It’s that time of the year when the grand harvest festival, and the feast it brings long, makes its presence felt across the national capital. As Onam approaches, there’s a huge anticipation across Delhi about the sadhya. The all-vegetarian festive spread comprises over 25 dishes served on a banana leaf (starting with a pinch of salt) and is hugely popular across communities and regions.
At Mahabelly in Saket, all is set for their eighth sadhya, when a day comprises serving no less 350-400 festive meals a day. “When we started out in 2015, sadhya wasn’t super mainstream in Delhi; for a Malayali, it is non-negotiable,” says Thomas Fenn, its co-founder, adding, “In fact, even on a non-sadhya day, Malayali cuisine has many takers in Delhi, but sadhya is among rare days that lends itself to an all-vegetarian fare. So it appeals to a much wider set of people.”
There’s buzz about the 10-day harvest festival at Malayali food hubs across Delhi, which include cafe style joints, stalls, and even the shops selling ingredients, that are concentrated in and around Saket, INA Market, Malviya Nagar and Mayur Vihar. Even home chefs specialising in the cuisine have opened up for pre-orders.
Rekha Natarajan, a publisher turned home chef, who started Beetroute in 2019, says, “There is a whole lot of people who want to do sadhya at home, and since many people in Delhi are living as nuclear families, it may not be possible for them to source it all and dish out 25-30 items for the feast. So, many Malayali and south Indian families order from home chefs and cloud kitchens.”
Natarajan says that initially, sadhya would be observed by Malayalis of all faiths – Hindus, Muslims and Christians – but now, it’s mostly limited to the Hindu families, even as the popularity of sadhya as “Malayali thali” is only growing, significantly among the non-south Indian people in Delhi. “Most dishes are gluten free and vegan, with little use of dairy, so it resonates with all,” she points out, adding, “Also, Delhi goes with trends, and right now, there’s a huge trend for regional home-style food.”
Fenn adds, “There was an upsurge of regional over multi-cuisine restaurants in Delhi around the time they opened. Among south Indian restaurants, most were clubbing food from various states – Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – but we only wanted to be focussed on one.”
In terms of regular Kerala meals, he says, appam and stew is the most popular dish, while popular non-vegetarian offerings include those made with buff, pork or prawns. During the years of the pandemic and lockdown, besides home chefs, restaurants like Mahabelly had also started serving sadhya to people at their home, but Fenn says it can be a confusing meal, and you won’t know what is what. So, they would offer orientation on how to serve, what is to be eaten hot or cold.
During the sadhya days, even the pan-south Indian restaurants in Delhi (lately, there have been several good ones such as Padmanabhan, Savya Rasa and Naviedyam) focus on the Kerala cuisine. For instance, Savya Rasa (with multiple outlets) has rolled out one of the largest Onam spreads in Delhi for five days, with 30 dishes made using family recipes – inji puli, sambharam, chakka chips, erissery, thoran, kootu curry, two types of payasam and a variety of other curries and chutneys accompanied by pappadam and rice.
Says Brand Chef Sheik Mohideen, “Onasadya, always eaten by hand, typically comprises 25- 30 items balancing the six fundamental flavours — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. The feast is a combination of Ayurveda and native wisdom, and has been observed ever since the festival has been celebrated.”