KOCHU VARTHAMANAM: Thooshanila Murichu Vachu…
Remitha Satheesh describes in detail the traditional ‘sadhya’ of Travancore, right from laying down the plantain leaf to the way you fold it at the end of the meal.
On Feb 25, 2011


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.

'Sadhya'; Image Courtesy: Durga Rakesh

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.
Remitha Satheesh
A home maker living the 'easy life' in the US of A, juggling her time
cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring and playing maid. In between, she
nurses fanciful delusions of being the next JK Rowling and tries to
Previously in Kochu Varthamanam:
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Slurrrppp !!!! I admit nothing can beat Thiruvithankoor sadhya... once v move out of Trivandrum the sadhya served is different... I still remember my cousin's wedding at Guruvayoor..I was eagerly waiting for the parippu to be served but they served sambhar first and also all payasam in paper cups...the real taste of payasam comes only from the banana leaf... once I finish my sadhya my leaf will be clean that sometimes my mother will have a doubt whether its a used leaf or not..even my cousins used to tease me but I dont mind... I just love and enjoy eating sadhya... Thanks for this column Remi... You made my day
Durga Rakesh, on Feb 26, 2011 12:55:21 AM
Yummmy...!! You made my mouth water!!! One of the items in my To do list during my next trip to Trivandrum is to attend a weeding - Just to eat this fantastic Trivandrum Sadya...!! Nothing can beat it..!! Thank you !
Beena, on Feb 26, 2011 01:19:39 AM
YUM! It felt like I just had a Sadhya!
Priyanka, on Feb 26, 2011 01:38:28 AM
excellent---felt like having a real sadya back in tvm---
Shaji, on Feb 26, 2011 11:58:50 AM
Hi Remitha. You have spoken with so much humor and flair that I bow to you. No one can describe the sadya better than this.
Shyam, on Feb 26, 2011 12:04:44 PM
Wowie..........the thirivithakoor sadya, you have my mouth watering! Sadya is my favourite. Kochi side has Paalada and Gothambu payasam, but gimme adaprathaman and Palpayasam-Boli anyday! Item numbers..hehehe! A simple sadya and you have a spread of your writing talents on the thoosanila of yentha for readers!
Shivaja, on Feb 26, 2011 12:53:31 PM
I am going to ask FB to ban all pictures of food - everytime someone posts a blog about food - I drown in my drool :(:( Remitha your write up was as elaborate and wonderful as the Sadya. It has been a loooooong time since I have had a sadya. For me the hardest was to master getting the payasam in my hand without it rolling down to my elbows - but then again nakkalofying the hand all the way to the elbows - I loved it...........:):)
Moe, on Feb 27, 2011 08:07:57 AM
Ugran! Well Written:)
Bindu Jude, on Feb 27, 2011 12:46:49 PM
how beautifully your art of writing describes the art of eating...congts
R.r, on Feb 27, 2011 10:51:14 PM
I felt like i'd Kalyana Sapadu, delicious to read your article, enjoyed it.
U S, on Feb 28, 2011 07:43:50 PM
Durga, its a pleasure cooking I mean writing for readers like you:) Beena, i hope u get to check a sadhya off ur to do list next time. Priyanka,Shaji, Shyam, Shivaja, thank you. Glad you folks enjoyed it. Moe, he he, nakkalofying... I hope u've mastered the art by now:) Bindu, RR, US, thank you. Appreciate ur comments....
Remitha Satheesh, on Mar 01, 2011 12:08:32 AM was almost like being there. thanks. RN
Rajesh Ayyappan Nair, on Mar 01, 2011 09:34:46 AM
it was a wonderful sadya, you served! a gastronomic delight! it is not often that i get to enjoy the sadya, but this feature made up for all those lost opportunities!
Dilipkrishnan, on Mar 01, 2011 10:16:04 AM
Gr8 piece....I think ur best so far..reminds of VIR SANGHVI in the HINDUSTAN TIMES...esp his one on CHOCOLATES, BREAD, BISCUITS......AVIAL is by itself a separate chapter.....does the banana leaf add to the taste?
Periyakarrupnadan, on Mar 01, 2011 01:23:11 PM
Felt like I just had a good sadya when I read this. Even after me being a desendent of the Malabar clans, I have to admit that the best sadya in the whole of kerala is the Thiruvithankoor Sadya.
Resh, on Mar 02, 2011 12:56:56 PM
Slurp Slurp! that was too good.... Thanks for the delicious virtual sadhya....
Happy Kitten, on Mar 03, 2011 04:53:46 PM
Thank you Rajesh, Dilip,PKN, Resh and HK. Appreciate your comments. PKN, i think the banana leaf does enhance the taste... especially with the payasam. that's the reason they don't taste the same in cups or on 'paper vazhayilas'.
Remitha Satheesh, on Mar 07, 2011 05:02:14 PM
feel like belching after this virtual feast. What a helluva nostalgia!
Kunjubi, on Mar 15, 2011 08:54:53 AM
The sadya photo is upside down. Please correct it
Anish Mohan, on May 01, 2011 06:06:50 PM
And one more thing you forgot to add is that everyone would wait for elders to get up first after the sadhya, as a sign of courtesy:)
Anil Kumar V S, on May 04, 2011 04:12:43 PM
Can you find a reason why mallus spoil Idly and dosa.Neigbours beyond western ghat make excellent appam/ puttu/kappa etc.
Siva C, on Jul 07, 2011 08:28:43 PM
In kottayam kalan/pulissery is served after sambar. Payasm is served only after kalan. Any specific reason for the change in order??
Tom, on May 10, 2012 05:13:59 PM
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