Modaks are the flavor of the festive season in India, or precisely the beginning of it, the Sri Ganesh of which is done indeed by appeasing the elephant God to bear away all obstacles of the world. Sweets being so essential to celebrations everywhere and particularly in religious occasions where they form an integral part of the auspicious prasadam, it is indeed fitting for Lord Ganesha’s favorite indulgence of the modak to be the quintessential treat gorged over by the God and his devotees alike in marking this festive start to the most anticipated time of the year.
So explored has been the modak as the culinary mainstay of Ganesh Chaturthi rituals evoking the very image of the deity that the history and origin of it has been reiterated over and over again through folk tales and legends and myths as popular retellings of an as popular Indian sweet. Mostly a Maharashtrian specialty even when it is indeed the offering made to Ganesha in all worshipping of him in Hinduism, modaks however aren’t exclusively Indian. No are they just Hindu in character. For in fact, the modak happens to be a delicacy of diverse delight. Specifically in Buddhism and particularly across the Japanese practice of it, modaks tend to be as much of a distinctive identity, albeit one still connected with the appetite of a God indeed justifying of the title of being the modakpriya.
As one of the favorite foods of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, modaks came to occupy pride of place in the meals of the monks following this religion. And that’s how this sweetmeat of much versatility found sweet acceptance in the land of Japan, dominated considerably by the practice in Buddhist ideals and principles. And indeed in such manner as well that mimics pretty much the Indian sentiment when it comes to being a festive specialty even when it indeed is no less delicious an indulgence to partake of any and every time one craves for these cute looking mounds of divine indeed flavor.
It however isn’t just the expanse of Japan where both the modak and the modakapriya are venerated and revered and exalted to heights of divinity, both in the taste and essence of them. In the country of Thailand as well, modaks form part of the offering to their worshipping of Ganesha in accordance with their own rituals and practices. These chubby, usually white dumplings of immense health as well are also favorite festive treats in the Malay world and in the country of Myanmar, with the latter feasting upon these specialties on the distinctive indeed occasion of their national new year. But it still is the land of Japan where modaks find as ubiquitous prevalence as they do in their country of origin of the Indian identity.
In the Land of the Rising Sun, it is the Kangiten deity worshipped as the ‘sacred God’ in Japanese Buddhism for whom modaks in the form of kangidan tend to be among the prominent offerings. Drawing immensely upon the Hindu God of Ganesha and most essentially in the elephant headed depiction though sometimes in dual interpretation, Kangiten assumes this similarity in most apparentness through the couple of some names by which he is known locally. From the Ganpati sounding Ganabachi or the even more similar Vinayaka sounding Binayaka, this Buddhist equivalent of our very own Ganesh has been worshipped in Japan since at least the 9th century as part of the Shingon school of Buddhism. The roots of this belief of course are Indian, since Buddhism itself came to be developed in India explaining how Kangiten came to be eked out in an image parallel to the Hindu deity.
Much like the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations here in this part of the world, the Japanese appeasing of Kangiten too is not a singular affair dealing only with the impeccable simplicity and exemplary fineness of the modak or what occurs there as the kangidan. But it still is this sweet of much piousness indeed emanating from the very sightly vision of it that emerges as the popular favorite. And it all boils down to the relevance that both these versions of the sweet tend to hold in geographically distinct expanses, still entailing though the singular identity of being Asian nations. Resident thus in the same shared territory of an extent that sees everything from culture and cuisine overlapping is what has fostered these similar preparations to come to be defining features of a kind of worship essentially evoking of the same heavenly spirit.
And yet, the similarity of kangidan and modak lies only in the essence of them. Shaped in close resemblance of each other and made indeed out of some kind of a kneaded flour dough in their outer shell, it though is the filling of either that tends to be very different in composition yet delivering that same universal assertion in divine indeed sweetness. In their encompassing a coconut- jaggery mixture rendered even palatable with some aromatic spices and enriched with the addition of dry fruits, the Indian assertion of the modak resides in a very classic taste of what marks a number of other country specific preparations. Equally region specific happens to be the stuffing of the kangidan that relies on the classic essence of the red bean paste anko along with some curds and honey to assert as a treat that gets as godly as it can. Also unlike the Indian modak which is mostly steamed but sometimes fried as well, the Japanese kangidan happens to be always a deep fried delicacy.
