Sep 7, 2011

A tale of Ganesha

I start feeling nostalgic and missing homeland during festival time and this year has been no exception. A phone call to my brother for Rakshabandhan or Bhau-Beej, a video chat with my parents during Diwali leaves me teary eyed and wanting to jump on a flight to India. I try to compensate feelings of alienation by making corresponding festival fare and gorging myself on it. Two years ago, I attempted modaks for Ganesh Chaturthi. The crust came out chewy and rubbery but the filling of jaggery and coconut, infused with cardamom, was still worth it.

This year I could hear the beating of drums in the background as I talked to my sister back home. It was hard to hear much over the din but I gathered from her that the youngsters in her housing complex were practicing for Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. How could I not attempt to make modaks again sitting in the quiet surroundings of my suburban home? My mother gave me her usual helpful but ambiguous tips “a little bit of rava (semolina) to maida (APF) and roll the poori thin before filling and shaping the modak”.
Making of a modak for Susan's B&WW

Based on those thin guidelines, I fiddled with the proportions and had the foresight to take notes while I made the modaks. I was delighted to bite into the crispy crust (after offering the Prasad to Ganesh first, of course) that would have made the pot-bellied god a happy camper.

Modaks for the pot-bellied one
Once fried, they are off to Susan's B&WW
It transported me back to the days when my mom would fast once a month for chaturthi and break her fast with twenty one modaks. One of those modaks was a salty one and once mother ate that she had to stop. We three kids sat close to her, watching as the modak count dwindled. We would heave a sigh of relief as she finally came across and ate the salty one. Then the three of us would divvy the modaks and send a silent prayer to Ganesha for helping her find the salty one short of ten.

Now, all grown up, I do not even think about observing the strict fast my mom kept.  However, Ganesha still has a strong presence in my household.  I have pictures and statues of him scattered all over my house.  My husband reads tales of Ganesha and other gods to our son. We, like parents of my generation, are forever grateful to Uncle Pai and his Amar Chitra Katha. Those tales (katha) are indeed immortal (amar). As much as we read those tales, when a poojari (priest) asked us the names of Ganesha’s sons we were thrown for a loop. We knew the names of his wives, Riddhi and Siddhi. But we didn’t even know he had sons let alone what their names were. The answer, when he told us, was so simple, we almost smacked ourselves in the head.

After I had my fill of the modaks I posed the same question on fb. A lot of friends chimed in and like all Indian myths, they had slightly different versions and names of Ganesha’s wives and sons. Manisha was most helpful, quoting from a book on tales of Ganesha and her tidbits made for a fun discussion. From that discussion, this tale is woven.

Disclaimer: Based on myths and tales of Ganesha and written in jest. Not intended to offend any Ganesha devotees. I am one myself and have nothing but the highest reverence, regard and love for the Remover of all obstacles.

 Ganesha was born after wild lovemaking by Shiva and Paravathi in the foothills of Kailash Parbat or probably in an icy cave somewhere on the mountain. There was some talk of rules to be followed in case the lady of the house went to take a bath. The rule had its unintended consequences when the head of a son was severed and an elephant lost its life to save the dutiful son.

One day Ganesh, the dutiful son with the head of the elephant, and his elder brother Kartikeya decided to race around the world. While Kartikeya took off on his peacock, fat Ganesha looked at the scrawny mouse that is his ride and decided to take pity on it. He used his brains instead and circled his parents and declared that they were the world to him. This made perfect sense to his adoring parents who pronounced Ganesha the winner.

Seeing that his younger brother had outwitted him with smarts, the muscular Kartikeya stormed off into the mountains and remained a bachelor for life. As a result, the two girls, Riddhi and Siddhi, the parents had chosen for their two sons were married off to Ganesha. After all it was only fair that the son who thought the world of them deserved nothing less than two wives.

In time, noticing how happy Riddhi and Siddhi were with their chubby, modak loving husband, Buddhi decided she wanted to marry Ganesha too. How could he refuse the intelligent but beautiful maiden? So it came to pass that the four of them lived happily ever after and had two or three sons named Shubh, Labh and/or Kshema.

In a different part of the nation, it is believed that Ganesha never married. Like most mortal men, he too wanted to marry someone as accomplished as his mother, Parvati. Legend has it he is still looking. Because, in this day and age, what sane girl would fast and meditate and serve the object of her affection for years on end in the hopes that the guy with the elephant's head would cast a loving glance at her and marry her. So, his search continues and one can find him appearing from time to time under a bridge, by a river, near a roadside, always searching and never finding...

Now the modak recipe:

For the outer covering:
1 Cup maida (APF)
1/4 cup rava (semolina)
A pinch of salt
2Tbsp oil
Slightly more than 1/4 cup water

For the filling:
2 cups desiccated, dry coconut (substitute with fresh)
1 cup grated jaggery (substitute with brown sugar)
4-6 cardamom pods
2 Tbsps dry fruits (assortment of raisins, cashews, pistachios and charoli)
1 Tbsp milk

For deep frying:
Vegetable or canola oil

Combine the maida and rava with salt. Add the oil and mix into the flours. Knead the dough using a little water at a time. It should be soft but firm. Cover with a damp muslin cloth and set aside to rest for at least 30 minutes.

