Monday, September 22, 2008

It's Onam Time!

Onam is harvest festival celebrated in Kerala, a state in southern India. The specific dates vary from year to year, but usually takes place in late August or early September. Onam 2008 began on September 12. While there are many festivities that celebrate Onam, the best tradition by far is the Onam Sadya (or Onasadya). While meat and fish are commonly used in Kerala cuisine, Onam is one time where a sadya is exclusively vegetarian. Growing up in my family, we always celebrated Onam and often celebrated the occasion with friends. Most of our Onasadyas were at the home of one other family who were strict vegetarians year-round. It was an annual tradition; they would always invite us and 2 other families over. As one would expect, that auntie certainly had the market cornered when it came to cooking veggies. Since I was otherwise occupied last weekend, yesterday was the evening designated for our Onasadya.

Last year was the first year I tried to cook an Onasadya on my own. I had pulled a few recipes off the internet and then tried to adapt them based on what I could recall of how my mom cooks particular dishes. Asking my mom wasn't particularly successful, as most Indian moms describe recipes with "a pinch of that, some this, a little bit of that, cook it for a while", etc. The results were mixed. :-/

This year I tried the same approach, but with a bit more research on the recipes. And I've been paying even closer attention to how my mom cooks things when I visit SF. An uber-traditional Onasadya has nine-courses served in a precise order, but that would be overkill for just the two of us. Read: I did not want to spend literally the entire day cooking. Instead I picked just a few of the traditional items. My primary recipe source was Kerala Recipes. I chose this site after reading through its recipes and comparing them against (a) other websites and (b) my limited knowledge of Indian vegetarian cooking. Plus most of the recipes were attributed to a Mrs. Annamma Philippose --- and that's a straight-up Malayalee name if I've ever heard one!

A note before moving on to the recipes: Indian cooking lends itself easily to adaptation. In fact, there were several recipes I encountered online that made the same dish, but never in the exact same manner. When I cook Indian food, there are a few big changes I make to every recipe.

  1. I don't use coconut oil to cook for the simple reason that my mom never does and she's an outstanding cook. I used a canola oil blend instead.

  2. I also don't use as much grated coconut that is called for.

  3. I make a much smaller quantity than recipes call for. Most recipes are designed with family-style dining in mind.

The first dish I cooked was avial. This is one of my favorite dishes and the one I was most nervous about cooking. It always seems so complicated when my mom makes it. It was the most time consuming, as there is a lot of chopping required. Also, it must be cooked over low to medium low heat. I didn't use the exact vegetables that the recipe called for. Instead I used yam, taro root, string beans, plantain, 2 types of snake gourd and drumsticks. It turned out suprisingly well. The yogurt is really what gives this dish its unique taste.

Next up were two vegetables cooked separately, but using a similar technique: cabbage thoran and okra thoran. I didn't change too much in either of these recipes. The okra however, was undersalted while the cabbage was too salty.

Since I had leftover yogurt from the avial, I decided to make moru curry. This was a staple in our household as I was growing up. I could live on a good moru, hot rice and a bit of mango pickle. I think I did exactly that for a phase back in 5th grade!

My composed plate with mango pickle and fried bitter melon as accompaniments:

You'll notice that there isn't any cabbage on my plate. I hate cabbage thoran. But it is one of Eddie's favorite Indian dishes, so I cook it anyways just for him. That's love.

One thing became clear as I made this meal. Indian cookery is a skill that requires patience, practice and lots of trial-and-error. In other words I need to cook Indian food on a somewhat regular basis so that I can truly gain sort of mastery over these dishes and others. Don't be surprised if more Indian recipes start making their way onto this blog! ;-)


JD 2 B said...

Thanks for posting the link to the Kerala recipes. I am going to have to try some for V when I have time :-)

WeezerMonkey said...

My mom cooks like your mom!

shripad said...

After long time I was in Kerala with my family during Onam.I had mini appams which is one of the best kerala cuisine.I read some interesting article on which highlights on Indian Recipes.

dapotato said...


Faith, the Authoress said...

That looks amazing.