When Saibal, a foodie friend, called and suggested Onam Sadhya, my first reaction was twitching my nose! First of all, it’s a carb-based meal and secondly a vegetarian affair! But then, I remembered my mantras- ‘I should experience everything at least once so that I don’t die with regrets’ and ‘If not now, then when?’ So I said yes to Saibal for my first Onam Sadhya.
The obvious choice of destination was ‘The Coastal Macha’ – a restaurant that specializes in coastal cuisine and had been a favourite since almost inception. Chef Piyush Menon is a Malaylee from Bangalore who frequented Kolkata and observed that the city lacked mid-level restaurants that offered non-vegetarian southern delicacies. He took a bold decision of opening his first restaurant in Kolkata and since then had majorly contributed to the changing palate of the city. Breaking the monotony of north Indian cuisines, the introduction of cuisines from Kerala, Goa and more, was excellent exposure for the Kolkata foodies who slowly started embracing such experiences. For me, The Coastal Macha is all about honest and great food that reflects Piyush’s sincerity. And he is also one of the nicest, humble persons I have met so far and each interaction with him had made me believe that good men still exist in this world.
Before I share my Sadhya experience, here’s a little bit of history of Onam celebrations. Onam is the 10-day harvest festival celebrated in Kerala. The festival, celebrated on a grand scale, marks the homecoming of King Mahabali, a mythological character. The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was wise, judicious and extremely generous. It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali.
There was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. There was neither crime nor corruption. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Mahabali and everybody was happy and content. The growing popularity of King Mahabali made the Gods feel threatened of their own supremacy and they tricked the king out of his kingdom. To save his people, King Mahabali offered to sacrifice himself, and so, was banished to the netherworld. But Lord Vishnu, moved by the king’s gesture of great personal sacrifice, granted him one wish — and Mahabali asked for the chance to return to his homeland once a year, to visit his people. To mark the annual return of the king, the people of his kingdom — all over Kerala, and within the Malayali diaspora all over the world — hold ten days of extravagant celebration. There are boat races in the backwaters, homes are decorated with flowers, and a lavish feast is prepared with the harvest of the land.
Onam Sadhyas are traditional banquets in Kerala. Food is cooked in giant ‘urulis’ & served on a banana leaf. There are a few interesting protocols that are followed. For example, the banana leaf is placed in such a way, so that it’s narrow part always points to the left side. Sadhya is served from the top left corner of the leaf, on which is placed in order, a small yellow banana, sarkara upperi (shakkar paras) and papad. Then the mango pickle, injipuli (a thick ginger tamarind curry), lime pickle & the Thoran, olan, avial, pachadi, kichadi, Erissery & salt are placed in order. The feast ends with payasam, often two or more varieties are served.
My overall experience with Sadhya was something that I would want to return to. It’s all about simple home-cooking relying primarily on the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Focus is on bringing out the flavours with minimal intervention. And that is the reason Onam Sadhya has won my heart. It was like going back to the roots of Indian traditional cooking, very earthy, rustic and very very sensory-pleasing. Piyush had sourced all the authentic recipes from his family. He made sure that every dish was cooked fresh each day and that really helped in keeping the flavours intact. This was my first Sadhya but Saibal is a serial Sadhya offender having spent considerable time down south and he gave The Coastal Macha full marks. Even the group of 6 Bengali youngsters who occupied the table behind us was full of praises. It was heartening to see how food could erase boundaries and could be a unifier in today’s world of man-made hatred and intolerance.
The full-fledged Sadhya consists of 32 varieties of food. The Coastal Macha had thoughtfully offered mini Sadhya containing 16 dishes that totally filled us up. I cannot, of course, share the food with you all, but here is a visual treat of the Sadhya with Piyush explaining each item:
A few of the dishes deserve special mentions.
injipuli is a pickle like dish made with ginger, tamarind, chillies, and a bit of jaggery. It’s tart, spicy with a lingering hint of sweetness. A little of it can elevate a meal.
It reminded me of our Bengali mixed vegetable curry made with milk and drumsticks. The Kerala version has the vegetables are steamed and then finished with coconut milk. Simple yet immensely satisfying.
Olan is a light and mild stew made with ash gourd, cowpea beans, coconut milk and curry leaves. It tasted delicious with Kerala red rice (matta rice).
The Kerala sambar, accommodates all variety of vegetables, with a base of tuuar daal. The freshly ground spices and coconut masala gives it a very different flavour which is very robust, coconutty and earthy.
This one just won the heart. Shredded cabbage and coconut sautéed and then finished with a tempering of mustard seeds and curry leaves.
This is a sour, full-bodied gravy with bright yellow sunshiny colour. Kalan is made with yam and curd. Ground coconut is also added to balance the sourness in the gravy.
At the beginning of my career, I had spent a few months in Bangalore. My landlady used to make rasam every night making me dread my dinners. The Coastal Macha Rasam made me realize that my landlady was a bad cook. I loved the spicy broth that was full-on flavours. Kerala rasam is an instant rasam made without rasam powder. It is a tomato based rasam with dry red chillies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, curry leaves and tamarind pulp.
It was the perfect ending to a great meal. Pradhaman is payasam/dessert made with split moong daal (lentils), coconut milk, jaggery and ghee. If I am allowed to draw a comparison, I found it very similar to our Bengali Shinni made on Lokkhi Pujo. The lingering sweetness, the aroma of jaggery and coconut invoked some happy memories of pujo and celebrations. That’s the power of food. The memory of taste.
Piyush is considering to keep some of the Sadhya items in menu round the year. That will help us to revisit the memories whenever the cravings start. I ate like a glutton with two helpings of the delicious unpolished matta rice, forgetting all about low-carbing. All of you, who haven’t experienced Sadhya this year, please make a note to do so the next year. I shall wait for the ‘thank you’s. Meanwhile, if you are in Kolkata, keep on developing a taste for the southern spices with the delicious ghee roasts, ishtews and potli biryanis at The Coastal Macha.
The Coastal Macha
P411, 23b Golpark, Hindustan Park, Gariahat, Kolkata 700029 (Location on google map)
Phone: 075959 59042