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Monday, October 25, 2021

The Back Burner: Make your own sadhya for Onam: Part 1

On the first day of Onam, here are two recipes to make your own festive spread at home

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi |
August 22, 2020 3:33:30 pm
onam, sadhyaCelebrate Onam by making Onasadhya at home. (Source: Getty Images; design: Gargi Singh)

This blog began in April with a post about the dissonance of celebrating Vishu in a year marked by one catastrophe after another – both natural and human-made. In the months since then, it feels like little has changed, despite the world’s attempts at crawling back to normalcy and, once again, I find myself wondering how to celebrate my favourite festival at a time when despondency has tinged everything around me.

But then, in these destabilising times, among the few things that keep us from coming completely unmoored are celebrations, no matter how modest, and so, starting today – the first day of Onam – I’m sharing the first lot of recipes that you can follow as you learn how to make your own Onasadhya (Onam feast) at home.

onam sadhya Sadhya is a traditional Onam feast consisting of a variety of vegetarian dishes. (Image courtesy: Pooja Pillai)

In all, I’ll be sharing the recipes for nine dishes over the coming week. Some are very simple, some are just a little less simple. Almost all of them can be made with ingredients that should be easily accessible. The only ingredient that is a little expensive is coconut, but it’s key to most of the dishes, so feel free to omit a few dishes, if you think you don’t want to spend too much. Also, while I’ve mentioned coconut oil in most of the recipes, it’s not something I insist on; there’s only one preparation in which it is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, feel free to use any neutral oil.

Ultimately, a dish is made special by the thought and care that goes into it. Ingredients are secondary, as are the number of preparations included in a feast. In fact, if all you want to make are the two dishes from today’s post, that’s alright, too.

sambar Mullangi sambar with vegetables, served in sadhya (Image courtesy: Pooja Pillai)

Mullangi (radish) Sambar

The sambar served in the typical sadhya features a medley of vegetables such as moringa or drumstick, ash gourd, yellow pumpkin, Madras onions, brinjal, okra or ladies’ fingers, plantain, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots. At home, however, a single-vegetable sambar is preferred since it requires far less prep time. While drumstick sambar is my personal favourite, radish sambar – imbued with the pungency of mooli – is utterly delicious, too.

You can use store-bought sambar powder for this recipe, but make sure it’s a South Indian brand. Or you can follow my mother’s basic sambar powder recipe given below.

It should be noted that the Kerala-specific sambar uses a masala paste made with coconut. That follows a slightly different recipe which I will give another time. This recipe is for the vegetable sambar which is not Malayali in origin but, as Vijayan Kannampilly notes in The Essential Kerala Cookbook, is what is usually served in the sadhya.


For basic sambar powder

½ cup – Coriander seeds
2 tbsp – Chana dal
2 tbsp – Toor or arhar dal
15-20 – Dried red chillies (depending on how potent they are)
½ tsp – Fenugreek seeds
½ tsp- Asafoetida

For sambar

1 – Radish, chopped (medium-sized)
½ cup – Toor or arhar dal
Tamarind – lime-sized ball
1-2 tsp – Sambar powder (adjust according to taste)
½ tsp – Turmeric powder
Salt, to taste
½ cup – Fresh coriander leaves, chopped

For tempering

1 tbsp – Coconut oil (or any neutral-flavoured oil)
1 tsp – Mustard seeds
1 sprig – Curry leaves
2-3 – Dried red chillies (optional)
Asafoetida – a pinch


Roast all the ingredients for the sambar powder, except asafoetida and fenugreek seeds, together on a low flame till they start releasing their aromas. Add the remaining two ingredients and roast for less than a minute or till the asafoetida becomes fragrant. Turn off the heat and allow the ingredients to cool. Grind to a fine powder.
Soak the tamarind in 1 cup of hot water and set aside.
Wash, rinse and pressure cook the dal for 6-7 whistles on medium flame.
While the dal cooks, peel and chop the radish into roundels and cook with turmeric powder and some water.
Squeeze the tamarind pulp in its water and strain and add it to veggies, along with the sambar powder.
Once the dal is done, mash it and add to the cooked radish.
Let it come to a boil, then reduce the flame and allow the sambar to simmer till the raw smell of tamarind goes.
While the sambar simmers, heat some coconut oil and add the mustard seeds. Once the seeds pop, add the other ingredients. Asafoetida should be added right at the end, because you don’t want it to burn and taste acrid.
Once the tempering is done, pour it into the sambar and allow the sambar to a boil once more.
Finish off with the fresh coriander leaves and, if you want, some more fresh curry leaves, and turn off the flame.

Serve hot with rice and a dollop of ghee.

Read| The Back Burner: Hot, spicy garlic rasam for cold rainy days

beans and carrot thoran, onam sadhya Make beans and carrot thoran and serve on the side with rice and sambar. (Image courtesy: Pooja Pillai)

Thoran is a simple stir-fry preparation of a variety of vegetables – cabbage, beans, beetroot, carrots and bitter gourd – that are cut small and cooked with fresh, grated coconut. Delicious thorans are also made with ingredients like moringa leaves, jackfruit seeds and banana flower which are not easy to access, but worth the effort if you can manage to.


1 cup – Green beans, cut small
1 cup – Carrots, cut small
½ cup – Grated coconut
2-3 – Dried red chillies
2 tsp – Coconut oil (or any neutral-flavoured oil)
½ tsp – Mustard seeds
½ tsp – Urad dal
1 sprig – Curry leaves
½ tsp – Turmeric powder
Salt, to taste


Heat the oil in a wok and add the urad dal and the mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds start to pop, add the curry leaves and dried red chillies, quickly followed by the chopped vegetables.
Add salt and turmeric, cover and cook till the vegetables are almost done.
Stir in the grated coconut and cover and cook for a minute or so more.

Serve on the side with rice and sambar.

[The Back Burner is a weekly blog that will talk about all things food (with recipes, of course)]

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