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