The sadhyas of Travancore are a study in methodical complexity and ritualistic fervor, comparable only with the elaborate Japanese Tea Ceremony. Right from laying down the ‘thumbela’ with the ‘thumbu’ or tip to your left, to the way you fold it at the end of the epicurean delight, there is an order and significance to each step that is rigorously followed. The sadhya is a bow to every fine art that elevates man above the rest of his fellow creatures.
The serving of the several dishes itself is an exquisitely choreographed routine performed between the narrow aisles of banana leaves, by seasoned artists, with the nimbleness and dexterity that would do a Russian ballerina proud. It takes years to perfect that pirouette to serve the kichadi on either side, in one fluid motion without missing a single leaf or spilling a drop. The assembled sadhya itself is a visual treat – a beautiful painting with its perfect balance of colour and texture or a blockbuster with the perfect cast.
You always start with the salt, at the left end. This is followed by the banana, ethakka upperi, sharkkarapuratti and pappadam in a cluster on the left center. The chips are usually the first things you pop into your mouth as you sit down for your sadya. The all-important pappadam is another hot favorite that tempts people to start even before the rice arrives.
Next up are the item numbers. Every movie has one. This one has three… inji, naranga, manga, in that order. Hot, spicy, sizzling! The very sight can sometimes send your salivary glands into overdrive! Just like in the movies. Then the modest kichadi, the sweet pachadi, spunky mezhukkupuratti, and the staple thoran, before the heavy weights erisseri, avial and kootucurry move in to complete the picture. South Travancore has its own special version of kootucurry, totally different from what goes by the name in other parts of Kerala. This is chicken curry, minus the chicken, thrown in to add some masala to the script. To make it extra special you find bits of uzhunnuvada mixed in with the potatoes and onions.
Now that the stage has been set, the action starts. If you are a neophyte, watch and learn from the masters around you. You can spot the connoisseur a mile off. He can, with years of expertise, elbow his way through the hungry crowd milling at the door of the dining hall, waiting for it to be thrown open and position himself at a vantage point so that he can be among the first in. Once in, he expertly zeroes in on the leaf with the biggest piece of vada in the kootucurry and the maximum number of banana chips. And once the steaming hot rice is served, he immediately parts it into two, with the authority of a Moses come to part the Red Sea! It is a delight indeed, watching an expert eat a sadhya. He approaches his meal with the elegance of a virtuoso conducting his orchestra and the meticulousness of a marine cleaning his rifle. Not to him is it a haphazard meal which can be eaten any which way. No sir! There is a technique to it and purists would be highly offended if you start off with sambhar or ask for your payasam in a glass.
On with the meal. First served is the parippu. Always on the mound of rice parted to the right. The parippu up north is different, where they make a thick paste of it with toor dal. But I swear by our own parippu, a delicate prologue to prepare you for the sensory cornucopia ahead. Then the illusionists waltz in. Armed with a small steel vessel in the left hand and traditionally a piece of the banana leaf’s rib or in contemporary fashion, a steel spoon, in the right, they proceed to create an illusion of ghee being poured on the parippu. Lulled by that fantasy, you proceed to mix in the parippu, pappadam and rice and take your first mouthful. Once you start, you have to keep with the pace of your fellow diners and servers or you could miss out on something.
By the time you have taken a couple of mouthfuls, they are ready with the sambhar. I like to call it the sumo wrestler of dishes. Heavy, well loaded, and solidly reassuring. But before you come to grips with it, the sweet assault begins. When you see the payasams making their entry at the beginning of your row, you prepare your leaf for it. Sweep aside the sambhar and rice to one side, and make a clearing for the ada prathaman, that king among sweet dishes. Then comes the kadala payasam, and if your host has an extra sweet tooth, there is chakka and pazham payasam too, before the grand finale of sweetness – paalpayasam and boli. Bless the heart that came up with the combination. Once again, we, down south, score big time over our northern compatriots with this perfect marriage of sweetness and light! The gods can have their ambrosia. Give me my palpayasam and boli.
This is the moment you begin to feel slightly sated with the glut of sweetness. And you try a couple of ‘touchings’ of the injikkari to give your taste buds a break. But not to worry. They have the perfect medicine in the form of pulissery. The soothing olan is also served now. Together, they wash away the sweetness and perk up your tongue to make it receptive again. The digestion-aiding rasam is served next, with moru/sambharam/thayiru bringing up the rear. Either have it with rice and the mango pickle you saved for this very purpose or have them pour it into your cupped hands. A solemn Jana Gana Mana that has your tastebuds standing in attention.
This is the unique feature of our sadhyas. You don’t end with dessert which can leave you slightly drowsy or even nauseated after a meal. Care is taken to awaken your senses and make you leave the table, not just well fed, but refreshed too. It is a very scientific approach.
Time for the closing credits to start rolling. You need to tell your host if you enjoyed your meal or not. Close the leaf towards you if you are happy with the meal and away from you to express dissatisfaction. Either way, before you get up, all that is left on your leaf are a couple of drumstick pieces chewed beyond recognition, a few curry leaves, bits of red chillies, and the banana peel. The leaf is wiped clean… ‘tabula rasa’.
As you walk between the narrow rows to the melee that is the washing area, just take care not to get any spilled curries or ‘friendly’ hands with bits of food on them on your expensive Kancheepuram sarees. That turmeric stain is tough to get off. And don’t forget to pick up the vettila combo and lemon on your way out.
You might have mastered the art of expertly rolling up spaghetti on the tines of your fork, delicately picking up sushi with your chopsticks, or seductively popping into your mouth, the olive on a toothpick stylishly garnishing a Martini… Skills perceived as heights of sophistication and culinary etiquette, but if you are a Mallu, you haven’t really attained gastronomic Nirvana until you learn the art of sitting cross legged on a grass mat and polishing off with nothing but your bare hands, the ada prathaman on your leaf, with a banana and pappadam mashed into it in just the right proportion… Slurrppp…
PS: I understand that these days, a lot of innovation has been made to the sadhya with new curries gaining entry into a traditional bastion. Be that as it may, I prefer to stick with the traditional sadhya of Thiruvithankoor. Same reason why I gave kaalan a miss too.