One of the most fascinating descriptors I've heard about a Kerala Sadya is how it's similar to a bride or groom who must acquaint themselves with a whole new set of relatives through marriage. Of course, I'm talking about first-timers who are still figuring out the multiple elements that come together in a Kerala sadya. For the uninitiated, a Kerala Sadya is the elaborate banana leaf meal typically served at weddings and festivals like Onam (the harvest festival in Kerala) and Vishu (New Year as per the traditional calendar in the state, typically in April).
If you're not from Kerala, the names of the dishes may not be easy to pronounce and you might find it difficult to distinguish one dish from the other just like one distant in-law from the other. You need time and to sample at least a few sadyas before you can truly acquaint yourself with this seemingly complex yet tasty feast with flavours that swing from sour to spicy to sweet in a space of just 20 odd minutes. Unlike dishes from many parts of India, subtle flavours define many dishes in a sadya. The kaalan is one such dish that leans on an uncomplicated cooking process.
A typical sadya is served on a large banana leaf and the dishes are served from left to right on your leaf. Until a few years ago, the service team at weddings would wait for diners to be seated to commence the laborious serving routine; not anymore. Most of the food is pre-laid on the leaf to save time and improve service efficiency in weddings with crowds of above 500. This also means you do not have the option to refuse most dishes. The top half of the leaf is reserved for accompaniments and the bottom half for the staples and mains as in the case in most South Indian Banana Leaf Meals. I'm partial to the wedding Sadyas in Thrissur, Palakkad and Ernakulam that are known for their expert cooks and wedding contractors.
One of the popular dishes in a sadya is an Avial. It's also a dish that's prepared in many homes in Tamil Nadu, although the flavours are quite different. The Kaalan is one of the more low key dishes in a sadya and often gets mistaken for an avial. The Kaalan features a tuber (mostly yam) or occasionally raw plantain. It's cooked (see recipe) with thick yoghurt and spices like fenugreek, turmeric powder, red chilli powder, black pepper, curry leaves and a few drops of ghee over a low flame. Most wedding cooks tell me that the key step is the stirring process. It gives the dish its thick consistency.
In many homes the Kaalan would be stored for almost a week (at a time when food or leftovers were not refrigerated) because of this thickening process. It's this thick consistency that also distinguishes the Kaalan from another sadya regular - Pullishery, where the curd is added just before you remove it from the heat and before the gravy thickens. Try making this dish at home with our simple recipe:
Kaalan Recipe I How To Make South Indian Kaalan
1/2 Cup Raw Banana
1/2 Cup Yam
1/2 Cup of Sour Curd
1/4 tbsp Turmeric Powder
1/2 tbsp Pepper Powder
1 tbsp Chilli Powder
Salt: to taste
1/2 Cup Coconut
2 tbsp Cumin seeds
2 tbsp Curd
2 Green Chillies
1 tbsp Coconut Oil
1 tbsp Mustard Seeds
1/4 tbsp Fenugreek Seeds
2 Red Chillies
1 Sprig Curry Leaves
Wash and chop the yam and raw banana into cubes; keep aside.
Blend the coconut, green chilli,cumin and curd to a smooth paste in a mixer.
Add chopped raw banana and yam to a pan with boiling water. Add the turmeric powder, chilli powder, pepper powderand salt.
Allow it to cook for 5-7minutes or until it turns soft. Make sure it doesn't get mushy.
Pour the ground coconut paste.Cook for about 2 -3minutes, until it thickens.
Lower the flame and now pour the remaining curd.Keep stirring till it thickens. (This is the key step).
Let it boil and turn off the flame once it turns into a semi-thick gravy.
'Temper'the mustard, fenugreek seeds, red chilli and curry leaves in coconut oil.
Add this tempered mixture to the Kaalan and stir it.
The kaalan tastes best with rice.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.