The similarities might be striking and the appeal of both uniquely rested upon the premises of individual taste and the experience in enjoyment of them but modaks still do rest in a supremacy when compared to the kangidan. Interestingly though the same setting of them being delightful dives into the wonders of what is afforded by gastronomy is made evident also by the very names through which they identify. While modaks literally mean ‘small part of bliss’, kangidans too allude to the appeal of being ‘blissful buns’ unfurling thus across the same range of appreciation in the ultimate experience of them. But the superiority is maintained still by the more authentic Indian dumpling when one considers the essentially traditional preparation of it as a steamed offering.
The sheer festive indulgence that this treat of so widespread appeal in commanding the laps of the tongue emerges as makes the modak already a something leading one to chart the true courses of bliss and rest indeed upon the zenith of that accomplishment in pleasure. To that extent, modaks already are a well established recipe for a good life. But more properly, that is to say more in accordance with the actual essence of them, modaks have been antidotes indeed in the most accurate mannerism of that identity in being the panacea of all ills almost.
Finding mention as early as in the ancient Ayurvedic text of Charak Samhita had been two variants namely the Abhayadi modak and the Shatavari modak that could effectively treat a range of health issues as well as perform that all important function in balancing the doshas as well. The more modern day version of the steamed modak tends to be no less esteemed in its medicinal properties as well, much in line with the association that resides indeed in certain preparation being considered auspicious enough to be indispensable for certain occasions.
A very seasonal treat that though today has managed to acquire a more ‘available’ status, the pitting of the modak as a Ganesh Chaturthi essential might have everything to do with lores of yore narrating the immense love our beloved God displayed for this sweet of delectable goodness. But consider the ‘opportune’ time and moment when this celebration of the elephant God occurs and the quintessential Maharashtrian delight reveals as a culinary preparation derived from the prevailing state of affairs as what characterise the season this time of the year. With both coconut and jaggery acquiring their most ‘gourmet taste’ in this season of the rains, modaks make for a sweet dish that derives immensely upon this dwelling in ripe perfection to shape up as pretty little bulbs waiting to be devoured in all their irresistible essence.
Why just taste though, modaks need indeed to be the food of the rainy season that one is more than happy to accept them as also in the Ayurvedic advocacy in health specifications. Asserting in such wondrous wisdom that imbues always every morsel of traditional food is the modak that is surprisingly effective in dealing with the rainy days of pouring gloom. In helping realign the circadian rhythm disrupted quite a bit by changes in the environment, the make of this dessert cum offering cum dose of healing is such that awes in more than the happy sight and even happier experience of its eating.
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.
As assertive as the ingredients out of which the modak is made in establishing the potency of its being is also the technique of its preparation. Unique indeed in being a dual process in cooking, both of the casing as well as of the contents within is the steamed modak that is what the most traditional offering to Lord Ganesha occurs as. The whole process of modak preparation might be one tedious effort but it is indeed in this taking of the pains that helps one reap the gains out of this delicacy that enjoys widespread popularity in so different interpretations and versions of it. The process of separately cooking the rice flour to make the dough as well as the filling that goes inside it, followed by the steaming of the shaped and stuffed dumpling as a composite whole ensures the easy breakdown of the nutrient making it thus more accessible and digestible for the body. It also is this somewhat extensive process in cooking that imparts the modak its signature flavor and density, resulting in a sweetmeat that is wholesome not just in its satisfying of the senses but also in its satiating of the soul.
Health wise, the cooked and recooked basis of the modak preparation ends up making it a sweeter delight than what it already is. For in coming to rest in that desired distinction of being a food on the lower rungs of the glycemic index, this favorite of the God lends itself exclusively and impartially for all to partake of its goodness. Equally relevant is the combination of the specific ingredients in eking out for the modak a place steeped in all healthiness. The good plant based fat of the coconut working in tandem with the natural sugars of jaggery that are inherently characterising of modaks is what elevates the palatable experience of them as an expression in taste and flavor remarkable indeed. And this pleasure inducing basis of its core composition in eventual soft and luscious a mound of whiteness is also what leads one to dwell in that feel good heaven of indulgence, profuse not just in the myriad awarenesses of the gastronomic though but also evoking an even more celebratory devotion for the modakapriya Lord Ganesha in all our adoring fondness for this usherer of all things happy and promising and new.