Onam is always about family, friends and fabulous food. Gulf News journalists share what the Kerala festival means to them – Gulf News

Onam evokes many memories, but there is a common thread that unites all Malayalis.
Anupa Kurian-Murshed, Senior Digital Content Planning Editor
‘Pappadam kacchel’ or simply put, the fine art of frying pappadams for Onam – I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert. Scoff not, for it is a fine skill honed over many years of being taught and assigned that task all through my pre-teen and teens at every sadya held at my Indira aunty’s home.
Indira aunty and Gopi uncle start Onam sadya preparation nearly two weeks in advance, but all the main dishes (more than 24) needing freshly grated coconut, yoghurt and a garden of trimmed vegetables are made on the day by them, painstakingly, with a lot of love and attention. However, pappadam was never made, till my young self arrived in pavada (long skirt) and blouse, glasses perched at attention on the bridge of my nose ready to fry up the mountains of pappadams needed for the guests pouring in – the women in kasav sarees (cream coloured, fine cotton weaves with a gold border) and men in mundu and jubbah (again, cream coloured silk or cotton shirts and wrap with gold or kasav border).
For a few hours on the day of Thiruvonam, that sprawling apartment in the suburb of Mumbai would be transported back to their ancestral home or tharavad in Palakkad, Kerala, with the aroma of jasmine flowers, freshly rinsed banana leaves and incense mingling with the laughter of family and friends gathered. People ate seated in rows, the women and kids first, while the men served. Time stood still, just the joy of good food and togetherness flowed. Did I mention that both Indira aunty and Gopi uncle are brilliant cooks?
Years have passed, Gopi uncle left us about a decade or so ago, and Onam sadya was never the same after that. But, every time I fry pappadam at home in Dubai, I travel back in time and hear his voice, gently instructing me: “Kutti, enneh ne dooreh nikku, vegham pappadam koru… (child, stay far from the hot oil, take the pappadams out quickly)”
Onam is, indeed, one of my all-time favourite Kerala festivals because to me it has always been about family, friends and fabulous food.
Manoj Nair, Business Editor
This year, I intend to reaffirm my faith in Onam – and in all the reassuring familiarities and traditions that it stands for. This year, I will not be treating it as that yearly cultural ritual I have to go through for being a Malayali. No, this year, I intend to take the whole four days of Onam as seriously as anything that I have done in – and with – my life.
For that, I have to acknowledge the contribution of COVID-19, a reality that runs on a parallel track to our lives. A reality that hides behind grim statistics, but for us is about lost friends and dear family members. And for the living, the nameless fear of ‘What if’.

This Onam, I have decided to keep all that accumulated dread at a distance. I am going to indulge in the choicest Onam lunch I can lay my hands on; I will connect with friends and family members, not as a token gesture but borne of a genuine need to reconnect. To emphasise all over again that some traditions – unique to me for the simple reason that I am a Malayali first and foremost – need to be celebrated. That no degree of COVID-19 fears will deter me.
I will look forward to luxuriating in the aroma of three payasams/kheers. I will crunch the pappadams onto a mound of rice, cooked to the right texture. The crunch of the pappadams and then the pieces mixed with piping hot sambar – each Malayali anywhere in the world should take that innate pride that his and her culture is serving up something timeless.
This year, I intent to do all that – and say a thankful prayer for that.
Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor
Onam is more than just a festival for me. Having lived away from Kerala for over three decades, the Malayali in me goes into overdrive during Onam. A deluge of nostalgia follows. The Atham floral arrangements on the floor, the ball games and card games in my neighbourhood, the swing and songs, all come flooding in like a slideshow. I miss them all.

Every Onam, these images return unerringly. More because Onam now is not the same for me. It revolves around the feast. It’s almost like Onam is sadya (feast). To remember Onam for Onasadya alone is a tragedy. There’s much more to Onam than the sadya.
When Onam is around, you can feel it in the air. It’s a time when friends and family come together, from wherever they live and work. The shopping, the new clothes, the games, and the rituals all make Onam in Kerala an occasion to remember. The glow lasts several days.
As an expatriate, you get none of that. The sadya is all you get. That’s if you are lucky to get the day off from work. Thiru Onam is on Saturday this year. So I’ll be home, swiping cherupayaru (green gram dal) payasam off a plantain leaf before finishing the meal with rasam, pulissery and buttermilk to the accompaniment of mango and lemon pickles, and inji (ginger) curry.
