THE MAKINGS OF A MODAK IN MUMBAI
READ KETAKI SAVNAL'S STORY
There's a big brass dabba at the back of my kitchen cupboard, and only once a year, during Ganesh Chaturthi, it is brought out of storage, polished till it shines, and filled to the brim with my favourite festive treat: modak.
Ganpati's favourite food is mine too, and his special day – on my insistence – is the only festival we celebrate in my home. It's one of my family’s last links with my paternal grandmother, who, in her prime, insisted that we cook 21 dishes for the food-loving god. Over the years, we've whittled it down to a few foods that we absolutely love, and my grandmother's version of modak, which is very different from the traditional Maharashtrian one, tops the list.
My recommended serving size is four modaks at a time, several times a day, until your pants don't fit.
Like most of my grandmother's inventions, our modak is an acquired taste, and I've learnt to not share them with snooty Maharashtrian friends. In all fairness, my mother refuses to measure her ingredients, and since we're saving them for prasad we can't taste as we cook, so we're never really sure about the flavour or texture until we've finished the aarti the next day. It's one of those foods that is as fun to make it is to eat, especially because of how spontaneous the recipe is.
Just chuck sugar and semolina into a hot pan, add in a packet of milk masala powder and hope for the best while it cools. Make a dough of maida and water with a little oil and salt, and knead it until it's pliable and can be rolled out into thin sheets. Cut these sheets into circles with a cookie cutter or sharp steel vaati and carefully put a teaspoon-sized amount of the filling in the centre. Then, dip a finger in some water and run it around the edge of the circle to soften it and pinch the edges together when they're still wet. When a dozen or so modaks are ready, toss them into a pan of hot oil and stir often so that they brown evenly. Even with lots of stirring, the heavy tops turn downward so you're forced to dribble oil on the white bums of the modaks that are bobbing over the surface. Cool them on paper towels and toss them into an airtight box. Hope for the best, but be prepared to possibly chip a tooth or two in the coming days. My recommended serving size is four modaks at a time, several times a day, until your pants don't fit.
Our modak might not qualify as traditional, but it definitely falls somewhere in the acceptable range. My friend Sneha Kale’s colleague loves the ubiquitous modak peda. “That's not a modak!” we shout in unison. But that's all Sneha and I can agree on. She dreads Ganesh Chaturthi because of her mother's single-minded focus on cooking for the big day, and I secretly think I'm friends with the wrong Kale. Sneha's mother used to make the outer covering of the modak with chapati atta and then deep fry it, which nobody in the family particularly enjoyed. A Konkan Maharashtrian friend then taught them to make the dough with rice flour and steam the modaks on a banana leaf, which is what the Kale family does now. They add poppy seeds to the traditional jaggery and grated coconut filling for an element of crunch.
It's one of those foods that is as fun to make it is to eat, especially because of how spontaneous the recipe is.
My go-to person for food-related queries is my friend Srishti Godbole, a chef trained at Noma who recently made varan (Maharashtrian dal) tortellini for a pop-up in Denmark. She quickly defers to her mother for their family modak recipe. The Godboles live near Siddhivinayak Mandir, so Shubha aunty gives me the inside scoop on where to get the best ingredients in the area. Her modaks only turn out well if she uses the rice flour from Family Store, a small grocery shop in Dadar near Ideal Bookstore. Her second secret ingredient is a few teaspoons of milk that she adds to the water for the dough to soften it and prevent the modak from yellowing during the steaming process. She makes the traditional ukadiche (steamed) modak in a pressure cooker without the whistle, with a filling of equal parts jaggery and freshly grated coconut. It's a recipe that her grandmother passed down to her, and she hopes Srishti will keep the tradition alive.
In Thane, my friend Mitali Halbe's mother, Manjiri, is preparing for a Ganpati pooja and lunch for 20 guests. Manjiri aunty says fried modaks are easy to make in large quantities, which is why families prefer them, but ukadiche modak need to be handled individually and with great care. She has already placed an order for ukadiche modak and a traditional Maharashtrian meal of dalimbi usal, batata bhaji, mattha, alu fatfata, tondli, koshimbir, and masale bhaat at Gokhle Uphar Gruh in Thane East. Needless to say, the conversation only ends after I secure an invitation to lunch.
My recommendations for pattoli in Matunga:
Idli House, 462 Ram Bhavan, Ambedkar Road, Maheshwari Udyan, Kings Circle, Matunga, Mumbai 400 019. Tel: 022 2401 2422
Anand Bhavan (also delivers via Swiggy), 461/A, Ram Niwas, King's Circle Flyover, Matunga (e), Mumbai 400 019. Tel: 2401 5745
Shubha Godbole's recommendations for modaks in Dadar:
Family Store (for rice flour if you're making modak at home), Chhabildas Road, Dadar (w), Mumbai 400 028. Tel: 022 2430 6018
Godbole Stores (no relation to Shubha aunty), Shop 2, Samruddhi Heights, DL Vaidya Road, Bhawani Sarkar, Dadar (w), Mumbai 400 028. Tel: 022 2437 2294
Aaswad (you get modaks and karanjis here through the year, but they only use fresh grated coconut during Ganesh Chaturthi), 61, Sadanand, Opposite Amar Hind Mandal, Gokhale Road (North), Dadar (w), Mumbai 400 028. Tel: 022 2445 1971
Manjiri Halbe's recommendations for modaks in Thane:
Gokhle Uphar Gruh, Krishna Nivas, Gokhale Road, Near Thane Healthcare, Naupada, Thane (w) 400 602. Tel: 022 2530 3021
Shraddha Farsan Mart, Ghantali Devi Mandir Road, Next to Sadguru Auto, Naupada, Thane (w) 400 602. Tel: 022 2539 5351