A Modak By Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet
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FEW dishes enjoy the kind of festive significance that the modak does, indispensable as it is to Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. The steamed purse-shaped dumpling, filled with a delectable coconut and jaggery filling (spiced with cardamom), is a favourite of Bappa and his devotees alike. While in India itself, there are dishes that emulate the modak in essence (if not in entirety), around the world too, you’ll find a preponderance of dumplings with sweet fillings that are eaten as treats on special occasions. Here’s a quick look at a few:

The Korean jjinppang isn’t so much a dumpling as it is a bun; its name literally translates to “steamed bread”. The bun is made of sourdough, and the fermentation process involves using the yeast from makgeolli (Korean rice wine). Within the fluffy white pillow of the bun nestles the dark, sweet filling: red bean paste. A version of jjinppang that doesn’t utilise yeast is the hoppang; its bean filling is even smoother and sweeter than the former’s.

Another delicacy of this ilk, also from Korea, is the mandu-gwa. First a dough is prepared by kneading wheat flour with sesame oil, honey, ginger juice and cheongju (refined rice wine). Then, a small portion of filling (red dates, cinnamon and honey) is placed on a flattened portion of the dough, and wrapped snug within it. The dumpling is then deep-fried, and immersed in jocheong (sweetened rice syrup).

From Japan, we have daifukumochi or daifuku. Its most common form is that of a mochi (glutinous rice cake) filled with sweetened red (azuki) bean paste. Often, the outer wrapper will be coloured a pale green or pink to make the sweet even more attractive. The fillings are also experimented with — encompassing everything from strawberries, chestnuts and apricot to cream, coffee and caramel.

The daifuku also shares kinship with another Japanese delicacy: the sasa dango, or more specifically, the onna-dango. Sasa dango are rice cakes that are wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed; in onna-dango, the rice cakes contain a filling of anko, i.e. sweet red bean paste.

The Philippines siopao (steamed bun) tends to favour fillings like pork, but sweet variants such as those with monggo (mung beans) are also popular. These would be quite similar to the Chinese baozi (although siopao are much larger in size) that have sweet red bean filling. Closer to the modak would be the Filipino paowaw found on Siargao Island, where the filling is made of sweetened shredded coconut.

In terms of resemblance to the modak, however, Thailand’s khanom sot sai perhaps comes closest. The wrapping is made of rice flour mixed with some coconut cream (or coconut milk). The filling within is a delicate mixture of palm sugar and coconut. Once the dumpling has been shaped, it is steamed and packed within a banana leaf envelope.

Of course, you’re unlikely to be replacing the traditional ukadiche modak with any of these sweet dumplings, but if you’re intrigued by the sweet’s reflections in global cuisine, you won’t have to look too hard (or far).