‘May I have a spoon please?’
The assembly line of servers came to a startled halt. I buried my head in shame behind my banana leaf as my friend’s request hung tentatively in the curried aroma of the room. It was the Malayali festival of Onam, a time when every Dubai resident should wet their fingers in rice and ‘parippu’ on a banana leaf. Asking for a spoon is akin to saucing a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza with ketchup, stabbing sushi with a chopstick or gargling with your Perrier between courses of an exquisite tasting menu. You just don’t do it.
Onam is a Hindu festival celebrated every year by Malayali communities in Kerala. It commemorates the rice harvest season towards the tail end of the monsoon and ushers in the month of Chingam, the first month of the Malayali New Year. The festival is ripe with legends from Hindu mythology, the most common of which describes the annual return of King Mahabali. Despite being virtuous and highly revered, the king’s arrogance angered the Gods who banished him away from his people. The only concession granted was that he could return to them once every year; this homecoming was marked by the festivities of Onam.
Like most religious and cultural festivals around the world, Onam is marked with a feast – here called ‘sadhya’. This is an extravagant meal featuring over twenty different vegetarian items methodically placed across the ribs of a shiny banana leaf. If you fail to bag an invite from one of our many Malayali friends in the local resident community, then elbow your way into the lunch queues outside any of the Keralite restaurants serving Onam sadhya in Karama. And resolve to make more Malayali friends who will invite you home for Sadhya next year.
Fork and knife-wielding cultures often perceive those that feast with their hands as being primitive and uncultured – but there is a delicate choreography and etiquette around serving and savouring such meals that makes it no less than one orchestrated with fine silver. For instance, when the meal is over, you must fold your banana leaf over. If you fold it facing yourself, it expresses contentment, while folding it the other way expresses the opposite.
If like me, you are an amateur still fumbling with the nuances of sadhya etiquette, then do the most polite thing possible when the meal starts – pounce on the banana chips to the left of your leaf and keep your eyes glued to a more practiced fellow diner. There are two types of fried bananas to keep you going as you watch how others navigate the meal: The sunny-hued savoury crisps and the sweet ‘sharkara varatti’ or banana pellets coated in crumbly jaggery sugar. Restrain yourself from stealing sharkara varatti from the fellow diner next to you, unless the fellow diner is a very good friend who is allergic to bananas or is willing to forgive and forget.
Abandon a few of the pappadums and the midget banana on the left until dessert time. I say this with a slight tinge of pain because I only recently realized that for the past three years, I have failed to apply them in the meal as the experts would. Instead, stay focused on the pickles and the rainbow of dry, semi-dry and wet dishes that you will need to eat with your fingers.
Contrary to my usual inquisitive nature, I no longer over-analyse every item on the banana leaf because it gets in the way of having a deeply immersive and sensory experience. Especially if it is your first sadhya this year, just hold the questions and let the wave of textures and flavours carry you through the meal: Soft, crunchy, pulpy, slippery; banana, coconut and yogurt.
The broker for the various players on the leaf is ‘chor’ or reddish Matta rice from Kerala. Chor is served closer to your side of the leaf with two soupy lentils doused on either side of the plateau of rice – creamy coconut-infused ‘parippu’ to the left and a slightly sour, spicy tamarind-based ‘sambar’ to the right. The chubby grains are sponges for soaking up melted ghee, gravies and lentils. Form them into little mounds with your fingers before swiping them off the leaf and into your mouth. If you have never eaten rice with your hands, don’t be afraid of the messy challenge but relish the additional sensory dimension of touching the food with your (rigorously washed) fingers instead. The technique is nothing that cannot be mastered with a joint dose of practice and gluttony.
And what about the untouched baby banana and the residual pappadums? They play a role when a sweet, runny ‘payasam’ pudding of coconut, lentils and jaggery are streamed onto your leaf (cups are for novices). I do not need to tell you how to use them – one of the city’s best cultural and culinary lessons is unfolding across Keralite homes and restaurants this week, and you only need an appetite to study it. Hunt down a sadhya and watch the masters at feast.
This year the feast will take place on Monday, the 4th of September.