Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sweet September

September, is what I consider a very special month. My parents celebrate their wedding anniversary (their 32nd this year) around the time; it's the month when Lord Ganesha usually visits my maternal grandmother's house in Central Mumbai -- the previous month is spent in serious cleaning. Serious being the operative word here. All I can say is, if you walk in during one of these intense sessions, it will involve phenol. Bucket-loads of it. Whether you like it or not, you will be doused and scrubbed clean with said cleaner, and left to air-dry on her fourth-floor balcony.

But, I digress.

Other than the manic cleaning, the mere memories of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi at my grandmother's gives me the warm fuzzies. As is with most Hindu festivals, the day begins frightfully early. What can I say -- our pantheon of gods do love their day break. So each year, our family scrambles awake to repeated warnings about the priest arriving at any given moment to perform the prayer ceremony.

As the saying goes -- "A family that ... "
... in our case, procrastinates together. Also rushes for the bathroom at the same time that the priest is spotted from the little window overlooking the street below. By this time, my grandmother is quite livid. Not to mention very high-pitched -- we have running theories (and jokes) about street dogs in her complex being partially deaf due to the whole frequency phenomenon -- it's just not what most people would call a pretty affair.

So imagine if you will. A flurry on legs. A vexed time-bomb scurrying between hall and kitchen, what with last-minute prayer paraphernalia to be placed for the ceremony next to the idol. A half-asleep, grumbling grandchild handed a toothbrush and shoved in front of the basin. And the priest -- sometimes mistaken as lazy progeny and hence yelled at -- repeatedly pacified that one of my uncles will perform the ceremony as soon as one of them can trace the singular Gandhi cap they share between themselves. Why they haven't bothered to buy its pair in the last 49 years is beyond all of us. Very warm and fuzzy indeed.

Ergo, the morning ceremony is conducted amid much chaos and an ever benevolent elephant God. Then, the women are quickly rallied in the kitchen and almost magically, the whole house is transformed. It metamorphoses into this smorgasbord of food and aroma. Intermingled with sweet vapors of incense along with the fragrance of fresh flowers adorning the Lord.

There's ...

... delicate ukadiche modak, each fold glistening and sharp. Heaps of soft polis. Vats brimming with delicious tangerine-colored vaalache birde. Piping onion bhaaji's or fritters. A flavorful green salad, by the name of khamang kakdi, made from finely diced cucumbers, flavored with powdered peanuts, sizzling mustard seeds and hot, green Indian chillies. Little mounds of steaming white rice with heart-warming kora varan, served with a generous dollop of home-made clarified butter and a small wedge of lemon. Two vegetable stir-fry sides -- one involving our beloved potatoes in a turmeric ensemble and the other with okra, a traditional preparation. Each, sprinkled generously with grated coconut and cilantro. A pungent chutney of fresh coconut, chillies and cilantro leaves. And my grandmother's mango pickle, from the farthest corner on the second kitchen shelf.

I suppose if my kids cooked such a feast to make up for some early morning madness, I would be prone to beneficence too.

It's been four years since I felt that kind of gooey all over.

But, I shouldn't complain. If I hadn't moved on from the love and comfort of my ajol (maternal grandfather's house), I would have missed out on another kind of love. One that walked into my life on September 13th, 2004. The father of my child, my best friend and soul mate from many past lives. He is way beyond what I deserve and had prayed for. For that, I will forever be grateful to my benevolent elephant God. And the month of September.

♣ Feeling the Filling

I have very distinct memories of both my grandmother and mother going quite red in the face while kneading the rice flour dough for steamed or ukadiche modak. Apparently, the dough must be kneaded immediately after it's steamed, or else there will be lumpy dough to contend with. Evidently, they are right. And obviously I had to find out the hard way.

I was elated when the coconut stuffing or saaran for the modaks turned out exceptionally well. But, the covering or the dough, that's another story.

It went thusly:

Attempt 1: I will not get into the nitty-gritty of things. All I can say is the outcome was lumpy. And I ended up with magnificently red hands.

Attempt 2: Since I didn't want to waste my beautiful stuffing, I consulted "Perfect Recipes" by one Mrs. K for a recipe of fried modak dough. I refer to this cookbook very often and it has never failed me. Turns out, there's always a first time. The recipe was pretty straight-forward -- knead a tight dough of wheat flour, semolina, piping clarified butter and water, and keep covered for a couple of hours. Then roll into small circles, stuff, gather pleats, shape into modaks and deep-fry.

So I did.

Once fried, the stuffing tasted like it was covered in a rubbery sheath and the sweetness of the jaggery refused to come through. Anything but perfect. Yeah, well. I should have known that the stuffing for fried modaks is significantly different from that of steamed ones. Had to be, Mrs. K is seldom wrong.

Attempt 3: Yes, I actually tried for the third time. My family and close friends will tell you, if I have my mind set on something, a pit-bull with a bone and I, can be astonishingly similar.
Lumpy, rubbery doughs notwithstanding, I was going to use the darn (good) filling. This time around I asked AM to help. As luck would have it, or in this case, lack of it -- we first messed up the quantity of water that needed to be boiled. Something, about me confusing him about halving the recipe. "Whateva." As a result, the rice flour kind of unnaturally coagulated around the water and then stopped doing anything.

