Ganesh Chaturthi 2023: Chefs Explain The Significance Of Modak
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Talk to anybody in Maharashtra about the one dish that is a must-have for the grand festival of Ganesh Chaturthi and the unequivocal answer will be Modak. Sure, there are sweets like Motichoor Laddoo and Maharashtrian staples like Puran Poli, Gahvache Kheer and Satori which are essentials during the 10-day festival, but Modak goes beyond essential to the level of iconic and compulsory during the festival dedicated to Lord Ganesha.  

The allure of the steamed Ukadiche Modak today is as strong as that of new-fangled Modak varieties like Chocolate Modak, and people from far and wide travel to Maharashtra to get a taste of these sweet treats during Ganesh Chaturthi. But why, of all the sweet dishes and desserts India is known for, is Modak the one that has reached such an iconic status during Ganesh Chaturthi? And what makes this Maharashtrian dish such a must-have during what is one of the most important festivals of the region? 

To understand this better, Slurrp caught up with three incredibly talented Maharashtrian chefs, experts who not only make delicious Modaks for friends, family and diners during Ganesh Chaturthi but have also grown up indulging in the homemade flavours of the dish. Here’s everything they had to say. 

Video Credit: YouTube/Chef Ranveer Brar

Modak, Maharashtra & Lord Ganesha: The Connection Of Land, Marathas And More 

Every region has a signature dish associated with prime festivals, whether it is Chole-Puri-Halwa during Navratri in North India or Haleem during Ramadan in Hyderabad. For Maharashtra, the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi links very naturally with the concept of Modak for a number of reasons. “The most popular Modak recipe includes rice and coconut—both available in plenty along the Konkan coast, so it was a natural offering,” says Saee Koranne-Khandekar, chef, consultant and author of Pangat. “Although “modakam” is often used to denote laddoos in the Ganesha context as well. In parts of Maharashtra where rice is not grown, wheat Modaks (wheat dough stuffed with fresh coconut and jaggery/sugar or dried coconut and fried) are common.”  

Chef Rakesh Kamble, Chef De Cuisine at Grand Hyatt Mumbai, agrees with this notion of local produce translating into a local festive favourite dish. “Using locally sourced ingredients for this traditional dish highlights the connection between the culture, the land, and the festival,” he says. “Ganesh Chaturthi falls during the monsoon season in Maharashtra, and coconut and jaggery are abundant during this time. Modak, with its use of these ingredients, is well-suited to the seasonal availability of resources.”  

Koranne-Khandekar also adds that this is also the time when one harvest of rice comes into season in Maharashtra and the Konkan regions. “As for all religious offerings, making Modak is about the regional and seasonal produce,” she explains. “Modak dough needs “new” rice which is sticky and pliable, and the dish is offered to Lord Ganesha as thanks for the fresh harvest.” Executive Chef Dinesh Mhatre, The Orchid Hotel Pune, says that this is the reason why Modak is not reserved only for Ganesh Chaturthi, but for all Maharashtrian festivities. “It not only serves as a sweet treat but also symbolizes blessings and good fortune at Maharashtrian weddings and other celebrations,” he says. 

Chef Mhatre also says that the association of Modaks and Ganesh Chaturthi in particular can be traced back to the reign of the Maratha rulers. “Modak was a favorite of the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj,” he explains. Legend has it that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj began celebrating the first massive Ganesh Chaturthi festival in the period between 1630 and 1680 as Lord Ganesha was the Kuldevata of the Peshwa family. Thus, the link between the land, the rulers, the people, the festival and Modaks has been part of the traditions of this state since late-medieval times.   

Modak Memories: Chefs Talk About Types And Tips 

For Koranne-Khandekar, who is famous for her take on Maharashtrian cuisine’s rarest gems, Ukadiche Modak is a clear favourite though she says the use of a tortilla press to make its shell is a new thing. “Typically, the steamed ones made of rice flour and stuffed with coconut and jaggery, or the wheat ones I have mentioned above,” she explains. “Some families use a chana dal stuffing (like for puranpoli) if coconut is not a preference. Having said that, one interesting thing is Nivagri (singular) or Nivagrya (plural). This is made using leftover rice dough from the Modak making. You add pounded green chilies, jeera, coriander leaves, salt, and hing, and shape into discs, then steam the Nivagrya. You eat these with freshly churned butter.” 

For Chef Kamble, the discovery of his love for Modak happened during childhood. “It happened when I realized that I could single-handedly eat up all the Modaks that were lovingly prepared for the family without leaving a single piece for anyone else,” he says. “Modaks bring a sense of joy and togetherness, whether enjoyed during festivals or simple family gatherings.” Chef Mhatre, who has fond memories of making Modaks at home says the dish brings loved ones together like nobody can. “The process of making Modak is not without its challenges and time-consuming, which brings all family members together, fostering a sense of togetherness and tradition.” 

And now for some Modak-making tips from these experts. “Use “new” rice to make the flour, keep nails short to make shaping easier, add a little flour to the stuffing to keep it from “bleeding” into the dough during steaming,” suggests Koranne-Khandekar. Chef Mhatre suggests that the rice flour should be properly steamed with the right quantity of water and ghee. “Practice shaping the Modak, which can be a bit tricky, or consider using molds available in the market,” he adds. “Pay careful attention to the steaming process to avoid overcooking (which can lead to cracks) or undercooking (resulting in stickiness).” 

Chef Kamble’s tips are more comprehensive. “Kneading the rice flour dough for the outer covering takes practice,” he explains. “Add hot water slowly and knead until it's pliable but not too sticky. Keep your hands moistened with water when shaping the Modaks to prevent sticking. Don't be afraid to try different fillings and shapes to add variety and creativity to your Modaks. Remember that making Modak may take a few tries to perfect, so don't be discouraged by initial challenges. Enjoy the process, and with practice, you'll create delicious Modaks for Ganesh Chaturthi.”