Kalaripayattu And The Art Of Deciphering The Sadya

Forget the coconut in everything, the gorgeous luxury hotels and the kick ass food, one of the coolest things in Kerala is their very own Martial Arts form called Kalaripayattu. Whenever I think martial arts I think of Chinese or Japanese men prancing around skillfully with crazy acrobatics and jumps and turns – something straight out of a Kung Fu flick. This Kerala style martial arts is not all that different – except they’re not Chinese or Japanese men. I’ve only seen pictures and video clips but this was my first live demo and the master explains that this is in fact older than kung fu and is the base of kung fu as Chinese monks learnt Martial arts in Kerala before taking it back to China.


It’s impressive because you can tell that this takes years to master and requires tremendous discipline. Specially to practice and perform in the sweltering heat- I’m exhausted just watching them.However I find it increasingly hard to really focus on the art because through out demo I had two of the funniest people on this trip conducting a constant commentary in hindi and even while I remember some of their jokes, it gets lost in translation. It’s one of those you really had to be there situations but Prasad aka Desi Traveler and Tarun aka My Greedy Backpack ( both great travel bloggers and write here and here ) were hysterical making this a great memory for me. I’ll never be able to watch this martial art form without thinking of these two photographing and sneakily cracking jokes.

All this patiently watching men jump about and clang their swords and knives is hard work I tell you – it works up an appetite and of course it must be followed up with a traditional elaborate sadya meal. If it’s one thing Kerala takes great pride in and does exceedingly well, is it’s ability to feed you. A traditional festive vegetarian meal, eaten on a banana leaf with almost 20 different dishes is called a Sadya. These meals can get elaborate and even accommodate over 64 different types of dishes but I can’t imagine going through all that food. The one we were served was a slightly moderate one but delicious and extremely satisfying.

I really wanted to describe each dish but it’s so hard. It’s like trying to review a buffet, the food keeps coming and its next to impossible to take notes. I did however show some restraint and didn’t dive right it till the entire meal was served so I could take a picture. Believe me, when you’re perspiring from every pore and ferociously hunger with fragrant food in front of you, this kind of patience is a rarity.

Banana chips, baby banana, pickles, papadums are all standard and feature in every hotel buffet spread as well.  My friend Mithun was sweet enough to label this picture for me so it becomes easier to talk about each dish and you know what I mean. Even though this isn’t a nat geo award winning cover photo and everything looks like colourful blobs on a leaf, I hope it makes things slightly easier to understand.


Avial is a popular dish in Kerala and made with vegetable and coconut. It’s my sister’s favourite thing to eat in any South Indian restaurant so everytime I eat it I think of her.Thoran is a staple in every home in Kerala. It’s basically a vegetable dish cooked in grated coconut. Olan is a pumpkin dish cooked with coconut milk, ginger and coconut oil.Pachadi, is a type of khichdi but it’s sweet and made with pineapple, coconut and grapes.

Sambhar and puffed Kerala rice is most important in any meal and the main part of the Sadya, my favourite part. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Sambhar is a gravy, slightly thick, made of lentils and vegetables, eaten with almost everything its divine.

It’s not in the picture unfortunately ( I could only wait so long) but there is also rasam served which is a thin watery version similar to sambar but not made with lentils, it’s just got the vegetables , spices and tamarind. It’s a little soupy in texture and spicy as it’s suppose to help with digestion. Not every one considers this a part of the Sadya but its usually served.
Payasum is the dessert with which the meal ends. Its similar to Kheer and is a rice pudding made with broken wheat, milk and sugar. Sometimes more ingredeints are added and you get various versions of the payasum but sadly I don’t know too much about that.
I ate all this and probably a lot more but the only things I can identify on my own is a thoran or avial. The best way to learn is to sample everything everywhere ( each cook serves it differently) and ask what you’re being served. Maybe the next time you find your self eating on a banana leaf, you might have some idea what you’re chomping on 😉