Spectacular snake boat racing, a carnival of elephants, fireworks and dancing will transform the Indian state of Kerala into a whirling hub of celebration next month, as the annual feast of Onam gets under way.
And Sheffield will have its own share in the celebrations thanks to Maveli, the south Indian specialist restaurant which has taken over the old Glossop Road Baths.
Maveli is named in honour of the ancient Hindu king Mahabali, which makes the Onam harvest festival a must: “It would be like calling a restaurant Jesus Christ and not celebrating Christmas,” says Cherian Mookenchery, co-owner and manager.
So, on September 14, the restaurant will serve up its own Onam Sadya – an elaborate nine-course vegetarian feast featuring all the traditional dishes, served on banana leaves and eaten with the hands.
“You should be able to feel the food,” says Cherian. “I like people to give it a go but if I see them struggling I provide a spoon!”
Each element has its own ceremonial place on the leaf, from curries and fried ‘upperies’ to pappadoms, pickles, fruits and prathamans or puddings.
“We all dress up and it’s a bit of fun. This is a unique feast and I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Sheffield where you can get it.”
The Onam feast has become a popular annual highlight since Maveli opened in 2013.
The restaurant is a combined venture by three chefs – Cherian, Tojo Jos and Sajy Mathai – who all grew up in the same part of Kerala and met by chance in Sheffield.
Running their own restaurant was always the ultimate dream for the three friends, but when the former Saffron Club premises came up for lease it took a leap of faith.
“All of us were quite senior, in stable jobs, so it was a scary move,” admits Cherian, who worked for a five-star hotel in India and came to Sheffield as head chef at the Jury’s Inn hotel.
So far the move has proved a good one.
Maveli is founded on the aim of serving consistently good authentic south Indian food. But it’s not your archetypal Eastern palace.
The ambience is that of a good contemporary restaurant with a subtle Keralan flavour. Neutral walls are decorated with blocky abstract prints, illuminated red panels and elegant jars of spices, framed by polished wood floorboards and a starburst ceiling. Indian music plays softly in the background.
And the menu is a long way from your average Indian take-away
Fish and seafood are the local speciality, along with dosas. But the choice also includes meat, vegetable and egg dishes.
Accompaniments too have their own style – including a range of fragrant-sounding rice varieties and flaky parotta flatbreads in place of the more common naan.
I’m by no means an expert on Indian cuisine, so it’s a relief when Cherian appears to talk us through the menu.
We start with pappadoms – familiarly crisp and light – but there’s no sign of chopped onions and raita. Instead we have sweet, spicy tomato chutney; cool, creamy coconut; and a superb lemon pickle that’s zingy, fresh and hot, hot, hot!
There’s a jug of water on the table. The wine list is limited but we also enjoy a glass of Chilean cabernet sauvignon (£4.85).
My starter is sundal: a warm salad of chick peas, fresh coconut shavings, slivers of green chilli and subtle spicing.
My companion has the kozhi rasam, a tasty chicken broth, packed with flavour and finished with little pieces of ginger, curry leaves, fresh coriander and chilli: “Absolutely fabulous!” she enthuses, in full-on Patsy style.
We decide to share our main courses, for a more all-round experience...
Dosas are a kind of thick pancake made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils. There’s a choice of a various different fillings here, from quail eggs to king prawns.
We go for a basic masala dosa – thick, soft and spongy – folded over a filling of well-seasoned mashed potato. It comes with more of the pickles and a traditional sambar: a distinctive sauce of lentils, tamarind and moringa (or drumsticks), with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
My choice is chemmeen manga curry: one of Maveli’s signature dishes. It’s a vibrant combination of succulent king prawns and pieces of raw mango cooked in a spicy coconut cream. Delicious!
There’s also lemon rice, delicate and fluffy, sprinkled with pine nuts.
Dessert is all-too-often a let down in Indian restaurants, but not here. There’s a good selection and they’re all home made.
We share a dish of mango delish, a traditional variation on crème brûlée, we’re told. Smooth and creamy, it’s delicately flavoured with cardamom, pistachio and mango with a perfectly crisp brûlée topping.
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £35.90.
l Maveli, 223 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2GW (0114) 276 6150 www.maveli.co.uk
l Onam celebration: £14.90 per person (£8.75 for children 5-14, under-5s free). Three two-hour sittings available during the day. Call for reservations.