Taste of Cochin has been on my list of places to try for years, but it lives in the far eastern reaches of New York City, a pocket of Queens with road names in the high 200's. Three sides of this pocket are neighborhoods of Long Island's Nassau County, leaving Glen Oaks as somewhat of a peninsula into different area codes. Having previously enjoyed a Keralan meal at nearby Taste of Kerala Kitchen, a return trip was long overdue.
Thanks to a tip from @CitySpoonful, I learned about the harvest festival of Onam, celebrated in India's Kerala state. Wednesday, September 14th was Thiruvonam, the most important day of the 2016 festival (which is following the Malayalam calendar, not ours), a non-religious celebration that acknowledges the return of a revered king from the underworld.
Festivals like these are usually wonderful opportunities in New York City to see expat groups gathering to celebrate their holidays. Taste of Cochin advertised a 28 item traditional Keralan buffet known as Onam sadya. This Keralan feast is something that every person in the state either makes or attends, so I grabbed a friend who visited Kerala years ago and made the drive out to Glen Oaks.
We found a subdued yet celebratory mood, with rows of tables set up for diners all facing the same direction. This made it easy for the servers to walk down the other side of the table and ladle out portions of each of the feast's 28 items. There is a tradition for this holiday of buying and wearing new outfits, some of which we saw on proud display.
By the end of our meal, the place was quite crowded and some percussionists had started playing in the front of the restaurant to offer even more festivity. We also could hear that music was coming from the basement and later found some sort of party going on down there, but were shy to stay.
The sadya itself is traditionally served on a banana leaf, here replaced with a disposable version. We were the only non-Indians there and were very kindly guided through the list of foods as each came to our "leaf." Banana chips, pappadam, various vegetable curries, pickles, rice, chutneys, a couple desserts, and a small, wonderfully aromatic banana all eventually made it in front of us.
I watched a couple others while this was happening to see if there was any order or best practice, but it all seems like a free for all, with each diner steering the course of their own meal. If you run out of something you particularly like, you can ask for more, as everything is unlimited.
We were offered spoons, but declined, feasting the same way as everyone else in the room: with our right hand. This of course is important to most Indians and South Asians, a way to taste the food better they say. When I have traveled in South Asia I can start to feel this as well during daily rhythms, a natural way to experience food without anything foreign entering your mouth with it.
The rice here is quite fluffy and does not stick together at all, which is where the curries come in good use. Squeezing yourself a small fingerful, picking it up, and shoveling it into your mouth with your thumb all becomes second nature quickly.
The only problem with this type of meal is when you come across the curry you love the most and realize there is only a bite or two. You can ask for more though, but don't expect a larger dollop unless you are very insistent like the man who was sitting next to us.
By the end, the leaves are completely annihilated, with just some remnants of each dish mixed together. It feels somehow empowering to see this progress made, and since the meal is completely vegetarian it all does not feel that heavy in the belly.
Taste of Cochin is offering the Onam sadya for the next three nights as well, Thursday the 15th through Saturday the 17th of September, for anyone interested in this beautiful and festive occasion.