IT was a meal full of good cheer and goodness. I sat with a few friends — and a whole lot of people I didn’t know — on the floor, with a banana leaf placed in front of me. I was at a friend’s house, eagerly waiting for the Onam meal that was enveloping me with all kinds of delicious aromas.
The harvest festival of Kerala is being celebrated across the country, and in many parts of the world, and I am reminded of that delicious lunch several years ago. The dishes came one after the other: red rice, rasam, sambar full of juicy vegetables, kaya uperi (stir-fried raw bananas) and morru kachiyathu, a yoghurt-based dish.
I loved the aviyal, which was prepared with various kinds of vegetables, including green bananas, cluster beans, yam, snakegourd and drumsticks, in a thick curd-and-coconut gravy. Then, there was thoran, a dish of cabbage or green beans and grated coconut, eriserry, with pumpkins, red beans and coconut, and olan, prepared with ash gourd.
But what was it that made the meal so memorable after all this time? The food was delicious, no doubt, but what tugged at my heartstrings was the way it was served. The floor was swept and mopped, and durries were folded and placed on the side. We sat next to each other, waiting impatiently for the meal to begin, while a piece of lime, placed next to a small heap of salt on the banana leaf, winked alluringly at us.
The food was served by the host and hostess, their young daughter, and some of their friends and relatives. Some more, they’d ask, carrying large utensils, which held the delicacies. I sat cross-legged on the floor — something that I thought I’d never be able to do — and enjoyed every morsel.
The meal brought back many memories. There was a time when a festival meant a communal meal such as the Onam sadya. In my western Uttar Pradesh village, and elsewhere, too, every wedding or festival was celebrated with people sitting on the floor in what was known as pangat — that is a row — and being served food on sal leaf pattals by family members.
Because of the impact of Arya Samaj teachings in my part of town, our community meals were simple affairs. We started with sweets, and every sweet was served in a pair. There was something called tashtari, which consisted of five types of sweets. Villagers had simple diets but when it came to sweets, they showed a voracious disposition. Sometimes, if someone had a score to settle with a host, he would take with him a notorious sweet-eater, who could down 20 puris before we could say laddu.
There is something to be said about sitting together and eating. You take care of people sitting on either side, and they look after you, too. Pleasantries are exchanged. Occasionally, words are bandied across rows. I have heard of one server, who was much in demand during the Durga Puja bhog meals in a central Delhi residential colony. He didn’t just serve food with humility, but would yell out to nobody in particular, “Don’t bring out the prawns.” Prawns were not a part of the prasad, of course, but his loud comment made people wonder if they’d been deprived of some delicacy.
Some communal meals — such as langars — are serene affairs. The food, often prepared with desi ghee, stays etched in your heart, as you make a satisfying meal out of just a few dishes — puri, sabzi and halwa.
Weddings once were all about sitting and eating together. I have had some unforgettable meals in Kolkata. I remember one particular wedding feast that went on for so long that I thought we’d carry on till breakfast. We sat on benches, set by a series of long tables, and ate various kinds of fries, dal and rice, several vegetable preparations, a couple of fish dishes, prawns in mustard and mutton curry, served with a fragrant pulao, and then chutneys, sweets, and mishti doi. I can’t remember the wedding ceremony, but vividly remember the meal, which I had with people I hardly knew.
But let me go back to Kerala’s sadya. A meal can consist of 30 to 40 dishes. And there are a few simple rules about where the food has to be placed. The wider side of the leaf is on your right, where the vegetable dishes are placed. The pickle, chips, papadams and a small banana are on the left. You end your meal with payasam, or, if you wish, with a little bit of rice and curd.
Once you are done, you pick up your used banana leaf, fold it carefully, away from you, and place it in a drum. Then, you have a close look at the calendar to check the dates for next year’s sadya.
French beans 250g
Mustard seeds ½ tsp
Turmeric A pinch
Red chilli A pinch
Dried red chillies 3-4
Curry leaves A sprig
Salt To taste
Oil, preferably coconut oil
Pearl onions (optional)
Wash and cut the beans into small pieces. Grate one-fourth of a coconut. Heat oil. Add mustard seeds, red chillies and curry leaves. When the seeds splutter, add the beans and stir well. Add salt and a pinch of turmeric and red chilli powder. Mix well. Cover, and let it cook. Open the lid and stir the beans now and then. If you think it’s too dry, add a bit of water and stir. When done, add freshly grated coconut and stir some more. If you like the flavour of curry leaves, you can take some fresh leaves and crush them with your fingers, and then sprinkle them over the beans. There are many variations of thorans. Some add onions — pearl onions or the regular one — to the beans right after the tadka. Serve hot with rice, or as part of a sadya meal.
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