Onam and the making of Puli Inji and Kurukku Kaalan!

This time of the year is special to all Malayalees, from Kerala in India because this is the season of our harvest festival, Onam. It is a ten day long celebration in Kerala, which falls during the Malayalam month of Chingam (August-September), the tenth day (Thiru Onam day) culminating in a Sadya, a culinary experience like no other. There are many memories associated with Kerala and Onam for me. The floral carpets we used to make for 10 days with not store bought but home grown flowers (Pookkalam), the traditional dance by women of the households (Thiruvathirakkali), tiger costume clad dance by men (Pulikkali), the quintessential boat race (Vallamkali) and happiness and love everywhere... A visit to Kerala during this season is a must to experience this energy.

Sadya, the meal served on a banana leaf, a spread of up to 26 items is the highlight of Onam festival. More than a meal, sadya is an experience!

A traditional home made Kerala Onam Sadya with 16 items on banana leaf

I have always prepared a sadya for Onam in my 16 years of living outside India. Though not 26 in number, the items on the leaf have amounted upto atleast 16. And I have never compromised on the ingredients used for each traditional dish because in Singapore, Indian vegetable shops carry them in plenty, always. So, my avial (a mix of 5 vegetables cooked with coconut) has never seen green peppers or green peas to cover up for the absence of traditional yam or raw banana.

A typical Kerala Onam breakfast of Ela Ada (Steamed rice flour stuffed with coconut-jaggery sweet filling), Pazham    Nurukku (steamed ripe Kerala bananas), Sharkara Varuthathu (raw banana deep fried and coated in jaggery) and Kaaya Varuthathu (the famous Kerala banana chips)

Puli Inji is the much famous and copied recipe from Kerala by many regions in India and outside. You can call this a pickle or a sauce or a dip and it is all of this. This is usually made fresh for a sadya and never sold in a bottle commercially till today. There have been several variations of the traditional recipe but my mother in law follows the traditional style that originates from Central Kerala which is the best.

The traditional Central Kerala style Puli Inji


Fresh Young Ginger, very finely chopped - 1/4 cup
Green Chillies, finely chopped - 5 to 6 (mostly according to your taste and spice level)
Tamarind extract, thick - 1/4 to 1/2 cup
Jaggery powdered or Soft Brown Sugar - 3 tablespoons
Turmeric Powder - 1/4 teaspoon
Red Chilli powder - 1/4 teaspoon (this should be added with caution according to the spicy-ness of green chillies)

For Tempering:

Mustard Seeds - 1/4 teaspoon
Curry Leaves - 1 sprig
Dried Red Chillies - 2 to 3
Asafoetida - 1/4 teaspoon


Take the finely chopped ginger and green chillies into a pan and pour 1/2 cup water into it. Add turmeric and red chilly powder and mix. Keep it on medium flame to cook. We want the ginger and chillies softened and the water evaporated in the process (for this reason, please do not add a huge amount of water. If in doubt, add a little and more as the ginger gets cooked).

Once this is done, add tamarind water to this. Let it come to a boil. Once it is fully boiling for a minute, add jaggery. Add salt and mix well. Let it continue to boil and reduce to a thickened consistency like a sauce. The darkness of this will depend on the tamarind you use. Switch the flame off.

In a small pan, heat a little oil. Once the oil is heated, add mustard seeds. When it splutters, add asafoetida, dried red chillies and curry leaves. Immediately pour it over the ginger mixture and stir well. Puli Inji is ready.

Puli Inji is an essential part of Kerala Sadya for Onam. Puli Inji made this way can be stored in an airtight glass jar in the refrigerator for up to an year. You must remember that Puli Inji has a well balance of sourness, sweetness and spiciness. So half way through making this, it is a good idea to taste and see the balance and add more tamarind water, powdered jaggery or red chilly powder to balance this beautifully.

A simple Pookkalam (floral carpet) done in homes in Kerala for 10 days leading upto Onam 

Another unavoidable part of Onam sadya is Kaalan. Kurukku Kaalan. This is not Pulissery or Moru Curry. It is not runny. The word 'kurukku' in Malayalam means 'thick'. So this is essentially a thick side dish that is an inevitable part of any Kerala sadya.

Traditionally Kurukku Kaalan is made atleast 4 days in advance and tempering is done on the day of consumption. The thick yoghurt used in its preparation would have soured well giving the Kaalan its unique flavour. I have formulated an easy way of preparing this without compromising on the taste of it.

The traditional Kurukku Kaalan


Raw Banana, cut into small thick pieces - 2 in number
Thick Yoghurt or Hung Curd - 1/4 cup
Peppercorns, pounded in a pestle mortar - 1 teaspoon full
Fresh or Desiccated Coconut - 1/2 cup
Cumin Seeds - 1 full teaspoon
Green Chillies - 2 in number
Turmeric Powder - 3/4 teaspoon (the yellow colour should come through, so a little high)
Red Chilly Powder - 1/2 teaspoon 

Mustard Seeds - 1 teaspoon
Curry Leaves - 1 sprig
Fenugreek Seeds - 1/4 teaspoon
Dried Red Chillies - 3 in number


Take the raw banana pieces in a pan and add turmeric powder, red chilly powder and salt to it. Add water into this pan just to cover the banana pieces. Cover and let this cook on low to medium flame till the banana is cooked and water evaporated. Water should evaporate as the final dish is thick and not watery. Add crushed peppercorns and mix. Keep this aside and let it cool.

Take coconut, cumin seeds and green chillies into a blender (an Indian mixer grinder's chutney jar will do the trick) and grind it into a smooth paste without adding water or very very little water (again important to not add water at all or not too much as we need no gravy). Add this to the cooked raw banana. Mix well. Add the thick yoghurt to it. Mix and check salt. Keep aside. The mixture should be quite thick and not at all runny (as in the picture).

Heat oil for tempering. Add mustard seeds and as it starts spluttering, add fenugreek seeds, dried red chillies and curry leaves and immediately pour this mixture into the Kaalan. Mix well. Ideally you should make Kurukku Kaalan first thing in the morning and leave this outside till you serve it for lunch by when the yoghurt would have soured well. This can also be made up to 4 days in advance and tempering done on the day.

The full spread of (clockwise) Avial, Thoran, Pineapple Pachadi, Payasam, Puli Inji, Kurukku Kaalan and Olan ready to be served for Sadya

I am full of happiness as I write this post. Food I have eaten and grown up with, food that originates from my homeland. Unadulterated. I wouldn't dare tweak or change anything to suit modern day madness. Somethings are like that. It should stay pure and as is. There lies its beauty.

Lots of love and happiness!

If you would like to read or make an easy Pineapple Pachadi recipe of mine for sadya, using canned pineapples but never compromising on traditional flavours, click here.


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