I, of course, would have none of that. So, I quickly removed it onto a plate, set the water for boiling and followed the steps for steaming again. This time, the ingredients behaved slightly better. The rice flour came together, I screamed bloody murder while kneading it, things were soft and smooth. It was all good. We even managed to mold little modaks and steam them. Although I was mightily disappointed that they did not have the customary sharp pleats. But, I like to put that off as the after-effects of using old rice flour instead of lack of modak craftsmanship on my part.

The end result? Only a couple of blogworthy photos. I plan to now stuff parathas with my beautiful filling. Yes, I still have some remaining.

You need:

A cup of packed, freshly-grated coconut
1/3 cup of good-quality jaggery, grated
2-3 green cardamoms, peeled and ground
1/2-1 tsp of clarified butter or ghee


In a bowl, combine the coconut with the jaggery. Then, heat ghee in a saute pan and stir in the coconut-jaggery mixture. Combine until the jaggery melts, and beautifully mingles with the white coconut, turning it a delicious shade of light honey. As soon as the filling looks like it's losing some of its gooey-ness, remove from flame and stir in the cardamom powder.

Note: Some people add aromatics such as poppy seeds or khuskhus. In case you decide to add these, add them before you do the coconut-jaggery mixture. Once the poppy seeds crackle slightly, add in the coconut-jaggery combination.


Anita said...

I might need to give the steamed modak another chance... my Madrasi friend cannot believe either that I haven't quite developed a taste for these.
Happy Anniversary!

Sheetal Kiran said...

thanks Anita :D steamed modaks take getting used to I think.

As a kid, I remember not being too fond of them. And then suddenly, sometime during my teen years, I developed an absolute crush on them. Now, if only I can figure out the perfect recipe for the dough!

A Cook @ Heart said...

SLURP! I love modak! Wonderful picture..

Manisha said...

Your Ganesh Chaturthis sound like so much fun!

I'll take fried over steamed any day. And now that you say it involves steaming one's palms as part of the process, I think I'll abstain forever amen.

Your post brought back more memories. Cripes! I had forgotten about the ubiquitous "Phenyl" in that awful glass bottle closed tight with a cork.

Sheetal Kiran said...

Manasi: thanks much ... I only wish it tasted as good :D

Manisha: Oh yes, Ganesh Chaturthi was simply awesome at my grandmother's!!

I have no idea what fried modaks are supposed to taste like, since we've always had them steamed at our place ... so, I am determined to try until I succeed with the steamed ones. I have been wondering if catering gloves might protect my hands ... hmm, perhaps worth a try!

I should write a post revolving plainly around the ubiquitous phenyl bottle .... there's just so much to tell!! :D

bee said...

i'll eat kora varan. nothing else.

Sheetal Kiran said...

bee, you should meet my sister.


the modak looks very good. it was fun reading abt the festival .. I miss those days in Mumbai .. ganesh chaturthi was so much fun

shamski said...

great modak. the picture itself is enticing. the festival description is nostalgic.

shamski said...

hi Sheeetal,
One suggestion, we can add kesar (saffron) alongwith cardamom powder.
I tried modak this year for chaturthi. Needs more practise.

Sheetal Kiran said...

VP: Thanks much :D I can only wish the modak tasted as good!

Shamski: Thanks very much! I will try kesar the next time I feel daring enough to try modaks ;)

Tee said...

loved your post...such a typical scenario :)
Your modak looks delicious...i make these every year and still haven't managed to get them in blog worthy shape !

Thanks for adding me to your blogroll...i have added you too :)

Sheetal Kiran said...

Thank you so much Tee, for your very kind and encouraging words! And for adding me to your blogroll too :D
Here's to many more such wonderful exchanges!!

Divya said...

Sheetal, I just love the way you write! Very engaging and the little memories bring back a flood of nostalgia from those festival times back home.
I do remember being that sleepy lazy kid being shoved a toothbrush near the basin.
Lovely memories. Thanks for refreshing them.

Sheetal Kiran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheetal Kiran said...

Thanks Divya ... my grandmother would also threaten me in Marathi that if I didn't hurry, she would scrub my teeth with the wire-brush meant for cleaning her kitchen sink ... usually got us going pretty much quickly after that :D

Naina said...

It took me 5 Ganesh Chaturthis and a visit from my mother in law before I finally could make a decent number that looked and tasted like modaks. I'm still learning. I'm sure you'll get better year after year. I'm glad you liked the video. I play it every year for a refresher because every year I forget how to do it. Thanks for stopping by. I will defintiely keep visiting your blog as well.

Sheetal Kiran said...

I do hope so with all my heart Naina :D thank you for dropping by ...

Manasi said...

Between you and 'adhi potoba', I discovered two blogs from fellow Puneites today. Severe shortage of funds and absolute inertia is all thats stopping me from jumping on the next available flight.
I made ukdiche modak from scratch this year and my non-maharashtrian husband had the temerity to remark that the fried ones taste better!

Sheetal Kiran said...

I hear you Maansi! Been almost three long years since I have been home too :( If I may suggest, get the hubby to work on the ukadiche modak the next time ;) always works I tell ya!!

Manasi said...

your first line in the commment had me giggling in the office(where i don't check up on my baby blog). a girl after my own heart! thanks for adding me to the blogroll. really, really appreciate it.

Manasi said...

she writes, she cooks, she eats eats eats...and she replies faster than the speed of lightening! :)

Bea said...

I am intrigued now. I have to try this!

Sheetal Kiran said...

I hope you like it Bea!