Monday, May 18, 2009

Sadya Couldn't Be Here

On the plate, it doesn't seem like such a big deal.

A fresh green banana leaf was placed before me, as I creaked and groaned and somehow managed to fold my aging carcass into a cross-legged sitting position on the woven mat. Chitra, our wonderful chef friend who had spent the better part of the last week and a half preparing for this meal, carefully served up her creations one by one onto the banana leaf. A total of twenty four items go into the traditional Sadya meal, and Chitra had patiently walked Laurel and me through the creation of every dish. First, she placed payasam (a sweet cardamom-infused thin pudding much revered here) onto the leaf. Then a little salt. Then a flurry of traditional vegetarian dishes, along with several types of pickle, papad, and banana chips. A huge mound of the Keralan "chubby rice" topped with a healthy, and I do mean healthy, ladle of sambar. Then finally, a dollop of pure ghee. My expression was one of pure glee.

The order of appearance of all the items on the banana leaf is dictated by tradition, based on the principles of Ayurveda, the ancient "life-science" of India. The guiding principles are certainly beyond the scope of this humble blog post, so I'll just stick to the food. As I mentioned in a previous post, in a proper Sadya meal, there must be a full spectrum of tastes, ranging from salty, sweet, hot and spicy, bland, crunchy, and bitter. Every dish is prepared without any onions or garlic, which is unusual, but based on the Brahmin idea that members of the onion family tend to distract the mind away from focus on cosmic oneness, and instead shift the focus to thoughts about how hot your wife looks in her new outfit. Despite the absence of the garlic and onions I love, the dishes in this meal were anything but devoid of flavour. They were, in fact, spectacular. And my wife still looked good.

We had started the meal preparation the previous week with a trip to visit the lady who makes the papads by hand. Then, the next afternoon, we went to visit a Brahmin catering crew who were kind enough to show us the preparation of Payasam, which is the traditional dessert. It was shocking to see how much effort actually goes into this one dish. First, they make a kind of noodle called "ada" by making a thin paste from broken brown rice flour, oil, and water. This paste is then spread out on banana leaves and the leaves are rolled up and tied with a bit of fiber from the leaf. The finished items, which look like rolled up diplomas from Banana University, are then tossed into a large cauldron to boil for a long time. We were told to return in the morning, to see the transformation from diploma to noodle, and sure enough, at 5 AM, our faithful friend Gee pulled up in front of the house. It was still very dark, and Muslim prayers murmured somewhere off in the distance as this sleepy trio drove back to the banquet hall with camera and sound equipment.

The catering crew was still going strong, as they had actually worked through the night to ensure that their feast would be ready on time. The crew, composed of barefoot and shirtless mostly older men with some pretty questionable dental work, were all clad in orange lungis as they scurried about the fluorescent lit kitchen. We were led out back, where the "ada" was unrolled from the banana leaves, and then pressed through some wire mesh on a frame to create the noodles that would later be mixed with the payasam. It was all over by 5:30 AM, so we packed up our gear and headed back home to bed. The things we do to get the proper film footage...

Over the next week or so, our friend Chitra worked very hard to gather all the ingredients and the recipes for the remaining items in the Sadya meal that she was going to demonstrate for us. It took us five days of shooting, and on each day covered about four dishes. The pickles and papad were done, so we focused on the parade of other dishes. The first day, we made Sambar and Rasam (pepper water), which actually benefit from aging a bit in the fridge. Then I started to get dizzy as Chitra, seemingly without effort, managed to pull off over a period of days things like green bean thoran with coconut, fruit curry, cabbage thoran, olan, kootu curry, and masala curry. The list was actually much more comprehensive than that, but there were so many things that I could not film it all and make notes at the same time! It was marvelous to watch this woman work. At no time did she consult a recipe or look at a cookbook. It just flowed out of her in the most natural way, and everything was absolutely delicious. It's interesting to note that while Chitra is obviously an accomplished cook, she says that her mother thinks that she can't cook at all, and that her sister is the one with the cooking talent. Normally, being a polite Canadian, I tend to defer to my elders, but in this case, it must be stated publicly that Chitra's mom is sadly misinformed. Girl can cook!

On the final day of filming, we all gathered together at Chitra's kitchen to consume this work of art. Chitra and Gee's three kids, our two boys, and Emma were all invited to sample this celebration feast. Chitra proudly dished out her creations onto the fresh banana leaves in the prescribed order. She was beaming as she related that this was actually the one year anniversary of her husband Gee's new business, and that having a Sadya meal on this day was a happy coincidence, and most auspicious. I was not about to argue. The kids ate all theirs completely, with Miles taking a second helping of rice. He's only 8, but I swear he already eats more than I do. I'm living in fear of our teenage food budget. After they were done, Gee, Chitra, Laurel, Rajesh, and me all sat down to eat this labour of love. It was amazing, and a real privilege to both eat, and also witness the making of.

Looking at my plate, I knew it was a big deal... Thanks Chitra.

1 comment:

Paul said...

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