Originally a Hindu festival, Onam, Kerala’s largest and most important festival, is now celebrated by everyone in the state. It occurs every year in August or September after the harvest. In the Malayalam calendar, it starts in the month of Chingam on the 13th day, called Atham, and ends ten days later on the 22nd day, Thiruvonam. In this calendar each month has 28 days so the dates change each year. This year Onam is celebrated on August 29th.
Every day during the ten day festival, the children spend the evenings walking around the neighborhood with baskets collecting flowers that grow wild or in their yard. In the mornings, the children clean their courtyards and, with the help of their elders, make beautiful floral patterns on the floor.
On the eighth day, people make a small pyramid about 18 inches tall out out of clay, called Thrikakarappam, which represents Vishnu. It is placed in the middle of the floral carpet with a lit brass lamp called a nilavilaku and a kindi, a special brass pitcher, filled with water. On the morning of Thiruvonam, the oldest person in the home conducts a pooja (prayer service) with flowers and the traditional tulasi leaves (a special herb). Every member of the house participates in the pooja to welcome King Mahabali (see my blog entry of August 5, 2010, The Story of Onam, Kerala’s Harvest Festival to learn the background). Everyone is happy and wears new clothes. A grand Onasadya (Onam feast), which is served on banana leaves in thelargest room in the house, follows. The family cooks many delicious vegetarian dishes. Each item is placed in a specific location on the banana leaf when served.
Traditional thali served on a banana leaf.
Items typically on the menu include:
Rice with dal and ghee Inji Thairu (Ginger Yogurt)*
Sambar Varutha Upperi (Triangle shaped banana chips)*
Kaalan Sharkara Upperi (Jaggery coated banana chips)*
Olan Chenna Upperi*
Urulakizhangu Ishtu (Potato Stew) Boiled nendrapazham (banana) pieces*
Koottu Curry Pickle
Cabbage Thoran Yogurt
The meal is followed by two types of Payasam for dessert: Semia Payasam (with sugar and vermicelli) and Cherupayaru Payasam (with jaggery and green gram).
After the feast, the people of Kerala end the day with boat races, athletic activities, group dancing performed by the ladies (kaikotthi kali) and fireworks.
All of the educational institutions in Kerala are closed for the ten days of the festival while the banks and government offices are closed for just two days.
[Items with * are not in Kachi’s Kitchen but may be included in the next cookbook.]
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