Nivagrya: A Hyperlocal Snack From Maharashtra's Konkan Coast

When my grandmother came to Pune more than six decades ago from Velamb, a small village along the Konkan coast, she brought with her her scant belongings, a few sarees, and some jewellery she received during her wedding to my grandfather. But what she also carried with her to this strange city from Konkan's Ratnagiri district were the flavours of home—those recipes and foods whose aroma would remind her of waves crashing against rocky shores and of tall coconut trees swaying in the breeze just outside her humble cottage.

Many of these were hyperlocal recipes; still, others were fond remembrances from her childhood to be recalled in the big city. One such dish was nivagrya, steamed rice flour infused with cumin and green chillies. As a child, when I gorged on these warm nivagrya my grandmother made from ukad, or steamed rice flour, I had a little inkling that with this dish, she was passing on a little bit of her childhood to me. When the aroma of the steaming ukad wafted from the kitchen, I was pulled inside to devour what would soon become an obsolete recipe, an heirloom for those few of us whose ancestors spent generations thriving along the coast.

Describing the process of making the nivagrya, the sexagenarian homemaker Vibhavari says, "Nivagrya were a dish made during Ganpati to finish off leftover ukad."

It was concocted by women living by the seashores who would make modaks in large quantities every year during the 10-day festival celebrating the elephant god, Ganesha.

"But now, nivagrya is a very rare recipe; hardly anyone knows about it in the city. There are several videos available on YouTube that explain how to make them," she quips.

Indeed, nivagrya, as I would later come to understand, was not a dish in itself; it was a byproduct of the modak. Yet, now I wonder if my grandmother diligently made ukad just to make nivagrya so that she could share with me the taste of the home she had left behind.

Ukad is essentially made by steaming rice flour and seasoning it with salt, which gives the outer coating of the modak a light saltiness that complements the sweetness of the coconut filling inside. Artist and embroidery instructor Mugdha Phadtare explains, "In those days, there were hardly any measurements used to cook desserts. So, a lot of times, there would be ukad leftover. But these industrious women ensured that nothing would go to waste. They would mix some green chillies and cumin into the ukad, roll it into balls, and flatten them in the shape of a vada. Then, they would steam them and serve them as a savoury side dish during lunch."

Sometimes, a bit of ginger is also added to the nivagrya to give it a slight kick. "Adding ginger is ok," Mugdha says, "because, on festival days, you are allowed to cook with ginger, not with onions and garlic."

Nivagrya are best served warm, she says; otherwise, the dried ukad loses its soft texture. While it is a perfect side dish, nivagrya can also be enjoyed with afternoon tea, she notes.

Explaining the making of nivagrya as a cultural practice, the 60-year-old retired professor Manjiri Datye says, "There should always be a 'to' (he) and a 'ti' (she) on your plate when you cook sweets during any festival. So, while the modak is a to, the nivagrya is a ti. It is just like making a small fried 'to' modak when you fry 'ti' karanji during Diwali. It completes the meal."

Now, these lightly seasoned steamed rice flour vadas are a nearly forgotten dish, yet there continue to be many households in the small villages of Konkan that have sustained their practice of making nivagrya during 'modak' season. The fragrance of the steaming ukad in the cities, however, has remained a faint memory, reminiscent of days gone by.