The feast of Onam celebrates a year of prosperity with a meal fit for a king (photo gallery)

Earlier in September, I had the opportunity to eat a Thanksgiving meal of a different sort. This feast featured no turkey, no holiday tablecloth and no fine china. Instead, it boasted ancient traditions and rituals by serving up a 16-course scrumptious vegetarian spread — all on one leaf!

An Indian thanksgiving meal boasts ancient traditions and rituals by serving up a 16-course scrumptious vegetarian spread — all on one leaf! Since banana leaves are hard to come by

An Indian thanksgiving meal boasts ancient traditions and rituals by serving up a 16-course scrumptious vegetarian spread — all on one leaf! Since banana leaves are hard to come by



Earlier in September, I had the opportunity to eat a Thanksgiving meal of a different sort. This feast featured no turkey, no holiday tablecloth and no fine china. Instead, it boasted ancient traditions and rituals by serving up a 16-course scrumptious vegetarian spread — all on one leaf!

That’s right, this feast took ‘going green’ to new levels by serving the meal on a green banana leaf!

Central Alberta’s Indo-Canadian Association hosted Onam, a festival celebrated in the state of Kerala, in southern India. Somewhat similar to the North American Thanksgiving, Onam is a time honoured celebration for south Indians to reap the benefits of their good harvest.

Traditionally, in Kerala, this is 10-day long holiday merriment, ranging in activities from dancing, games, snake boat racing and women making intricate flower designs in front of their door step.

The central feature of Onam is a big feast consisting of a spectrum of curries and condiments that tantalize and tickle all your taste buds.

Since there are no banana trees in Red Deer, the authenticity of Onam custom was carried by serving the meal on synthetic leaf closely resembling the original.

Though it appeared like food was randomly being placed on to my leaf, there is a distinct order of serving the grand feast of Onam.

Pappadum (lentil chips) is to be served on the extreme left. Besides the big pappadum comes a banana, sarkarapuratti fries (fired banana chips in molasses), and banana wafers are served. After this, ginger lime and mango pickles were served followed by umpteen numbers of curries. I felt grateful that I had the foresight to miss breakfast!

Once the curries were dished out around the outer upper edge of the leaf, the guests were asked to sit down and then rice was served in the centre. Following the rice, came soupy lentil curries, like rasam and sambhar that were served over the rice.

By this time, the enticing aromas floating in the air and the colourful arrangement of food were embarrassingly making my stomach grumble and my mouth salivate uncontrollably! The huge feast looked like it was prepared for royalty -— but then, maybe it was!

Onam originated as annual reminiscence Kerala’s most loved and legendary, King Mahabali; a mythical king, who ruled Kerala, long, long time ago. The celebration recalls the sacrifice of the great king, his true devotion to God, his human pride and ultimate redemption.

Onam welcomes back the spirit of this great king, and assures him, by serving an elaborate meal, that his people are enjoying the same prosperity as was witnessed during his reign.

There is definite discipline required when attending a meal like this.

Before starting to gorge into the lip smacking meal, one needs to be patient; there is a little ritual which has to be followed.

First full course meal is served to Lord Ganapathi in front of a lighted oil lamp.

This is in accordance with the East Indian trend of serving any auspicious meal in the name and presence of god.

Once the prayer was complete, it was literally time to dig in! Though cutlery was provided, to truly experience the taste of Kerala, one simply uses their hands.

The sweet note at the end of the meal is the payasam or pradhaman (sweet puddings) which is often eaten with mashed banana and crushed pappadam.

Once the meal was complete, the leaf was folded over and simply thrown in the garbage. No dirty dishes for clean up! Very sweet!

Here are just a few of the traditional Onam curries and condiments served.

Erissery — This is a mainstay for the occasion and is either prepared from pumpkins/red beans or from yam and raw bananas cubes. This is cooked with mixture of spices and then seasoned with mustard seeds.

Olan — curry prepared using black eye peas and squash. Coconut milk is added to add richness and is seasoned with curry leaves, salt, and green chillies.

Aviyal — a traditional Kerala dish is practically a cooked salad ,with different veggies, coconut, cumin and dressings like yogurt and coconut oil .

Kalan — salt and chillies and raw sliced banana and yams are boiled in water. The main ingredient of kalan is yogurt, which is mixed with ground coconut. Mustard seeds fried in coconut oil are added for flavour.

Cabbage Thoran — Seasoned with chili and salt, thoran is stir-fry curry made using cabbage and coconut.

