Ukdiche Modak: Steamed rice and coconut dumplings
As a child, perhaps the only reason I waited for Ganesh Chaturthi was the modak. An order would duly be placed with a Vile Parle Maharashtrian Brahmin modak goddess well in advance, and when you knew that was done, you could almost immediately smell that familiar, warm, ricey-sweet aroma that calmed every sinew and made the knees give way. The ridiculous maava (condensed milk solids) and kaju (cashewnut paste) droplets that are sold by North Indian halwais in Mumbai make me so sad. (Raj Thackerey, no… no!) I once even went on a radio show to register my protest and to educate cosmopolitan Mumbai about the real modak.
This Maharashtrian twin of the dimsum is a twin in every sense; both involve:
- the careful, delicate hands of a sugran (a Maharashtrian cook-goddess-like status given to mothers and grandmothers who’re great cooks) to shape the blessed darlings
- the making of an outer cover, a stuffing, and putting the two together
- the surprising record time taken for consumption
Very few people (even highly traditional women) make modaks at home these days; it’s just too much effort. Except one—S. Mavashi has been making modaks every Ganapati season—by the dozens. When the Vile Parle era ended, I would wait for S. Mavashi to make them and invite us over. She made them for my kelvan (sort of like a bridal shower) and that obviously made it the best kelvan I had.
This time, I was at Amma’s for Ganapati and S.Mavashi was away. But a modak had to be had! So, I invited Amma’s and Aai’s advice (remember, neither makes /has ever made modaks) and pulled out a Ruchira, the Maharashtrian homemakers’ guide to life).
Then, camera charged, and mind and fingers conditioned to feel as delicate as possible, I began. What you see is the result of great meditation, patience, and weird-face-making. Note how the badly shaped modaks are strategically placed so as to highlight the few perfect ones!
For the pretty pleated outer covering:
- 1 cup fine rice flour
- 1 cup water
- Pinch salt
- 1 tsp. ghee
For the burst of earthy sweetness inside:
- 1 cup fresh, grated coconut
- 1 cup molasses (jaggery)
- 1 tbsp. Poppy seeds, soaked in warm water for an hour
- ½ tsp. Cardamom powder
Now for the tough bit:
- Place the coconut, molasses, and the poppy seeds in a pan on medium heat and stir until you get a homogenous mixture that makes the back of your throat tingle. Add the cardamom powder and leave to cool.
- Place the water, ghee, and salt in a pan and wait for it to almost come to a boil. At the slightest hint of rebellion, stir in the rice flour. Don’t worry about the dryness yet. Remove pan from heat and stir continuously. Cover and place back on heat for a minute or two, until the mixture doesn’t smell powdery.
- Remove from pan onto a lightly greased surface and knead with the back of a cup or vaati until the dough turns smooth and gets a quiet gloss. Cover with a moist cloth to prevent drying.
- Turn on the speed knob on your hands.
- (Begin reading in high speed:) Grease your palms lightly. Pull out a ping-pong ball-sized bit of dough and knead it till it gets smoother. Use a drop of water if you think the dough is drying out.
- Now, shape the dough like a little bowl, taking care to get thin walls. Place a teaspoonful of the coconut mixture in the center of this bowl.
- Pleat the edges at equal distances with the help of your index and middle finger. Breathe in and gather the pleats on top, turning the modak to make sure the pleats are even and unbroken.
- Tip off any extra bit on the top.(Stop reading in high speed; sigh) Compare your work of art with previously eaten modaks or downloaded pictures. Pat yourself on the back, no matter what!
- Place in a lightly greased steamer lined with a moist cloth and steam for 8 to 10 minutes or until the covering gets almost translucent.
- Serve warm with homemade ghee.
- Look at every member of the family in expectation of praise; demand it if you don’t get it.