The stage backdrop for a typical Kerala Hindu wedding is a picture of subtle elegance - a beautiful blend of flowers coupled with the traditional Kasavu white fabric. The on-stage elements are an aesthetic medley of lamps, floral decorations, the Nira para (paddy heaped in a wooden measure) - the ultimate symbol of prosperity in Kerala, betel leaves, lemons and the traditional Ashta Mangalyam (the eight essential sacred elements).
The Sadya, the elaborate banana leaf feast complements the harmony on stage. The dishes find a perfect balance between subtlety as well as piquant flavours. I'd argue that this fabulous meal is the highlight of the wedding. Of course, the Sadya is not a wedding exclusive. It's served on festivals like Vishu and Onam as well as other occasions like birthdays.
The typical Sadya can be overwhelming for a first timer. I still remember navigating this complex array of dishes as a child at a wedding in Ernakulam. Being a kid who guzzled large quantities of milk, I naturally gravitated towards the white coloured dishes on the banana leaf. One white dish that usually figures on most sadyas is the vegetable stew (or ishtew). Then there's the olan, one of the most delicately flavoured dishes from Kerala and an integral part of an Onsadaya. It's certainly not as famous as the avial (that is also cooked in many homes in Tamil Nadu), choosing almost to stay in the background. The Plan is probably for an evolved palate; perfect for gourmands who can appreciate delicate flavours.
That's the thing with a Sadya and with Kerala cuisine itself, it takes time to understand and appreciate the subtle nuances and the delicate flavours that make dishes shine. Take one look at the recipe and the olan might seem like an easy dish to cook. I've always felt that Indian dishes with limited ingredients are tougher to make. There's less room for a poor ingredient or a simple mistake to hide. The traditional olan combines kumbalanga (Ash gourd) with coconut milk. Some recipes also include cowpea or black eyed peas that add an interesting texture to this dish.
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The key to getting this dish right is the coconut milk. You have to use a combination of onaam paal and rendaam paal (first and second extract of the coconut milk). One of the tips I got from a home cook in Kerala is to make sure you use freshly-grated coconut to extract the coconut milk. The other tip is to use a 'young' Ash gourd. If you store grated coconut in your freezer, then do remember to put it out for a few hours or warm in the microwave before you extract the coconut milk. You could blend the coconut in a mixer and then squeeze out the milk with a strainer for the first extract. Add water to the leftover coconut and blend again in the mixer for the second extract. The other flavour element in the olan is a hint of green chili.
This dish is finished with a few curry leaves and coconut oil after the ash gourd is cooked with the coconut milk. It's normally served at room temperature in a sadya. While it's an integral part of a Kerala Sadya, the olan is also prevalent in the Tirunelveli region in Tamil Nadu that's close to Kerala. There's also a version called the paal kootu (milk gravy) in the Thanjavur belt in Tamil Nadu where yellow pumpkin and green gram are cooked in coconut milk or milk.
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How To Make South Indian Olan | Olan recipe:
Thick coconut milk (first extract): 1 cup
Thin coconut milk (Second extract): 1 cup
Ash gourd (chopped): 250 gm
Cowpeas (optional): Half cup
Green chillies (slit): 1-2
Coconut oil: 1 tsp
Salt: to taste
Curry leaves: a few
- Soak the cowpeas overnight and pressure cook till they are cooked. They should not be too soft (this is an optional step if you choose to add the cowpeas).
- Slice the Ash gourd and pressure cook with little water. Add the thin coconut milk, salt and green chillies. Cook it for a few minutes. Make sure the vegetable doesn't turn mushy.
- Add the thick coconut milk just before you turn off the flame. Finish the dish with some curry leaves and a spoon of coconut oil.
While the olan is served as part of the sadya as an accompaniment, it also tastes delicious when it's mixed with rice. I'd recommend combining this with the Kerala style red matta rice.
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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.