Roast the desiccated coconut on low heat till it turns slightly golden and fragrant. Add the grated jaggery and on low heat keep stirring till it starts to melt slightly. Turn off the heat.

Split the cardamom pods and grind the seeds in a mortar and pestle. Add these to the cooling jaggery mixture.

In a separate pan, roast the cashews and pistachios on low heat with a smidgen of ghee. Cool and break into small pieces. Mix with the above.

Assembling the modak:
Dampen a cotton or muslin towel and spread it on a plate.

Break a little bit of dough and form into a small marble size ball. With a rolling pin, roll the ball into a 3-4 inch thin poori. Remember, the poori needs to thin to make the crust crispy but it should not be so thin that the filling tears the crust and spills while frying.

Place about 2-3 tsps of filling in the center and dampen the edges with a finger dipped in milk.

Gather the edges up and away from the filling and start pinching them together to form into a fig shape. Make sure the edges are sealed and secure. Place the formed modak on the plate and cover with the damp muslin.

Repeat to make twenty more, all the time keeping the dough and the formed modaks covered with a damp towel.

Frying the modak:
Fill a kadai or frying pan little less than half way mark with vegetable or canola oil. Once the oil heats up, turn the heat source on medium. Break a little piece of dough and drop it in the oil. If the oil bubbles and the tiny ball of dough floats to the top, the oil is ready for the modaks.

Gently slide the modaks, one or two at a time (depending on your deep frying skills). Fry till they are golden. The pointy head of the fig shape at this time might get squished a bit. To counter it, mould the top a bit high to begin with.

Gently lift the golden figs from the hot oil, tilt on the side of the frying pan and deposit on some paper towels or newspaper to drain the excess oil.

At this point, do not be tempted to take a bite and warn the rest of the family of the same. Once all the modaks are ready, perform Ganesh pooja according to your family’s ritual. Offer the modaks to Ganesha and then proceed to distribute to the rest of the family.


  1. Nice story :) I loved the ganesha idols ! they are so cute , wherever did you get them from ? The recipe is exactly as my mom makes it (sigh) I get very nostalgic around festivals too ...Hope you had a great Ganesh Chaturthi !

  2. Chhaya, I did have a good GC. Aren't the idols cute? Unfortunately, I do not have them. My BIL put the photos of these on fb and I just copied it from him. Hope you had a good GC too.

  3. That was absolutely lovely- I enjoyed eating- I mean reading- every word!

  4. Wonderful tale! Wild lovemaking?!!:D Yes, Shiva was always portrayed as an amorous God. A well woven tale as always. I must read up more about Buddhi! Good modaks! I make the steamed rice flour ones. But I have tasted these at my friend's house and it is extremely delicious too!

  5. Pel, it was your belated birthday wish that started it all. So, thank you.

    Harini, glad you liked it. Not sure if there are any accounts of Budhhi though we all have it in some degree or other. :-)

  6. Those Ganeshas are so cute! I did see the discussion but never knew he was supposed to have had kids as well! I only recently learnt he had two wives!

    Nice story about the fasting modak tradition of your mum and you three!

  7. Unhave inspired me to try modak :) thanks for this beautiful post

  8. The pictures of the Ganapathi are so cute and funny, I have never seen them before. Loved the way you have put your thoughts together and the nostalgia during the festivals. I feel the same way and too and feel like going back 'home'.
    The modak and the pictures look awesome.

  9. thanks for the detailed recipe,...:-)

  10. The story or the modak, hard to choose, both are great. "Shubh-Labh" indeed :) Amongst Bengalis there is a story that Ganesha was married to the Banana Plant, there is a symbolic Banana Plant decked in a red bordered white sari along with Durga and her off springs during Durga Pujo. She is called "Kala-Bou" and that is all I know about Ganesha's marital status.

  11. Lovely article... loved reading it.. Even I feel very nostalgic during festival season which goes on for more than 6 months in India ..:)
    Loved the fried modak.. I have to try it..
    The idol is so cute ...
    Glad to follow u.. I can c that you r hosting a wonderful event.. happy hosting..:)

  12. Loved reading this. I know almost nothing, other than that Ganesha was married to banana plant called Kala (banana) Bou (wife). In Bengal, the Kala Bou is kept beside Ganesha. Those are really cute Ganesha murtis :)

    You know i never had modak! But we do make something similar in a different shape (like empanadas) and they are either steamed and simmered in milk or deep fried. I LOVE the filling inside, and want some now. I think I will make coconut laddoos today.

  13. Nice reading about Ganesha and the lovely easy to prepare recipe of the modak...looks delicious!

  14. Beautiful post and murtis of Ganesha. I am also a fan of Ganesha and make the steamed version of Modaks for Ganesh Chaturthi, Love your fried ones too:)

  15. These are so adorable that I want to pinch them all, then eat 'em, but I know they are for tribute to Ganesh. Thank you for sharing your special occasion photos for BWW, Jaya.

  16. Lovely post always!!! I use whole wheat flour instead of maida for fried modak. and one simillar thing, my mother also used to 21 modak fast on sankashti.


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