Maybe, I’ll catch a Malayalam movie on one of the television channels before a siesta. And wonder, what happened to Onam?
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Assistant Editor Features
What does Onam mean to me? In one word: Food.
As a committed carnivore who has always shied away from eating her greens, Onam was one festival that reminded me about a veg-only sadya’s immense potential and scope. The lavish greens-laden feast laid out on a banana leaf was different shades of scrumptious.
But it wasn’t just the food on the banana leaf that was appealing. It’s the conviviality that this festival symbolises. Onam was always about calling family or friends like family over to our home in Dubai for a feast and draping that gorgeous traditional ivory and gold Kerala sari. It was also one of those rare occasions where I would even give singer Bappi Lahiri a close contest over the number of gold necklaces that I could throw on my person. The fashion minimalist philosophy of ‘less is more’ is shown the door, while I truly embrace my opulent and over-the-top part of my personality. Every family member and guests are given the diktat to dress up in their flamboyant Keralite gear.
But Onam in our home isn’t just about dressing up. It was also about hanging out with your most favourite Malayali friends who adore iconic actor Mohanlal comedies from the 1980s and can rattle off witty dialogues from his classic films. To me, Onam is an incredibly personal festival where we break bread or scoop rice in this case with people whom you love dearly. Men and women who love their mundu/mundu and veshti and their Lalettan (Mohanlal as he’s fondly called) thrive on this day.
Plus, as an expatriate parent to multiples living in the UAE, you are often very keen to educate your children about our culture and our roots, and Onam is one festival that helps us do it in a fun and zany manner. My children get to play dress up in reams of gold, and the golden lining is that they learn to celebrate Kerala’s long-enduring harvest festival with endearing simplicity. Simply put, to celebrate Onam, all you need is a bunch of amazing friends who are game to go strictly vegetarian for lunch and can eat payasam (traditional dessert) out of a banana leaf with aplomb. It also helps if your friends are game to do potluck for sadya. Whipping up dozens of dishes is no child’s play.
Babu Das Augustine, Business Editor
For me Onam brings back memories of beautiful colours, tastes and smells.
The festival falls right in the middle or towards the end of the monsoon season when everything is green, clean and the seasonal blooms making the surroundings colourful in Kerala.
Those of us who grew up in rural farming settings know monsoon is the time of scarcity in terms of income, food and even sunshine.
Onam marks the end of that long gap between two harvest seasons divided by a scorching summer followed by a prolonged rainy season. Thus, the festival simply has become everything that symbolizes the bright hope for the future, the return of abundance and the joy in the present.
Even though I have been away from home for nearly 40 years, my childhood memories of Onam are still fresh in my memory, and wherever I am, I do try to relive those beautiful days with those around me.
In big urban settings, we, probably celebrate Onam at much grander scale with a tastier food cooked by celebrity chefs, larger number of guests and new designer clothes, but nothing can be a substitute to that feel of transition from rural scarcity marked by home grown vegetables cooked by your mother in fresh, fragrant coconut oil.
Onam is all about our humble agrarian traditions and hopes for a better tomorrow, celebrated as a community, bereft of socio, cultural and religious differences. It is and should continue to remain more than a symbolism of human potential to celebrate the goodness around us in the present.
Wishing you all the happiness and abundance of joy – the essence of Onam.
Justin Varghese, Your Money Editor
I honestly don’t have that many great memories of celebrating Onam. Being brought up in the Middle East in the 90s, I can hardly remember as a child when the celebration ever went beyond having a sadya at a restaurant with my family of four.
But as my mother loved cooking ‘naadan’ (means traditional or local in Malayalam) Kerala dishes and we were a bunch of foodies at home, I can recall many instances where my mum cooked a few dishes that were commonly made during typical Kerala celebrations like Onam. These included items like Inji Curry, Pachadi, Kichadi, Olan, Ellisheri, Pulissery, Chena Mezhkkupuratti, Kaalan, and Kerala desserts like Palada Pradhaman and Pazham Pradhaman.
Traditionally, over two dozen vegetarian dishes are prepared for this grand feast served on banana leaves. However, for me memories like these came much later after moving to India. I remember instances when a few of our cousins came together to cook maybe 10 Onam-unique dishes, dressing up in the cultural attire, and having loads of fun in the process.
