Onam is the most important – and certainly the most colourful – festival in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Often referred to
as a ten-day harvest festival, Onam marks the beginning of the Malayalam calendar and, according to popular legend, sees the spirit of the benevolent King Mahabali returning home to visit his people.
Spectacular celebrations take place during the festival, alongside dancing, singing, boat races, elephant parades, games and the purchase of new clothes. Intricately designed flower mats known as pookalam are placed on the ground in front of houses, and the carnival atmosphere culminates on the tenth day, known as Thiruvonam.
Thiruvonam is marked with Onam Sadya, a grand feast featuring a fabulous array of vegetarian dishes, most often served on banana leaves. While preparing an Onam banquet might be beyond most of us, it’s well worth becoming acquainted with several of the vegetables enjoyed during this time:
Also known as bhindi or ladies’ fingers, okra is used to make vendakka kichadi, a side dish featuring crisp, fried okra mixed with yogurt, spices and coconut.
Delicata squash are easily recognised by their streaked orange skin. This squash tastes like a cross between butternut squash and sweet potato, hence its alternative moniker, sweet potato squash.
Runner beans will be familiar to most of us, but it’s well worth cooking them the traditional Keralan way – fried with spices and garnished with dried fruit and nuts.
Kerala is, of course, renowned for its coconuts – the name ‘Kerala’ was derived from the Malayalam word kera, meaning coconut tree – and the flesh and milk is used to make chutneys, garnish dishes, infuse desserts and thicken curries.
Bright pink-hued shallots have a sweeter, less abrasive flavour than onions. Along with ginger, jaggery and tamarind, shallots are used to make puli inji, a tangy sweet and sour pickle that often accompanies Keralan feasts.
Bottle gourd or marrow is an important ingredient in olan, a coconut and vegetable curry that is prepared on special occassions and during festivals like Onam.
Whether they’re sautéed with spices, stuffed, or used to make a sambar, you can be sure that shiny skinned baby brinjals or aubergines will be part of a sadya.
Indian cucumbers are often enjoyed in a cucumber kichadi or mixed with tomatoes and onions and soused with vinegar for a refreshing salad.