The best thing about the harvest festival of Kerala, Onam, which falls on Monday, is that it is celebrated by all Malayalees with gusto, irrespective of their religion. Even before the concept of secularism entered the Indian political lexicon, Onam has been symbolising its spirit.
Onam signifies the triumphant return of King Mahabali whose rule marked the golden era. Indeed, it was truly god’s own country then without casteist politicians, self-serving trade unions and hartals.
Malayalees, in whichever part of the world they are, join millions of their counterparts back home in Kerala on this auspicious occasion.
The highlight of the celebrations is the Onam Sadhya or feast. In its authentic version, this elaborate meal served hot on large plantain leaves consists of at least 24 items. Obviously, the sadhya was conjured before weighing scales were invented.
The feast comprises starters, such as paruppu vadas, unniappams and pazham nurukkus. These are followed by soothing cucumber pacchadi, tangy puliinchi, crispy netranka upperi made by deep-frying unripe bananas, sarkaravaratti, which is fried unripe bananas dunked in a batter of gur, sourish kaalan, olan made of white pumpkin and red chowlees, aviyal, thoran, ulli theeyal of baby onions, kootu kari, erisseri, steaming hot rice, oodles of paruppu, hot sambar with drumsticks, tomatoes, red pumpkin, rasam, fresh curd, puffed pappadoms (as distinct from appalaams), lime/nellika pickles et al. The recipe is extremely elaborate and takes hours to prepare.
The traditional dessert consists of ada prathaman and paruppu payasam. You eat with your hand and lick your fingers to savour the stuff to the last morsel. Instead of water you can drink sambharam or watery buttermilk with pieces of ginger to down all the goodies. If you notice, Onam feast is traditionally vegetarian though most Malayalees are hardcore non-vegetarians.
Monday is a working day and it will be something of a feat if you can go to work after this heavy gastronomic indulgence. But then this is one day that Malayalees rightly do not bother about their weight.
In Mumbai, Malayalees and their foodie friends have a wide choice of restaurants to go to. Some years ago, this wasn’t so. However, now, there are restaurants catering to all budgets.
In South Mumbai you have Hotel Deluxe run by the ever-cheerful Abdul Naseer. Tucked in Pitha Street, one of the byzantine lanes of Fort, this unpretentious eatery offers unlimited Onam fare at Rs300. It serves excellent ‘kozhi’ (chicken) curry, fish molly etc on other days in north Kerala style. Onam feast, however, is quintessentially vegetarian. The service is brisk and there is a nice no-nonsense air about this place.
On the same street, as you walk down towards PM Road, there is Taste of Kerala. Earlier, it was called Lalit Restaurant, which served typical Udupi items. It was converted into a Kerala cuisine place a few years ago. The seating capacity is limited, but there is no doubting the management’s commitment to good food. Onam Sadhya is on offer here for Rs300.
Fountain Plaza located near Handloom House, one of the most authentic place for Kerala cuisine, unfortunately, isn’t serving Onam Sadhya because “a proper ustad (master chef) is not available”.
If you come down to Matunga on the Central Railway side, Mani’s Lunch Home on Telang Road offers truly yummy fare made in typical Palakkad style. Its piece de resistance, aviyal, which contains several vegetables yam, white pumpkin, green peas, carrot etc cooked in a coconut gravy, is made under the supervision of its ever-pan-chewing owner, KV Narayanaswamy.
There is a huge rush every Onam, because of which Narayanaswamy hires a hall nearby to accommodate hundreds of patrons.
Mahim boasts of at least two restaurants, Cafe Madina and Sneha, both situated on LJ Road, where the fare is available for a modest Rs200.
Kettu Vellam Rice Boat, which is a high-end place with high fidelity to Kerala food, is all ready to welcome patrons for its Onam offering at Rs700 per head. It is situated on the service road running parallel to the Western Express Highway in Bandra (East).
In Chembur, Udaya, which is one of the oldest Malayalee joints in Mumbai, is promising a bonanza with 22 items for only Rs300 in an air-conditioned ambiance. Hotel Leela, the super-luxury property owned by the affable Nairs near Sahar airport, has an Onam buffet at its Citrus restaurant costing Rs1,895 plus taxes and a sit-down dinner at the Jamavar at Rs3,000 plus taxes.
Spice of Kerala at Marol-Maroshi promises to tickle taste buds at Rs250 per head, while Just Tasty near Takshila Society, Andheri (East), known for its no-frills service, will charge only Rs160.
The upmarket Banana Leaf chain of restaurants, which are located in Andheri, Ghatkopar and Bhandup, has a value-for-money offer at Rs350.
If you cannot go to any of these joints, the next best option is to invite yourself to your friendly Malayalee neighbour’s house. We bet, s/he would be happy to have you over. Simbly.