Legend has it that King Mahabali who reigned over Kerala in some undetermined age of mythological time had become so very powerful that the gods fled to Lord Vishnu for fear that the mighty mortal would usurp heaven. Thus, Lord Vishnu assumed the Vamana avatar and descended upon earth to mitigate Mahabali whom He dispatched [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Going green on a banana leaf


Legend has it that King Mahabali who reigned over Kerala in some undetermined age of mythological time had become so very powerful that the gods fled to Lord Vishnu for fear that the mighty mortal would usurp heaven. Thus, Lord Vishnu assumed the Vamana avatar and descended upon earth to mitigate Mahabali whom He dispatched in three steps to the nether regions–a step down from earth. But Vishnu permitted Mahabali’s resurgence to earth for 10 days annually, in celebration of which is the fabled Kerala festival or feast-ival of Onam.

Ente Keralam

If Lord Vishnu tucked away Mahabali in three steps then this Kerala speciality restaurant offers every Onam a step-by-step strategy to tuck away the 28-course Onam Sadhya. And the French think they invented multi-course gastronomy! Well, Onam Sadhya has unfurled in Kerala every Onam for a thousand years, maybe even two and at Ente Keralam’s Chennai and Bangalore restaurants for five years.

Ente Keralam offers a 28-course Onam Sadhya

Thirumeni Unnikrishna Nambodri and his team, priests and ayurveda doctors at Kerala’s Thonya Kavu Devi Temple, are annually imported from Kerala’s culture capital Thrissur to prepare the Onam Sadhya. Cooking begins at 3 a.m. The vegetarian ayurveda meal sans garlic, onion or abrasive spices happens at lunch alone to ensure freshness. Instructions are presented on how to systematically and scientifically circumnavigate the varietal preparations that speckle the banana leaf before you.

Ayurveda dictates commencing with tangy ingipuli chutney to twang open the taste buds. Proceed to neiparippu, a subtle, satiny lentil and ghee ensemble eaten with rice and a crush of papadam, because as ghee kindles fire, it ignites digestion. This is perhaps the most delectable item that monopolises me until the measured portion vanishes: One is disallowed more, ayurveda prescribing strict portion-control.

Neiparippu scooped, I advance to erussery. I’m not quite sure what it is but whatever it is, it’s wonderful, albeit worryingly sweet. I’m soon re-assured that ayurvedic cuisine is sweetened with jaggery, not sugar, jaggery being a digestive aid. Then I flit across kaalan, olan, avial, pachadi, kichadi, injithair, thoran, curd, four pickles, assorted chips, sharkara varatti, banana, papadam, sambhaaram, sambar (no, sambhaaram isn’t sambar duplicated), kaachia moru, rasam, rice, four desserts… It’s all Greek to me but this Brahmin temple food is simple yet flavoursome. Interestingly, rasam and buttermilk (tempered with ginger, shallots and curry leaves) aren’t the prelude to the Onam Sadhya, but its conclusion, and are preceded by the four desserts comprising two payasams and two pradhamans (dark-hued jaggeried incorporations of tropical fruit like banana or jakfruit). A banana accompaniment equilibrates sweetness. If the meal terminates with ambrosial honeyed, herbed tea, then it’s served with root and stem-infused water. Given water so wondrous, you wouldn’t wish it changed into wine.
More astonishingly still, having swept clean the banana leaf, you feel so light you could fly away on the banana leaf. Going green is going lean!

Dakshin (ITC Park Sheraton & Tower)

Dakshin, voted Asia’s 15th Best Restaurant by an international guide, has been in festive flurry of late. However, what distinguishes Dakshin’s festivals from others is that Executive Chef Praveen Anand invests immense time into researching and conceptualising the theme, excavating historic allusions, sourcing ingredients. His are no indiscriminate festivals. Indeed, they are perhaps the finest of my travels. And the restaurant’s Head Chef Harish with dextrous diligence executes mindfully conceived menus that present ancient recipes with evergreen vitality. And yes, Michelin-starred textures.
I expected the annual Pondicherry food fest to be ponderously maritime.

Dakshin broke away from tradition and offerd a Syrian Christian fiesta for the feast-ival of Onam

And yet I found myself soaking in sumptuous verdure. Yes, coastal cuisine can be remarkably green. A preparation with coriander base and garden greens unctuous with almond gravy is quite extraordinary as too tamarind-tickled markari theeyal and keerai kari, an entanglement of greens and coconut.

For Onam, Dakshin refuted tradition and offered not the expected Brahmin sadhya but a Syrian Christian fiesta. Traditionally, it is madly meaty and far from green. Yet, I experience a cleverly contrived vegetarian Syrian Christian menu including veg versions of the famous beef cutlets. I fail to flavour anything remotely Syrian in the preparations, but Syrian Christian cuisine cuts the mustard, as it were, with its mustardy character, emphatic in a yam mash and raw mango curry served with puttu. The yellow stuff, including tempered ash plantain, impresses. Nevertheless, what has me really intrigued isn’t the green stuff but the red stuff: red spinach! This blushing leaf, which Syrian Christian Chef Rohit says they pluck off their kitchen gardens in Kerala, muddled with murunga leaves gets our glaring green signal.

Southern Spice (Coromandel)

If you prefer the plate to what’s on it, then this recently revamped iconic restaurant serves up silver-plated, ornately-crafted banana leaf dishes finished in 24kt gold knobs. The restaurant is spectacularly beautiful. The cuisine is as spectacularly bad. A swig of gingered pineapple juice at INR 500 defies explanation other than that the restaurant’s refurbishment cost a staggering USD 1 million, and seemingly the guests must foot the bill.

All that’s green about the restaurant are your notes that leave the bill. Nevertheless, in grand style, and this restaurant is about style if nothing else, they unleash 28 courses of pure vegetarian temple food for Onam. Desserts alone manifest finesse in technique and not mere presentation. Perhaps the best South Indian desserts you can have. Had you 28 courses of their pure veg desserts, including elineer payasam and adventurous payasam ice cream, it would be divine.

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