A Bengali goes on a crusade at Onam in Auckland
What a melting pot New Zealand is, with its tapestry of cultures that coexist in this tiny, diverse Nation! It took me to step out of the country to taste a different India from where I grew up.
As a Bengali brought up in Kolkata, I had never experienced Onam, the Malayalee (also spelt Malayali) community’s biggest festival. My own cultural roots are a source of immense pride and identity for me, but the opportunity to experience other traditions is always special.
Onam is the biggest festival celebrated by the Malayalee community in Kerala.
The 10-day long fiesta is celebrated during the harvest period of late August and early September, to celebrate the homecoming of Kerala’s mythical King Mahabali.
This year, Mahabali made a pit stop at the Organisation of Hindu Malayalees New Zealand (OHM NZ)’s Grand Onam Festival at the Mahatma Gandhi Centre on Saturday, September 2, 2023. In his speech, he said, he stopped over in Tāmaki Makaurau to shower his blessings to those living in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
I got to meet the King, thanks to an invite from Devi Shobhana the Secretary at OHM NZ and watched the multicultural event put up by the organisation. Sure, there were no boat races or caparisoned elephants in sight, but a series of music and dance recitals from across Indian states more than made up for it. My absolute favourite was the traditional Panchari Melam session, a percussion ensemble, featuring Kerala’s ethnic Chenda drums and cymbals.
The joy of Onam Sadhya
The foodie in me would be lying if I did not say what got me grinning ear to ear was the joy of experiencing Onam Sadhya, the grand feast associated with Onam. The Onam Sadhya is a traditional vegetarian feast served on a banana leaf. Long rows of tables were set, adorned with paper plates that looked like banana leaves, a testament to the meticulous planning that went into this feast.
I sat down on an empty chair, whispering to myself, ‘Dear Mahabali, please make me sit next to a Malayalee.’ And he granted my wish, as I introduced myself to Manasi Gaonkar, a part Malayalee, strongly attached to her roots. Manasi, works in Operations Management at the Auckland Airport and for the next 30 minutes, she guided me to devour the grand feast, explaining each item of the lavish spread.
The gastronomic journey that followed was nothing short of astounding. From crispy banana chips and pappadam to a delectable assortment of pickles and chutneys, and the curries that followed, every bite was a revelation of flavours and textures.
Likeness to Bengali Recipes
The Bengali in me, could not stop from trying to think of a similar Bengali recipe as I dived into one dish after the other, while Manasi explained each one with passion and pride.
She told me about the significance of the Upperi, the plantain chips, a crunchy and addictive snack and a staple in Kerala households, much like my own Bengali “jhurjhure alu bhaja” – potato chips. The various chutneys, each with its distinct tangy flavour, and my top choice was the Beetroot Thoran, a beetroot condiment!
The main dish is plain, parboiled rice, served along with sides, collectively called Kootu which includes curries like parippu (lentil soup), sambhar (lentil and vegetables), rasam (a thin vegetable soup), pulisseri (a coconut and yoghurt gravy) and so much more.
The pièce de resistance was the parippu, which had a rich, velvety texture and a hint of ghee (clarified butter), reminiscent of the Bengali concept of “shada bhaat” or plain white rice and dal (lentil soup).
As I savoured each bite, I couldn’t help but notice the emphasis on the use of coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves, the love for rice and lentils, and the intricate layering of flavours were all elements I found similar in both cultures.
Manasi’s guidance was invaluable as she introduced me to the intricacies of each dish and made the Onam Sadhya not just a meal but a cultural exchange, enriching my understanding of the Malayalee community’s rich heritage.
The Onam Sadhya experience was a celebration of food and unity, diversity, and the richness of culture. It was reassuring to see how a diverse group of people came together to celebrate the traditions of the Malayalee community. I not only got to experience the flavours of Onam Sadhya but also discovered the common threads that connect us all, no matter where we come from. As a Bengali in New Zealand, I discovered another India and a mushy sense of belonging.
Moumita Das Roy is a cross-industry marketer with experience in Nonprofit, Media, Advertising, and Telecom and has worked in some iconic global organisations. She lives in Auckland and writes regularly for Indian Newslink.