Onam 2022: what’s the best part of the sadhya feast?

Onam 2022: what’s the best part of the sadhya feast?

Resmi Jaimon

Three decades since I last ate it, I still drool whenever I think of the pazhamkootan my grandmother used to cook after the Onam feast. The fermented dish has untraceable origins, no fixed recipe and is largely unknown to people outside Kerala, yet it is a fitting solution to food wastage, because this is a dish made entirely from leftovers.

Despite this, it’s referred to as the “king of dishes” in many Malayali households because it is typically prepared and consumed after the Onam sadhya, or feast, which boasts an array of flavourful curries and richly cooked vegetables.

All the major dishes of the Kerala feast are mixed together (see box), then cooked on a slow flame for hours to form a thick mash. Pazhamkootan pairs well with rice, porridge, idli, dosa or roti.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - August 29, 2012- Pappad, mixed vegetables with yogurt, snake gourd, Ashguard (white pumpkin) with coconut milk, sweet ripe mango curry and banana and rice chips are some of the dishes served during an Onam celebration at Vivek Anand's home in Abu Hail, Dubai, August 29, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
Most dishes served for the Onam sadhya can be combined to make pazhamkootan. Photo: Jeff Topping for The National

Smitha Ajitha, 50, a Trivandrum native who lives in Abu Dhabi, learnt to make pazhamkootan from her mother-in-law, Lalitha Kumari Amma, now in her 80s, who in turn learnt of the dish from her mum.

Dubai resident Jayalekshmi Vasudevan, 72, adapted her version of pazhamkootan in 1968 from her mother-in-law, who lives in Alleppey.

Both the UAE residents have carried on with the tradition of serving the much-loved pazhamkootan in their homes, although they sometimes restrict themselves to mini versions of the dish.

Vasudevan, who grew up in a joint family, recalls how everyone would gather for five days during Onam, which led to a large quantity of leftovers and, consequently, pazhamkootan.

“The leftovers, except payasam [sweet vermicelli kheer], were transferred to brass urulis or clay manchattis. The pots were then placed on top of a firewood stove and left overnight. The fire is usually run all day and put out at night,” she says. “The residue heat from the firewood keeps the pot warm throughout the night. This pot is warmed up every day and the next day’s leftovers are layered into it. This goes on until the day of Onam and then consumed the day after Onam.”

In the absence of a firewood stove, modern-day pazhamkootan is made on a gas stove. “Firewood was a practical and healthy option that made perfect sense in an era where family sizes were big and refrigerators were not yet a must-have household item,” says Ajitha.

Even so, the concoction needs to be boiled once every morning and night so it can remain fresh for a week. A mini version can be tried out if you have fewer dishes, and pazhamkootan should always be served hot.

“Care should be taken when adding rasam and pulissery, as too much too soon will make the curry very watery,” explains Ajitha. Depending on your palate, pickles and pappad can be added or skipped.

“The dish is not only a probiotic, and a balanced and healthy meal, but also promotes recycling and zero waste. It ensures every home has adequate food after the typical sadya lethargy sets in after Onam.”

Those who continue the tradition do so because they relish the aroma and taste of the sweet and sour stew, with each handful igniting the senses as soon as it touches the tongue. Then there are the connotations the dish carries. Every Malayali who loves pazhamkootan has a story to share on how it reminds them of tradition or childhood or family bonding.

For Vasudevan, pazhamkootan brings back sweet memories of the festive season and her first bonding experience with her husband’s family, when several members of the household would have a gala time cooking together.

Ajitha says pazhamkoottan is her family’s way of connecting with their roots given they don’t live in India. She says the recipe, which is typically handed down over generations, has a rich and unique Malayali feel, and that it seamlessly blends tradition, prosperity and humility.

Courtesy: thenationalnews

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