From being an antidote to the symbol of communal unity and joy, here’s how Lord Ganesha’s favourite sweet became the essence of belongingness
Three years ago, when seasoned pastry chef Avijit Ghosh decided to create a limited edition of chocolate modaks, it was an ode to the traditional favourite ukadiche modak that he would often indulge in during his many travels to Mumbai. Especially during this month, recalls Chef Ghosh, who would often overindulge in the simple treat that reminded him of another beloved delight, the monda pitha—a close peer of the Maharashtrian speciality.
“There is something undeniably balmy about modak that instantly makes it a favourite. Eating it gives you a sense of belongingness, of association and an unparalleled sense of joy and satiation that lingers on for days,” admits the chocolatier who while curating his limited edition would use the filling and the palate play of the modak to get his flavours right.
Incidentally, Chef Ghosh isn’t alone in his fascination of modak. Chef Neeraj Rawoot, Executive Chef, Sofitel Mumbai BKC, too has been smitten by the dumpling’s allure, and often calls it an “outstanding piece of culinary craftsmanship.”
“Think about it,” says Chef Rawoot, “Although the dumpling looks simple, it is an exciting mélange of local ingredients and classic technique. The dough is cooked to make it malleable, while the filling is made of seasonal ingredients. It is around the time that Maharashtra gets its seasonal best when it comes to coconut and palm jaggery, both of which are used to make the filling of ukadiche modak. In addition, the dumpling is steamed, allowing the flavours to evolve and incorporate well creating a sweet that is indulgent yet satiating.”
Nutrition-wise, this dual process of first cooking the dough and steaming it breaks down the nutritive composition of both rice and that of the filling making it easy to digest while giving modak that slight density that brings overindulgence—which as per the chefs is four at a time—within an acceptable level. In fact, according to consultant nutritionist Niti Desai, “Modak, at least the traditional steamed variety, during the Ganeshotsav work like these little calorie-dense bombs that have the right combination of fat, sugar and glutamate that work in sync to keep the body and mind well-fed and energetic, and work best as this nutrition compensator for those fasting as well, given that most of the nutritional components are broken down for quick assimilation in the body with an extra dose of calcium and other minerals that is required for remaining active.”
This perhaps explains why modak in ancient times was such an important ‘tool’ for the vaidya. Samhitas and Vedas, in fact, mention the use of two different forms of modak—abhiayadi modak and shatavari modak—used to treat a variety of health issues and seasonal changes. Such was the effectiveness of the modak that was designed more as a dish than a medicine that, says culinary researcher Chef Pradeep Tejwani, “it was happily adopted in different cultures that added their own ingredients to the format resulting in different variations including the kudumu, kadubu or kozhukattai and even monda pitha.”
What is interesting about these adaptations, he continues, “is while the filling changed as per the region modak travelled to, which initially was around the coastal areas that were rich in both rice, coconut and jaggery, the technique of making it remained largely the same. It was around medieval times that the fried version and the use of semolina (rava) in place of rice flour became common.”
The association of modak to Lord Ganesha has been the work of mythology mostly where the sweet is shown not just as a reward to the elephant-headed god from Goddess Parvati but also as something that could satiate the elephant god’s appetite. Legend has it that when Lord Ganesha with his parents visited the ashram of Anusuya (the wife of Rishi Atri), she insisted that Lord Ganesha be served before Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Famous for his elephant-like appetite, the request was accepted, and a few moments later, Lord Shiva burped 21 times. The reason was the one piece of modak that was served as a sweet in Lord Ganesha’s plate. Thus, instating the long-held tradition of offering Lord Ganesha 21 modaks or one modak worth 21 of them. But modak’s rise as the quintessential favourite of the elephant god is courtesy two things: the ancestry of Ganeshotsav, which dates back to 271 BC and remained the court festival during the reign of Satavahana, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties and later the royals of Baroda and Gwalior; and secondly, to Buddhism.
History has it that modak was among the favourite foods of Gautam Buddha, and eventually was made part of the meals of Buddhist monks and became one of the sweets that was offered as part of the meal in the many institutes and dharmshalas that were established for the study of Buddhism. In fact, that is how modak reached Japan where it transformed into the kangidan (fried bun) that is served to the main deity (Lord Ganesha) of the Buddhist temple Matsuchiyama Shōten. In India, however, says Chef Rawoot, “the choice of modak was a pragmatic one. Modak was a known food item in the country made of ingredients that were easily available in a commoner’s house and thus would make for an offering that everyone could afford to make and share. Of course, at the base of the choice was also the taste that was all familiar and loved.”
While that made modak the perfect choice for a lord who had earned the moniker Vighnaharta by medieval times, the sweet dumpling association was also driven by the ancient wisdom of food. Ayurveda and other wellness texts believe that the composition of modak—specifically ukadiche modak—is ideal to tackle the vagaries of the monsoon, not just in terms of creating a shield against the vagaries of a rainy season but also mentally. “In fact,” says Desai, “it helps realign the circadian rhythm that gets disrupted due to the change in the surroundings resulting in the need for food that can help rebuild the balance with minimum effort.”
That is where modak’s brilliance comes to play as the rice base works the digestive tract to help in faster digestion while the fat and sugar in coconut and jaggery help the brain replenish its energy stocks. A process that manifests itself as this inherent feeling of joy and festivity. How modak does it for the next 10 days when modak becomes a standard feature in the offering is a quandary that hasn’t been resolved, but even health experts believe in the miraculous effect of the sweet, which for many becomes the source of energy and celebration.
In fact, the universal familiarity of modak was one of the prime reasons for Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to choose the sweet when he decided to turn Ganesh Puja—till then an in-the-home affair—into a national festival for his kingdom. Fascinatingly, the festival worked wonders for the Maratha rule, both in terms of regaining the pride in one’s culture and uniting the people, irrespective of the faith they followed.
It was the great Maratha warrior’s ingenuity at work when in 1893 freedom fighter Keshav Gangadhar Tilak turned Ganeshotsav sarbojanik (public). It would, Tilak had famously said, “become the medium of communal harmony and put an effective end to the Hindu-Muslim riots that had plagued a yet-to-be-free nation.” The modak, then one of the famous sweets in Bombay, was the obvious choice of prasad.
After the initial years of ifs, buts and other teething issues, Ganeshotsav or Ganesh Chaturthi as it’s more popularly called became the festival of national unity as it would bring people from different faiths together, all bound by their shared loved for the elephant-headed god and modak. So accurate was Tilak’s vision for the festival that even today in the Siro Taluka village in Kolhapur the idol of Lord Ganesha is placed inside all the mosques during the festival with modak as the prasad.
Modak’s omnipresence in the festival has inspired many a variation of the modak, including the gold dusted one in Recca that uses a wide variety of dry fruits in the filling to the rose kalakand artisanal version from JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar and Chef Rawoot’s traditional modak served on a bed of kheer in the shell of a coconut, to name a few. When it comes to the essence of Ganesh Chaturthi, nothing quite translates that blessing like ukadiche modak—the sweet, steamed dumpling made of rice flour, jaggery-coconut filling with a hint of cardamom.
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.