Did you feast this Onam?

This country has been on an I.V. drip since the 70s. You’ll find the needle pierced deep into the skin of the city’s foundations, into the clerical veins of banks and old time private businesses, into the blood that pumps through its working class society. If you follow the tube over to the other end, you’ll find a bottle labelled Kerala.

When I’m seventy-two and wise, I see my white-haired self writing a series of whitepapers on immigrant anthropology in Dubai. Part 1 would be focused on Keralites in Dubai. It would analyse their exceptional degree of high-yielding but grossly under-priced literacy. It would have an entire section dedicated to how they adapt and cope with a new environment, living apart from their families back home in Kerala not just for a few years, but for entire decades. One of the best adaptation mechanisms they’ve employed is to band together and knit a tight support network. Every cultural community has their own cliquish quarters in Dubai, but the Keralities are the most experienced and committed network tailors I’ve ever seen. Wikipedia applies the insipid term, Kerala Gulf diaspora, to the massive influx of Malayali manual labourers to the region in the 70’s and 80’s. But I’ve heard a more colourful term bandied around by other communities who’d kill for such support and enviously eye Keralite networks they could never infiltrate: the Malabari Mafia. Whatever you want to call it, the It runs across many old-time construction and trading companies in Dubai as well as the rest of the GCC, and the bonds are stronger than super glue.

Keralites celebrated Onam around two weeks ago. The local newspapers released articles describing the festival as one that celebrates the return of the generous King Mahabali, one who had been snatched away by the gods because they were turning a godly green over his celeb-status popularity. The articles paid due importance to the legendary Onam Sadhya, a meal painstakingly prepared to ensure the presence of that one element that looms large over all festivals, across different religions and cultures, no matter what the underlying rationale for the festivity it is:  mountains of awesome food.

Where there are mountains, there you shall find me.

Three of us descended on Avani, a neighbourhood Keralite restaurant that does a killer veggie stew in a claypot that hypnotizes you until you’ve vigorously wiped it clean with floppy rice flour appams. But appams and claypots are the usual suspects, the daily primetime shows served up throughout the year. It’s only when we’re talking banana leaves and the massive Onam meals served over them, then you know we’re going for the Big Screen. This is the Dark Knight of Keralite meals that be.

Onam Sadhya is accompanied by some pretty specific customs, most of which my Onam-unsavvy group was totally clueless about, be it the arrangement of the food around the banana plate or the order in which you’re supposed to eat it. Or the fact that it would be a major faux-pas to scoop up the chubby unpolished grains of red matta rice with anything but your naked curry-dripping fingers—one custom that all three of us fist-trained Indians managed to do, though with enough sloppy slurping and grain-dropping that would make the staunchest of Onam purists fling spoons at us out of disgust.

Everyone, servers and diners alike, were probably staring at us sighing, Oh those stupid foreigners.

Ever noticed how when you ask an Indian from any other state of India except Kerala where they’re from, they’ll usually respond with a vague ‘India’, tossing all of twenty-eight states and seven union territories like indistinguishable onions into a jute sack. But when you ask Keralites where they’re from, they’ll almost always, 99.9% of the time, say Kerala. There’s something about this coastal state that sets it apart from its Indian neighbours—maybe it’s Kerala’s admirable literacy rate that makes the rest of our Indian states look like high school drop outs, or a local economy that’s outwardly plugged into the most oil-rich region of the world, or a language that’s as comprehensible as Mandarin would be to the rest of India, or a staggering range of cultivated rice variations that make us lifelong basmati snobs feel like ignorant rice noobs — I’m not sure, I don’t know enough to be able to have anything but theories riddled with misinformed bullet holes. The only thing clear to me is that Kerala is a country within a country, a country that humours the rest of the country by letting them think it’s just another state.

The first entrants on the far left corner of our banana leaves were baby papadums, banana chips, an infant banana already scarred with the black ripened patches of old age, a dried stubby chilly, and these fried banana nuggets covered with jaggery that airlines should consider serving instead of the same old boring baggie of salted peanuts. This is the kind of stuff that could make you dream of getting stranded on the runway, forcing the stewardesses to plug any whining loud mouths with buckets of jaggeried bananas.

