hands and not using any cutlery). It is said that our fingers are supposed to be conductors for all the 5 elements. Ayurveda states that each of the five fingers are extension of one of the five elements. So, the thumb represents Agni or fire, the fore-finger stands for Vayu or air, the middle finger is Akash or sky, the ring finger is Prithvi or earth and the little finger is Jal or water.

Now, I am not entirely sure of the logic or the history behind this rationale but I am definitely sure there is some scientific knowledge basis on this. As an example, children usually suck their thumb (representative of fire) when young. This aids them cooling and helping digestion specially since they do not really have any physical activity to aid it.

These are just very few of the details for this amazing banquet. I do not have more details at the moment but I am sure going to explore a bit more of the history of this cuisine.

My Sadya Meal

Post the Banana leaf, a pinch of salt was placed on our leaves on the upper left corner and then some plantain chips and a chilli that was soaked in buttermilk, dried and then fried. This is a local delicacy and an absolute must have along with rice. Another newer addition to my palate that day was the sweet banana chip. We asked around and were told that these were banana chips that were coated in a bit of jaggery/palm sugar and then fried. The taste, was indescribable.

Next came in some cumin seed water – as an appetizing drink prior to lunch to whet out appetites.

Then on, started the proper meal. I couldn’t even keep track of what was being served on my plate or which dish was which. They just kept on coming.

Lime pickle came in and then a Pineapple Pachadi –which, went on to become my loved dish. It was fruity and just perfect with a hint of spice. There was a Pumpkin or Kottu curry which again was delish, some beans, a drumstick vegetable, coconut chutney, some bean preparation in yoghurt, black chick-peas in a spicy coconut preparation, a haricot bean vegetable and the ever traditional “Avial” which is a medley of vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots, potatoes and green peas cooked in a chilli, coconut and yoghurt gravy.

The rice that was served was the traditional red rice found locally in Kerala. They were the “Navara” variety, which were famed for their use in Ayurveda. Red rice, is one of the healthier rice version as compared to the polished rice. The bran is intact, and this confers the rice more nutritional benefit. [We did end up buying 5KG of this rice variant on that holiday there from the local market].

Rasam, a watery curry made primarily using tomatoes, tamarind and a black pepper was served in the first rice course. Just to let you know, they serve rice twice in a Sadya. In the 2nd course, they present Sambar and not Rasam. Sambar is a lentil curry, again with lots of spices and shallots.

Poppadums are the traditional accompaniments along with the rice and you are actually supposed to crush and mix them with the rice and then eat them.

The meals made a lot of use of fresh coconut and black pepper as both these grow abundantly in Kerala.

Coconut is one of the healthiest fruit ever. Fresh coconut water is a cocktail of various mineral elements and natural sugars. Being encased in a tough fruit, it can be said as being completely sterile and free of any bacteria or fungi. It is one of the best detoxification agents for the body as well.

Coconut oil, made from fresh coconuts, is known to be very good for the heart owing to its anti-oxidant properties. The same oil aids luxurious growth when applied on hair (you will notice, almost every person in Kerala has well-oiled hair and they only make use of coconut oil). Did you know, why does almost every lady in Kerala / down south oil her hair and also adorn it using fresh flowers such as Jasmine? Scientifically, the oil when massaged onto the head increases blood circulation to the head and also aids cooling thus allowing one to think clearly. Secondly, Jasmine flowers contain a lot of natural oil which, is extremely aromatic and almost intoxicating. The flowers when tied to the oiled hair, release their natural oils onto the hair of the ladies (which already has a stock of coconut oil) via the process called “Enfleurage”. This is a process where Natural oils from flowers (in our case, Jasmine oil) are extracted using other organic oils (in this case coconut oil).

The aroma of Jasmine stays onto the hair for a longer time and Jasmine, as per aromatherapy, is very good calming oil and also is considered as having intoxicating and aphrodisiac effects.

Anyway, coming back to the meal, after having being stuffed with two heavy rice courses, we awaited dessert. Payasam appeared – a beautiful preparation laced with the subtle aroma of cardamom. Cardamom is also another spice widely grown in Kerala. Payasam is essentially a milk-based dessert. There can be many variants but essentially, it is a rice based milk dessert.

Now I really knew why they recommended we have the Sadya only as a lunch meal and not dinner. The meal was wrapped up after the Payassam and I don’t think I had ever eaten such a large meal anytime. The experience was a lesson in so many areas such as Ayurveda, scientific concepts on traditional practices used in food and much more.

But, lunch wrapped up and it was time for a snooze. And although the beach beckoned, it had to wait for I needed my nap after the absolutely filling meal.

The Sadya experience organized was an absolute mind-boggler. I wish more such local food experiences were conducted by other regions with complete emphasis on local ingredients, local traditions and food.

India is such as vast land and traditions and food change with every state. It would be interesting to understand every regions perspective with their food offerings and learn more about them.




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