A guide to celebrating Onam outside Kerala

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My memories of Onam, the annual harvest festival celebrated in Kerala, involve a riot of colour, tastes and the pervading scent of mullapoo or jasmine. As the story goes, Mahabali, the king of Kerala, who was buried under Vishnu’s feet, visits his land and his people at this time every year, bringing the onslaught of the monsoons to an end and ushering in the harvest. Onam is a festival celebrated over ten days, with festivities ranging from the famous boat races and performances to putting on the traditional white and gold kasavu sari and eating Onam Sadhya, a vegetarian meal comprising anywhere between 12 to 64 different dishes. However, it is not always easy to celebrate Onam with as much pomp and flair while living outside of Kerala since the festival usually goes by unrecognised in some parts of the country. Here are a few ways in which to make Onam your own even while you’re away from Kerala.

The Onam Sadhya is probably at the very apex of what gets people excited about Onam. Eaten on a banana leaf, the meal is a never ending feast, consisting of staples like rice, lentils and vegetables, but also specialities like erissery - a mix of pumpkin and spices, inji curry - a dish made out of tamarind, ginger and spices and sharkara payasam - a dessert made from jaggery and lentils. While there are places and people galore in Kerala ready to feed you an Onam Sadhya, it’s slightly harder to handle such an elaborate meal outside the state. If you’re a truly dedicated cook, then you can of course try to make most of the dishes at home, but if you, like me, prefer the easy way out, here are a few places you can go to satisfy your sadhya cravings.

Mahabelly, New Delhi - Located in Saket, Mahabelly is an authentic Kerala restaurant that serves tasty malayali cuisine, from appam and malabar parotta to mouth watering meat and seafood dishes. Every year, during Onam they also offer a full scale Onam Sadhya and you have the option of dining in or getting it home delivered. Their specialities include buttermilk, sambar and much more. Other restaurants you can avail Onam Sadhya at includes Zambar in Gurgaon and Kerala Cafe in Mayur Vihar.

Kerala House, New Delhi - While you won’t get a fancy restaurant experience at Kerala house, as the state mission house under the Government of Kerala, it does put up quite a spread for Onam, with the added benefit of the meal being reasonably priced and more accessible to people. Guests wanting to take part in the Sadhya are seated in long rows, facing each other, Kerala wedding reception style, and served all the dishes one after the other.

Ootupura, Mumbai - Under the guidance of Chef Marina Balakrishnan, Ootupura curates an Onam Sadhya experience unlike any other. Oottupura means eating place, and is symbolic of the community that gathers to partake in this meal and celebrates the spirit of what Onam is truly about, friends and family coming together. Chef Balakrishnan, who is from the Malabar region in Kerala, sources fresh ingredients from her homeland for a completely authentic malayali meal, in Mumbai.

Kappa Chakka Kandhari, Bangalore and Chennai - While this restaurant’s name is a mouthful, so is everything you get to eat here. A kerala specialty restaurant in Bangalore and Chennai, Kappa Chakka Kandhari gives many malayalis in these cities a taste of home away from home. The restaurant offers home delivery during the Onam season, and customers get an abundance of food in steel tiffin containers. This restaurant is also known for their payasams, so you should definitely try one of every kind.

During Onam, women wear the traditional white and gold kasavu sarees and young girls wear a pavada blouse, or a long skirt and top in bright colours. Men stick to colourful shirts and the classic white Mundu or Dhoti. While these are not very popular in certain other regions, there are still many places around India that make it easy to procure these outfits in order to fully embrace Onam away from Kerala. Chhabra Silk store in Kamla Nagar, New Delhi and Nalli Silk Sarees at Greater Kailash 2, are known for their variety of Kerala silk sarees, some that even veer away from the classic white and gold combination and incorporate more colours. In Bombay you have plenty of options, ranging from New Mahalakshmi Stores to Jyoti Sarees in Goregaon West. And if all else fails, there’s always Amazon.

While the famous vallamkali or annual boat race, where teams compete in snake boats or war canoes, only takes place in Alappuzha, a district in Kerala, you can listen to the boat songs that are sung during the race to help the rowers keep time on youtube, thanks to the wonders of technology. Another way to celebrate Onam outside of Kerala is by making flower rangolis outside houses, and even having fun competitions for children on who can make the most elaborate one.

Folk performances of Pulikali or Kaduvakali, where performers dress as leopards and tigers and enact a hunt are also a big part of Onam, and reaching out to the India Malayalee Association in your town or city a few days before Onam is a great way to find out where you can view or maybe even participate in these performances!

While there is nothing like celebrating Onam in Kerala, there are various restaurants, shops, programs and opportunities around the country that can help you create your own version of Onam, wherever you are. 

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