While my mouth was constructively engaged with grinding up crispy papadums and banana chips, my eyes strayed to the tables around us, where groups of Keralite employees were shovelling down an entire feast into the laughably tiny span of their working lunch breaks.  These were the diligent men and women who had lugged themselves in to work on a day that really, given the number of Keralites in this city, should just be proclaimed a public holiday. This could be a day that everyone – whether Keralite or not – dedicates to eating, stroking happy rice-filled bellies, eating some more, belly-stroking some more, and setting that sequence on loop.

Articles describing Onam usually mention a royal vegetarian feast fit for the kings, and I won’t lie, I definitely had a raised eyebrow over the thought of royal and vegetarian landing up in the same sentence. Waltz in banana leaf with over twenty different veggie dishes in refillable quantities, containing everything from lentils to curried yams to runner beans to pickled mangoes to fleshy drum sticks to even plump purple grapes suspended in the middle of a curry, and that raised eyebrow was smacked back down in its place for good. This is the sort of feast that can make you loopy and leave you teetering out of the restaurant, drunk on curry.

My cousin starring as Mini Banana Me. The side effects for those who haven’t yet developed a high feasting threshold for banana leaf meals. 

There were so many curries and stews and little edible splodges of strange but seductive substances scattered over the banana leaf, that I stopped counting half way through. It was more fun to just close my eyes and grope about for the recurring threads of flavour that wove in and out through most of the dishes—coconut in both its grated and milky forms, fried mustard seeds, sweet spoonfuls of jaggery or sour tamarind depending on what the dish aimed to be, aromatic curry leaves plucked off their wiry stems and tempered to a crisp, nose-tickling black pepper, yoghurt, and more coconut. LOTS more coconut. And I love coconut to the point that I strongly suspect the following recipe to emerge from my murky kitchen someday:  deep-fry fresh scoops of coconut flesh coated in coconut flour, roll resulting coconut ‘meatballs’ in grated and toasted coconut flakes, and toss into a simmering milky coconut broth. serve warm in a coconut shell.

I could utter a slew of nasties about people who don’t fancy coconuts, but really, not being able to gorge on an Onam Sadhya is punishment enough.

On the subject of punishments, I should spank myself hard for never, never ever, having sat down for an Onam feast through my 20 years living here (though arguably, most of those years were childhood ones where Pofak and Rainbow Sherbet from Baskin Robbins had bagged top spots in my Best Eats list.) It’s one of those experiences that’s so easily available in this city, and it cost me all of forty dirhams to have it. Forty dirhams for one of the most memorable meals I’ve had this year. I’ve woken up with a sweat days later, only to realize it’s not sweat at all, but drool from memories of a meal that had sent my senses skidding out of control. All of it together, the visual drama of multi-coloured curries dotting my personal banana leaf, the aroma of tempered whole spices, the feel of coconut-rigged curries between my fingers, and of course, the taste of everything, sweet, sour, salty, pickled, and all the permutations in between, made it impossible for me to focus on figuring out what each curry was called and psycho-analyzing every last element. My ears might have been the only sensory reporter not engaged in any sort of investigation related to the meal, but I’ve never found them to be exceptionally useful anyway. I mean, it really doesn’t take a deafening crunch for me to proclaim that a banana chip is crispy.

So the bad news is, if you were at Cheesecake Factory when you should have been wiping your banana leaf clean of Pesarapappu Payasam—this creamy ghee and lentil dessert that I stupidly mixed up with my rice by mistake, and then reordered in a glass so I could…tip it over my banana leaf and lap it up like a very fat cat who for some unfathomable reason, eats off of a banana leaf…—then you’ll just have to wait for an entire year before you can treat yourself to a royal banana leaf’ed Onam feast.

The good news is that you only have to wait 60 minutes before getting a cheesecake to drown your sorrows in.

Avani Restaurant
Al Dana Centre, next to Metropolitan Hotel on Al Maktoum Street, Deira, Dubai
Phone: +971 (4) 298-9142

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

18 thoughts on “Did you feast this Onam?

  1. chirag says:

    Hahah, The Dark Knight of Keralite meals. References to blockbuster movie and restaurant openings all in one post? #Win! :)

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @twitter-18575450:disqus – danke :) #Dances ;)

  2. Sarah says:

    Actually, Arva, you have to wait 180 minutes to get a cheesecake in. Seriously. Also, the banana is adorable!

