Central to Vishu, the Kerala festival which marks the first day of Medam, the ninth month of the solar calendar, is a feast which celebrates the bounty of life.
From the song of the migratory Vishu Pakshi (Indian Cuckoo) and the cloyingly sweet smell of the humble jackfruit, to the touch of the kani konna (Golden Shower) and the sight of farmers scattering fistfuls of paddy seeds — I see Vishu as a message from the heavens.
The Vishu Kani — that which is first seen on the day — is symbolic of energy and its manifestation, a way for mankind to understand the importance of cleansing the mind so it reflects the truth and nothing but the truth.
The kani holds grain and fruit, and flowers and cloth. It includes a few pennies along with the picture of a god. A hand mirror is placed strategically to reflect the deity.
Vishu also includes the practice of sharing wealth with family members and the less fortunate, and usually brings generations together to underline the joy of living in harmony.
The Vishu feast
A traditional Vishu feast or Vishu Sadhya is a reminder of the jumbled experiences of life and the blessing inherent in being able to accept them as they are.
The clean green banana leaf — with its narrower end on the left and the broader end on the right — holds everything, right from less important treats like banana chips, cooked lentils, pickle, and a dollop of ginger-tamarind paste to rich, flavourful curries such as sambar, aviyal, koottu, thoran, olan, pachchadi and kaalan.
My mother’s ancestral home in Kollengode — a village in Palakkad (central Kerala) — used to serve dessert right after a ladle of spicy rasam. They ended every feast with a final serving of rice and buttermilk, as the buttermilk worked to balance out excess acid in the stomach.
A betel leaf or two along with areca nut was usually made available to those who needed it.
The Palakkadan pradhaman and sambar
No matter how vast and varied a sadhya is, it is judged by the quality of the sambar and the payasam or pradhaman.
Decades ago, lentils of all kinds were used with jaggery and coconut milk to make the Parippu Pradhaman — pradhaman meaning “the most important” — but now, milk and sugar have replaced lentils and jaggery to come up with the Paalada Pradhaman: a sweet, thick milk pudding with cooked rice flakes that takes more than eight hours to make.
I visited Palakkad’s Top in Town restaurant to know why its Paalada Pradhaman is considered one of the best in town.
Its owner — Mr Raju — invited me in to offer a small cup of the pinkish brown pudding, which was milky and moderately sweet with bits of chewy rice flakes.
He then called Mr Mohanan, the chief chef, who told me there is no magic involved in the cooking of the Pradhaman.
It’s plain effort.
The milk is boiled for eight hours and stirred continuously till it changes colour. The ada or rice flakes are made by cutting steamed rolls of rice flour batter. The flakes are then cooked along with the milk and generous amounts of sugar.
Mr Mohanan has been in the trade for decades and makes 200 litres of pradhaman even on ordinary days.
A fine Palakkadan sambar demands the right ingredients mixed well at the right time in right amounts, and for such an authentic sambar, I reached out to the famous Brahmin Village in Palakkad where a team of three brothers cooked an early Vishu feast for me.
Children of the famous Bajji Mama (Fritters Uncle) of Kalpathy Heritage Village, a small belt of row houses close to the Kalpathy River in Palakkad, the brothers had imbibed the intricacies of cooking at a very young age.
The sambar was wonderfully tangy and light, and smelled of tamarind and crushed spices and seeds. They chose to make the Parippu Pradhaman with split yellow lentils for dessert. It carried the perfect balance of coconut milk and jaggery, along with little pieces of coconut fried in ghee.
Suggested read: The feast of the east
The Vishu kanji
My mother makes the simple Vishu kanji (porridge) at home along with a traditional puzhukku that has cucumber, raw mango, coconut, cumin seeds, chillies and salt.
The Vishu kanji includes rice cooked with butter beans. It is topped with lots of coconut and a bit of salt. The crunchy Kerala pappadum, made with white lentils and deep-fried in coconut oil, accompanies Vishu kanji in most homes.
The traditional Vishu feast could thus take the form of a complex process involving more than 20 types of curries, or stick to the simplicity of a rice porridge.
Vishu celebrates tradition and seasons and myths and truth. It’s for the young and old, and includes all beings — be it the singing Vishu Pakshi, the massive jackfruit tree, or the konna flower that weaves golden garlands on branches as the festival approaches.
Just as a Vishu Kani serves to invoke the tranquil centre within all beings, so does the Vishu Sadhya stand for the grand chaos of diversity that’s life.
It’s both a normality and paradox. Like I said, it’s a message from the heavens.
Have a peaceful Vishu.