Onam festivities prove worth the wait

Keralites gather in Abu Dhabi for their traditional harvest celebration, a month and a day after the official date.

ABU DHABI // It was a month and a day after its official date, but that did not stop thousands of Keralites from gathering at the Kerala Social Centre yesterday to belatedly celebrate their harvest festival.

Onam festivities were toned down this year as they fell on August 23, during Ramadan, causing the celebrations to be postponed until after Eid.

KB Murali, the president of the Kerala Social Centre, said volunteers had fed more than 1,000 people by noon. He and Mohammed Abdurahman, the managing director of Nellara food products, which provided the spice mixes for dishes such as sambhar and rasam (a thick lentil soup, and a thin broth made with ginger, tamarind, tomatoes and black pepper), conducted rounds of the kitchens to make sure there was enough to feed those who were waiting for their lunch. By 4pm, 400 kilos of rice had been served to guests.

The harvest festival in the south Indian state of Kerala is typically marked with a traditional meal served on a banana/plantain leaf, called sadhya. All the dishes are vegetarian and consist of at least a dozen curries featuring coconut, mango, and fresh vegetables. But the highlight of the meal is rice, or mota rice, with a plump with a reddish tint to it. The festival celebrates the harvest of the grain.

Preparations by volunteers began on Thursday evening, with more than 200 volunteers gathering at the centre. The women helped prepare by chopping vegetables while the more than three dozen men, under the supervision of the head chef stirred large vats of curries. VG Pramod, 26, an electrician by trade was one of the two "main chieftains," as Mr Murali called him. "Anyone can cook," Mr Murali said of Mr Pramod. "But this is a different sort of talent to find in a young man."

Mr Pramod has been volunteering his time at the centre to help design and cook the meals for the past three years, since he came to Abu Dhabi. He comes from a long line of cooks who prepare traditional Keralite meals in India. "I learnt from my father," Mr Pramod said. "He is usually present at all large gatherings, from weddings to such traditional celebrations as Onam." His favourite dish that he prepared yesterday is called avial, a delicate mix of fresh vegetables cooked with grated coconut. But he worried the most about a desert called palada, a sweet rice-like pudding made with jaggery, lentils and coconut that has to be reduced and constantly stirred for seven hours. "From Thursday evening onwards, we have had no rest."

He said over the past three years, he had noticed an increase in the number of people who come to eat together. "Even though we have been estimating the same number of people to attend every year, this year somehow it seems more busy than usual." While families waited their turn to eat, and chatted with each other, Anagha Govinda, 8, from Sherwood Academy, dressed in a typical traditional outfit of a long skirt and top in maroon and gold, went searching for her friends.

She looked forward to dedicating the entire day playing games at the centre with Devika Rajee, 8 from Sherwood Academy and Pranaya Prakash, 8, from the Abu Dhabi Indian School, also dressed in pink and green outfits. "I have been attending the Onam celebrations since I was a little baby," Anagha said. "I like rice and some stuff with it but today I want to play with my friends. After we finish here, we have more plans to play at my friends' homes."