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @4fe1015a720c7dcc7f05b9615cac454a:disqus – oh jeez. I guess my 60 minutes is an average of all the waiting times across the day, even those depressing hours of the night that they’re not open. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad…we’ve entered a whole new era of cheesy hype, but at least it’s distracting the city for their over-iced cupcakes.

  3. shy says:

    Hey Arwa…had been waiting for a lip smacking post from you…And here it is…Love that the meal was served on a banana leaf too…will book mark this one for a friday brunch sometime.

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @18d7aac8de19afeffdb21eea8b0d7cae:disqus – Yep :) Sayana (above) mentioned that they have sadhya on Fridays, and I have seen that on the menu at Avani. Though not sure if they have the full feast, but still, it’s something worth checking out rather than waiting a whole year!

  4. shy says:

    Hey Arwa…had been waiting for a lip smacking post from you…And here it is…Love that the meal was served on a banana leaf too…will book mark this one for a friday brunch sometime.

  5. Jerry Selayro says:

    Hi Arwa, What is Onam? My Filipino Foodie friends is also interested to try this. Do you recommend this place for us?

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @facebook-1037300659:disqus – Onam is a festival celebrated in the South Indian state of Kerala. More specifics at http://www.onamfestival.org

      Sadly Onam has already come and gone this year, but I think some Keralite restaurants, including this one Avani, does a banana leaf meal on Fridays, so do check it out with your foodie team :)

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @twitter-417904432:disqus – all credits to cousin bro ;)

  6. Sayana says:

    Arva!! In the city of Thiruvanathapuram, the capital of Kerala, it is customary to pour your payasam into the leaf and crush papadam into it and slurp it all off the banana leaf. And you don’t have to wait a whole year for an Onam Sadya. If you drive down to Abu Dhabi, Ruchi Restaurant serves Sadya for lunch on the weekend (thu, fri or sat). That is where we had our Onam Sadya this year. Battled it out for an hour with a coupon in the sun, swarming through probably half of the Keralite polulation in Abu Dhabi for lunch. WORTH it. Plus on the weekends, on request they serve ’Karimeen Pollichathu’, a fresh water fish fried, topped with sauted onion-chili- tomato masala, wrapped in a banana leaf and fried again in coconut oil! It is DELICIOUS! So when you headed out to our capital for this? ;)

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @5c58fbbbc706cbb1bf5cff57328b59c9:disqus – nooooooooo. I didn’t crush my papadum in it! argh. I need a list of the eating traditions so I can do it right next time. Maybe we meet over this legendary fish and you rattle off the list while I take notes? ;)

  7. Didi says:

    Had Onam feast at Peppermill, Sadly I didn’t get to eat it on a banana leaf and using my hands. I love the bananas encrusted with jaggery as well as the onion “chutney” (the name just is not too easy to remember).

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @didipaterno:disqus – Well then, I just have to get you to come over to Deira and we will banana leaf it together! Spotted sadhya as a Friday brunch item on the Avani menu as well…and while it may not be the full blown Onam affair, they’ve confirmed that it gets served on a banana leaf :)

  8. Devina Divecha says:

    I have done an Onam sadhya only once in my life – at a friend’s home and it was really good! I have still no idea of the customs associated with it, but the food is pretty damn good!

  9. IshitaUnblogged says:

    Can anybody explain why I love reading your posts? Its detrimental to my internal organs as I’m always reading your posts out loud and laughing till I can’t take it anymore. Today I was catching up on some of the posts on Fooderati, but I think I cannot proceed further than this post – as I have read it twice and want to read it again. Just the way you write – I will be frank sometimes I don’t even focus on the food that you are describing – it’s just the entire visual effect – the crunching, the spilling, the rolling, the slurping etc…

    Your first para is an absolute clincher – ’This country has been on an I.V. drip since the 70s. You’ll find the
    needle pierced deep into the skin of the city’s foundations… If you follow the tube
    over to the other end, you’ll find a bottle labelled Kerala’.

    What an apt description! So much of sensitivity in such a young girl, Sizzler – God bless!


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