Onam: A Celebration of Rice

By Madhulika Dash

Chef Sharad Dewan, Regional Director, The Park Kolkata, on how his association with Onam has enabled him to take on a renewed appreciation for grain and farmers.

Did you know which rice gives Onam – sweet or savoury - its unique taste and palate memory? If you just thought it is local rice, you would be right. But just to be more specific it is a variety named Kerala Matta that is used. It is a rice grain (and that includes the original stain as well) that is almost 3,000-year old and was once the warrior’s choice – and paired beautifully with Game (read: meat) cuisine. In fact, folklore has it that the rice was a part of the soldier’s ration during the Chola Empire.

Why was the Matta chosen has two major reasons to it: first, it was a local produce, easily available and in abundance; two, it is a harvest crop, so it stayed relevant for a good part of the year – fascinatingly, both as a food for sustenance and health. It was these interesting facets that Onam, which, for me, began as yet another harvest festival with Sadya as the proverbial carrot, has taught me in the long run. It has, in the years I have been a part of the celebrations, taught me the foundation of this festival. Which, fascinatingly wasn’t about the deities or the rituals but a simple sense of gratitude to nature and a way to pass on the ancient wisdom of wellbeing. And the best way to do is with the single, aspect that connects people at every level: Food.

This in fact was the prime reason that a single ingredient and dish was identified as the synonym to the festival – and was cooked only on that day. For most festivals: be it Makar Sankranti or Baisakhi or Lohri or basant panchami or nuakhai or Nabanna or Onam or Pongal or Ugadi or Vishu or Gudi padwa or Ka Pomblang Nongkrem or Wagala or Bhogali bihu – the common thread was rice and local vegetable. After all, India, despite of its different meat eating, war mongering rulers, remained an agrarian society.

A beautiful example of this is the traditional Onam feast, Sadya. While the formal meal of 26 dishes served across 9 courses remains high on local, seasonal produce, the one thing that rarely changes is the rice: It’s unrefined, parboiled rice. In fact, it is the main stay of most harvest festivals across India, where the formal meal’s highlight is the rice, which is included not only because it is now ingrained into the fabric of the festival, but also because it is the grain that is seasonal and works best for wellbeing.

So in TamilNadu, it is Ponni rice; Rajamudi rice in Karnataka; Andhra Pradesh opts for Sambha and for West Bengal, it is the now popular Gobind bhog. Most of these varieties are packed with nutrients, minerals, low on carbohydrates; and contrary to believe can reduce the risk of cholesterol, diabetes , reduces blood pressure and are great source of Calcium.

Given that India was primarily a rice-eating, rice-loving country, it’s about time to return back to our roots, and thanks to our ancestors; we do have a celebratory way to do so: Onam being one of them!