Sadhya: A feast of wellness

As one of the finest formal meals of the Indian culinary book, sadhya is an excellent presentation of not just the food tapestry of Kerala and its local produce but also of our vedic wisdom of wellbeing.

Come Onam, and Chef Praveen Shetty (Director of Culinary, Conrad Bengaluru) begins his prep work for a sadhya with a visit to the Sunday market, placing his order of ingredients with the vendors. Although born and brought up in Mangalore and regions around, Chef Shetty’s love for the traditional Thiru Sadhya began as a teenager courtesy the Malayali neighbours who would often begin Onam with a bowl of payasam sent to his house followed usually by an invite for a sadhya. “It would be a big occasion for me as I sat on the floor, cross-legged, relishing one dish after another on a banana leaf. I could eat as much I wanted, and could ask for as many helpings,” recalls Chef Shetty, who would eventually turn sous chef to learn the many dishes that were made at home for the sadhya meal.

Given the sadhya is the formal meal of Kerala, not just for Onam, there are fine differences between various versions, including those that are made in southern and northern parts of the state.
Image courtesy JW Marriott

“And yet,” continues the Karnataka cuisine expert, “it took years before I could learn each of those dishes and make it as close to the version I fell in love with.” Chef Shetty who today can prepare the sadhya singlehandedly calls it the finest “comfort meal”. “There is something addictive and quizzically familiar about this celebratory feast that makes it so popular – even for those who haven’t gone beyond the quintessential idli, dosa and sambar. The fact that most of the dishes use coconut, especially coconut oil for tempering or cooking doesn’t make any difference. In fact, many find more than two dishes that they are fond of in a sadhya – the appalam and pickles aside.”

Concurs Prabhakaran J (Chef De Cuisine, Shangri La Bengaluru), whose culinary repertoire today includes not just the sadhya prepared for the Onam, but all the different sadhyas that are made in southern and northern Kerala, and their finer nuances. “The brilliance,” says the Udupi specialist, “of sadhya comes from the recipe and the clever use of technique. Since the feast was designed to showcase the produce of a new harvest, most dishes are simple, with flavourants and techniques used only to enhance the qualities of the local produce.”   

Such as Avial. Which according to food-lore, was an innovation done on the behest of the King of Travancore who saw a good portion of the fresh produce being wasted and demanded a dish to be made that befits his royal banquet. Those were the days when a good harvest or a special occasion and war victories would be celebrated by the palace with a feast – a banquet served on leaf. Or as the Malayalis would call it, sadhya. It was, of course, the cook’s ingenuity that he used coconut milk to cook the vegetables first before using the cold pressed coconut oil to toss it again with sour curd giving it that distinct sweet-sour palatability. It is this version which made it to KT Achaya’s tome, Illustrated History of Food.

Similarly, with inji puli. One of the first dishes to be made and served on the sadhya, inji puli or ginger pickle may not be an original from Kerala (stories credit Tamil Nadu for the same), but has been revered for centuries for its medicinal properties of digestion and balancing the circadian rhythm. And is considered worth 101 curries in ancient India. “Folklore has it,” says Chef Shetty, “that the pickle was an innovation that got the great scholar Vararuchi of King Vikramaditya’s court his wife. And even though its making is akin to any cooked pickle, back then creating the multi-layer of flavours was considered a mark of great skill.”

“An interesting aspect of sadhya, the formal meal of Kerala,” says Chef Srijith Gopinath (Executive Chef, Campton Place, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palace) “is that all the 28 dishes that are a part of the meal are such culinary masterpieces that are known both for their taste and wellness. Each delicacy comes with its powerhouse of nutrients and the versatility of pairing with every other dish on the banana leaf. For instance, take the presence of rice, curd rice, sambar and rasam in a traditional sadhya. While each lend their share of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and proteins, one needs the glutamate of the rice to break down the amino acid in sambar to extract the goodness of the vegetable used.”

“Likewise,” adds the Kerala-born Michelin Star Chef, “is with the thoran and olan that are a part of every sadhya. Cooked mostly with coconut oil, these two forms excel not only in their showcase of vegetarian food, but are remarkable for the technique which is developed around the concept of minimalism both in terms of flavouring and cooking, thus keeping much of the nutrients intact.”

Nutritional-wise though, both olan and thoran feature among high-calorie foods thanks to the use of coconut and the produce, most of that calorie intake is levelled by the nutrients they come packed with. Olan, for instance, while is high on fibre, much like some of the thoran varieties, is also rich in saturated fats that are essential for the functioning of the brain and the digestive system, especially the liver. Another dish that does this quite effectively is the payasam. While rice helps cool the stomach outline and calm the brain, the fat in milk and complex carbs reformat to create a system that enables quicker digestion of the food.

“Aiding them in this process are the upperis that are served in sadhya, especially,” adds Chef Shetty, “Sarkkara Varatti, which is basically sweet banana chips and a part of the traditional sadhya and would often be served alongside Chenna Varuthathu. The role of the dual chips interestingly isn’t for the texture and crunch only – there is appalam for that – but for ensuring a constant wave of taste that enables gradual digestion. In fact, the use of ginger in both the style of frying is both as a flavourant as well as a catalyst that hastens the process of digestion. Add to that the right ratio of fat-sugar-salt and these chips become a way to urge you to eat more with relish.”

“The sadhya,” adds Chef Gopinath, “has different versions; the one served in northern Kerala has different dishes from the one in the south. Over the years, thanks to the two communities – the cooks of Palakkad and the Namboothiris – who mastered the art of making the elaborate meal, there is a system to the madness of this nine-course formal meal. For instance, the layout of the leaf where the tapered end is towards you left side, is usually reserved for salt, papad, chips, inji puli among others, while the right is for dishes that should be had in larger quantities because of the nourishment factor. This aside, the serving of payasam – which, contrary to current practice, was served at the end before the buttermilk – was also designed by these master cooks, who are still valued for their skill and knowledge of sadhya.”

“The reason,” he continues, “for the different courses and dishes is its vedic importance. According to Samhitas, each dish, thanks to its composition, digests at different times and needs that extra nudge. One of the many reasons that a few dishes are deliberately kept sweeter in sadhya is to aid digestion. Payasam’s role is exactly that as the last course which is also a clever way to announce the end of the meal. A glass of buttermilk served a few minutes later is a finale not just to the meal but for digestion as well.”

“It is in fact, this clever positioning is what makes sadhya,” ends Chef Shetty, “a meal that has a reputation of self-digesting. And when you aren’t overindulging, it does exactly that – the 20 upward dishes notwithstanding.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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