The Sadya – Traditional Food Done Right
Note: I recently completed a fifteen day press trip through Kerala, India which was sponsored by the state’s tourism bureau. I have not been asked to write about any specific topic related to the trip. These words and ideas are my own.
One of the greatest things about travel is the chance to try new foods and traditions. While we often had a chance to do this on the Kerala Blog Express, nothing was quite as exciting for me as eating the traditional Keralan meal known as a Sadya.
Sadya is a traditional vegetarian meal in Kerala, served on a banana leaf. A Sadya consists of numerous small dishes arranged in a specific way around the leaf. During our trip we had the chance to eat a Sadya two times. It was quite a lot of fun.
Our first Sadya came after a long day of hiking and visiting local villages. Our host for the meal was Pranavam Homestay near Wayanad. During the meal they deployed what seemed like a small army to carefully arrange our dishes. Each new dish came with an explanation of what the food was. As each small piece of the meal was served, it was as if they were creating a work of art.
A Sadya is traditionally eaten only with one’s right hand. Our hosts had said that we could opt out of eating with our hand, but what fun would that be? After all, I was in a foreign country, eating a traditional meal. Ought I not eat it the traditional way?
At first I was a little lost, but after seeing me struggle, Vijay, who is originally from Kerala, taught me the proper hand technique. Using my right hand, I scooped up the food with my four fingers and then used my thumb to push it into my mouth. The technique is quite simple, however it takes some time to master.
While Vijay and the other two Indians, Prasad & Tarun neatly ate their meals, I struggled to keep everything tidy. It took me quite a long time to finish and when all was said and done, my area looked like a small storm had passed through. I didn’t care though, because the food was absolutely delicious.
Our second Sadya came a few days later at the Kadappuram Beach Resort during what was one of the hottest days of our entire trip! The outdoor restaurant felt more like a sauna and the food was decent, but served in more of a rigid industrial manner. For some reason it didn’t have quite the same comfortable feel as the homestay had provided.
Despite the lack of atmosphere and blistering heat, I did manage to do better during this second Sadya. I finished much quicker this time and with less debris scattered around, but I learned that perhaps I made a mistake during the first meal.
When the meal is completed, you are to fold the banana leaf in order to signal to the hosts that you are finished. That part I knew, but I learned during this second Sadya that the direction of folding makes a difference. If satisfied, folding the Sadya away pays compliments to the chef. If not satisfied, folding it inwards signals to the chef that perhaps they have some work to do! (I am not sure which way I folded it during our first Sadya.)
While I am by no means an expert on Sadya, it is almost always a vegetarian meal. The dishes vary in scope and texture, but almost all of them are rich in spices and rely heavily on local ingredients. Coconut, lentils & jackfruit were used in abundance for our meals, but a variety of fruits, vegetables and spices served to ensure every part of our palate was touched in some way. For a great breakdown of Sadya recipes along with the names of all of the traditional dishes, click here.
In the end, I truly enjoyed learning about and eating this traditional meal and feel it is an experience that everyone should have when visiting Kerala. Not only is it fun to eat with your hand, but the entire experience is stimulating on so many levels.
For me, the atmosphere of the first Sadya, at a homestay in the middle of the beautiful countryside near Wayanad, was perfect. It is certainly one of my favorite experiences while on the Kerala Blog Express and one I will long remember.