Pachady — a tasty combo of fruits in ground coconut

Sambhar — This is an extremely popular recipe from South India and relished by the whole of India. It consists of lentils and a variety of vegetables. All vegetables are first boiled in water with salt and chillies. Tamarind is also added to enhance the taste. Besides being spiced with coriander, cumin seed, Sambhar is flavoured with mustard seeds and asafoetida.

Upperi or Chips — Slices of raw bananas , yam , jack fruit, bitter gourd and egg plant are fried in coconut oil until crisp.

Pappadum — Lentil chips. Easiest condiment to prepare. Simply purchase package from Asian aisle and deep-fry individual rounds.

Pineapple Pachady

2 cans ripe pineapple, in juice

1/2 cup red or black seedless grapes (washed)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder

Salt, to taste

1 cup grated coconut / desiccated coconut

4-5 dried red chillies

2 teaspoon oil

3 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/2 cup stirred yogurt

Curry leaves, handful

Cut pineapple into small pieces. Boil pineapple and grapes with turmeric, chilli powder and salt in ½ cup water. Alternatively you can cook the pineapple & grapes in the pineapple juice itself.

Grind coconut with 3 dried chillies and one teaspoon of mustard to a fine paste. If using desiccated coconut, soak in hot water for 15 minutes before grinding.

Heat oil in a pan and season with remaining mustard seeds, remaining red chillies and curry leaves. Add the coconut paste and stirred yogurt and boil till it thickens. When done, add the cooked pineapple and grape mixture, stir well and heat for two more minutes.

Kalan

Kalan can be made using ripe mangoes, or raw Indian banana or yam.

4 ripe mangoes – or 4 raw banana – or 1/2 kg yam + 2 raw banana

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder – ½ teaspoon

1/2 teaspoon chilli powder – 1/2 teaspoon

Salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon Cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black pepper powder- 1 teaspoon

4 green chillies

Grated or desiccated coconut

3 Red Chillies cut in half

1 cup Yogurt

Mustard seeds

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1-2 teaspoon Oil

Curry leaves

Peel and cut the vegetable into small pieces. Dissolve the black pepper powder in one cup of water and strain. Cook the vegetable in this water along with turmeric powder and chilli powder. Add salt to taste. Add yogurt and boil. Grind coconut, green chillies, and cumin seeds with just enough water, into a fine paste. If using desiccated coconut, soak it in hot water for 15 minutes and then grind. Add the ground coconut mixture, mix well and boil till the mixture thickens. Then keep it aside. In a small frying pan, add oil and season with mustard seeds, methi seeds and red chillies and curry leaves. Pour into vegetable mix.

Erisseri

1 medium pumpkin or butternut squash-

1 cup red beans

1 cup grated or desiccated coconut

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon red chilli powder

3 green chillies

2 dried red chillies

Salt, to taste

Cumin seeds, a pinch

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon urud dal

2 teaspoon oil

Curry leaves, a handful

Soak the red beans in water overnight and cook in a pressure cooker.

Remove the skin of the pumpkin or butternut squash, wash and cut into small pieces after removing the seeds. Cook the pumpkin in water and add turmeric, chilli powder and salt. Add the cooked beans and mix well. Now grind ½ cup of grated coconut with green chillies and cumin seeds to a coarse paste. If desiccated coconut is used, then soak in hot water for about 15 minutes before grinding. Add the ground mixture to the cooked pumpkin and heat to boil. In the meantime heat oil in a pan and season with mustard, urud dal, dried chili and curry leaves and sauté the remaining coconut till it turns golden brown. Add to the vegetable mixture and boil till it thickens.

Cabbage Thoran

500gm cabbage

1 medium onion

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder (optional)

1 cup grated or desiccated coconut

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon urud dal

4 green chillies

2 teaspoon Oil

Salt, to taste

Curry leaves, a handful

Wash the cabbage thoroughly. Shred finely with a knife or in a food processor. Chop the onion finely. Mince the onion, coconut and green chillies in a food processor or crush them in a blender without any water. If using desiccated coconut, soak in hot water for about 15 minutes.

In a frying pan, heat oil and season with mustard, urud dal, curry leaves and add the minced or crushed coconut mix. Heat till the coconut mixture turns golden brown and you get the smell of roasted coconut. Now reduce the heat and add the shredded cabbage. Add turmeric powder and salt to taste and mix well. Cook covered for 2 minutes and remove from the stove.

Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at madhubadoni@gmail.com. Watch for Madhu’s Masala-Mix blog on bprda.wpengine.com.