During my college days and after getting into a corporate job, Onam was more about dressing up in the usual attire (off-white-coloured mundu or dhoti with golden-coloured or kasavu border combined with a shirt or kurta). There were times where we got together to make the Pookalam, also known as ‘Athapoo’, which is the flower rangoli made during the festival. I remember one time in college where students got together to make a particularly large one. This was most often followed by having sadya with a group of other fellow Malayalis and a few Onam-related performances like Thiruvathira or Pulikali.
Evangeline Elsa, Social Media Editor
Every year, I wait for Onam. It is the one day I eat rice with happiness, not bothered about my blood sugar going up. Have you seen the bright green banana leaf with the colourful spread of 24 or more items? It’s impossible to say no to it. I was born in the Indian capital, Delhi, and later our family moved to Noida, a planned city in the National Capital Region (NCR), very far from Kerala, the South Indian state that we belong to. But, that didn’t stop us from celebrating Onam with the excitement that suits the grand festival. The traditional kasavu pavada (skirt) and blouse, mum’s kasavu sarees, and the preparation of the many dishes, Onam was an annual event that our family never skipped.
My sister and I grew up in a community where many families from Kerala lived. And, thanks to church, we had found more Malayali families. So, a few weeks in advance, all the parents would decide where this year we would gather. The children would take over the duty of making the athapookalam (a flower arrangement on the floor) using petals of colourful flowers, cleaning the banana leaves, and running other simple errands. The adults would be busy preparing the food. There was music, laughter and noise all around. If someone was up for it, we would even have one of the adults dressed up as Mahabali, a symbol of prosperity.
My favourite thing to do was helping the uncles serve food as everyone sat on the floor in rows. On the Onam leaf there is a particular place for each food item. It’s an art to be able to arrange them all on the leaf without quite touching each other. I don’t think I have that kind of patience anymore.
When I came to Dubai after getting married, initially we lived in Deira, where my husband’s friends lived close by. It was my turn to be in the kitchen, chopping and preparing food, while tiny kids ran around playing. Everyone dressed their best, in off-white kasavu clothes, the young wives in sarees and the men in mundu and kurtas. Eleven years later, Onam is quieter, usually spent ordering the Onasadya (Onam feast) from a Kerala restaurant and enjoying it with my team at work, or at home, preparing a few dishes depending on how much time I have. Ada pradhaman (a dessert made with rice flakes, cashew nuts, coconut milk, roasted coconut pieces and palm jaggery) is a must in my small but happy feast with my family.
Surabhi Vasundharadevi, Social Media Reporter
When I think of Onam, I’m taken back to my childhood in Kerala. How every year, my family and my extended family would get together in one of the family houses in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Heartwarming memories rush in and fill me with happiness.
One thing I enjoyed about Onam was the exciting Uthradappachil, it is a word that refers to the last minute shopping spree. It comes from the word Uthradam, which is the day before Thiruvonam (the actual day of Onam), and ‘pachil’ that means spree. So, on Utharadam, my cousins and I would rush to the nearby market for the things we need for the Onam day.
There would be lots to buy, food, flowers and gifts. Onam is not a single-day celebration, it actually starts nine days before the actual festival. My cousins and I used to make the athapookalam, many colourful flowers and petals are laid on the floor to create intricate designs. Everyday a new design, we would be proud of our artwork and would make sure to repeatedly pass by it and admire it. For 10 days, the smell of fresh flowers would fill the air.
Onam was one such occasion that helped us get closer to the extended family, since most of us lived in different countries. For Onam, many of our cousins and uncles and aunts would travel back. The kitchen would be buzzing with all the women catching up on what was latest in the family. Kitchen was my favourite places to be, not just because all the delicious palaharam (snacks) used to be there but because I’ve always loved cooking. I would always be busy chopping something or stirring something. I would be assisting my grandma. That was the one festival where my grandma would cook, she was old and usually didn’t have to. One of the best cooks I have known, she would teach me tips and tricks as I would trail after her, wherever she turned in the kitchen.
In Dubai, I miss the festive vibe of Onam that every street of Kerala had for 10 days. But, thankfully my team at work is just as excited about the Onasadya, the best part of Onam. The food, a banana leaf with many colourful foods all freshly prepared.

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