It is a busy day for Kerala restaurants at INA market, namely Appu's and Kerala Hotel, where Onam celebrations are underway. Young people, families, and friends from Kerala who could not go home because of work, lack of leaves at offices, or personal problems have come looking for their native taste to compensate for being away from family. Many guests tell me that at home, it would have been completely different.
“We begin with prayers, then we wear our traditional clothes, meet family and friends, and there is food,” says Daisy, a mother who has been in Delhi for the last 30 years.
A long queue of people waits for their token at Kerala Hotel 2.0, a new edition to the 25-year-old Kerala hotel. They have all come to eat the sadhya.
On my table, a large section has come together: me from Lucknow, Bipin and Krishna are from Kerala, and could not go because of work, their elder friend is from Hyderabad. Sameer serves us, who has come from Nepal with his friends. He has been here for the last 3 years. On stereo, we have the sound of singari melam or celebratory drums from Kerala.
The banana leaf is placed in front of us, and we are served the sadhya, one dish at a time. It included avial, a dish made from 13 vegetables in yoghurt and coconut sauce and spicy dry beans. In curry, we have rasam, sambhar, and ulli curry (made with onions). To savour it all, there is original Kerala rice. On the sides, there is crispy papad with Ingi curry (a sort of sweet paste made from ginger and jaggery), pachadi (thin curry made with yogurt and milk), banana chips and sweet jaggery crisps.
For sweet dishes, we have two varieties of payasam (kheer). They include sewain and “Ada-pradhaman” made from jaggery and a part of rice.
The sadhya tastes like a host of Indian nuts and vegetables. Many dishes that I tasted felt familiar but came with a new name. “This is only a small percentage of what we eat at home on Onam. You must come to Kerala, you won't get up from the table for at least an hour,” said Bipin, who was a former chef. For many people coming, it is not a matter of just taste, but a device to remember Kerala in Delhi.
“None of my staff has slept since last night,” tells Jarin, the owner of Kerala Hotel 2.0, who is standing in the middle of the restaurant. The usual menu is not valid for today. They would be serving sadhya till 6 pm in the evening and then close the day. He added that the team had been preparing for a week as the dishes had to be decided. After the raw materials were prepared, it took them six hours to make all the dishes.
On this day, all the Keralites come to restaurants to celebrate. As Jarin tells me, the area is a hub for Kerala culture with restaurants, and shops specialising in kalli mundu. The crowd consists of Keralites, and even people from other states who like to experiment, or have come to celebrate with their friends.
Jarin warmly smiles and asks me to visit again, promising me that they have a range of chicken dishes that they prepare on other days, of course in Kerala style.