Gods have favorite foods, too.
The monsoon is still hovering over our doorstep. Fat gray rain clouds swoop down low over the Mandovi River, almost grazing the fishing boats emptying out their catch. The days might be dull, but with the arrival of September, a sense of gaiety is in the air. The festive season is around the corner.
In a few days from now, streets across India will ring with the sound of bells, chanting, and song, as idols of Ganesha, the elephant god, are brought home for worship. Ganesh Chaturthi is an annual 10-day festival devoted to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and God of beginnings. With the head of an elephant, the body of a human, and a mouse for a vehicle, this unusual deity is much loved and is awaited with anticipation.
In Goa, on India’s western coast, Ganesh is a big deal. Schools close, restaurants shut down as owners take time off to clean their kitchens, and staff take their annual holiday now instead of in the busy summer season. Locals gather at their ancestral homes, multi-generational families celebrating and worshipping together.
Depending on their own traditions and economic circumstances, families bring home idols of Ganesha in procession on Day 1 and worship him at home in multiples of odd-numbered days. Idols are worshipped for one, three, five, seven, nine, or 11 days, after which they are taken to a local body of water (a pond, river, or the sea) to be immersed with prayers.
It is a ritual to offer Ganesha’s favorite food to him, one of which is the modak, a dumpling made of coconut, jaggery, and spices. Twenty-one modaks (an auspicious number) are offered to Ganesha during the aarti, or prayer service.
There’s a lull in the rain and on a hot, sunny afternoon, I drive to the house of Dr. Sunita Gaunekar, a close friend of my mother-in-law. I’m curious to know how a Goan Hindu family celebrates Ganesha Chaturthi, and I ask her to show me how modaks are made.
Ganesha is important here. In her home, small decorative idols of Ganesh line the cabinets and the walls. In the kitchen, preparations are on in earnest. Dr. Sunita, who is in her 70s, has enlisted the help of her relative, Mrs. Kundaikar, who has laid out the ingredients on the black kitchen counter. There’s wheat flour for the dumplings, with Bengal gram dal, jaggery, coconut, cardamom, and nutmeg for the filling.
The dal has already been boiled to a semi-softness, the yellow of it gleaming against the stainless steel plate. To the dal, the rest of the spices and jaggery are added and mixed. “Every family prepares the modaks differently,” says Dr. Sunita. “You can add more jaggery to make it sweeter or increase the spices if you enjoy them.”
Mrs. Kundaikar is dressed in a pink sari, the ends of it tucked in her waistband. She deftly shapes the dough into a ball and flattens it with a rolling pin, turning it round and round with barely a flick of the wrist. In all the years of (reluctantly) trying to learn how to make chapati or roti, I have never quite mastered this maneuver. Yet she does it with ease and a small pile of flattened disks, coated with flour, awaits their turn.
I’m curious about the use of wheat flour. I had expected the women to use maida, a refined, all-purpose flour for the dumplings. “We use wheat flour only for the first day, which is an auspicious one. Wheat dumplings are not long-lasting and are meant to be consumed on the day itself. Maida dumplings are made for the other days and they can be stored for later,” explains Dr. Sunita.
Once the rolled out wheat flour disks are flattened, a small helping of the dal-jaggery-spices mixture is dropped in its center. Then, with a deftness I envy, Mrs. Kundaikar swivels the disk in her hand, swirling it and pinching the top at the same time. Not a grain of the filling spills. The end result: a white ball of flour that resembles a flower about to bloom.
In Dr. Sunita’s family, modaks are deep-fried. A non-stick frying pan holds a small quantity of hot cooking oil and the modaks are dropped in two or three at a time. When they are a golden-brown, they are taken out and placed on a plate decorated with banana leaf.
The Kundaikar family, on the other hand, does something different. With the same ingredients, they make five different shapes to offer to the deity. Mrs. Kundaikar has made for me the traditional crescent-shaped neureos, toffee-shaped modaks, and round puffed ones. “We place these on a plate and keep them under the platform where the idol is placed. This is later given as prasad, (a food offering consumed by worshippers),” says Mrs. Kundaikar.
The modaks are crisp, the wheat flour making them more like a meal than a sweet temptation. The dal and jaggery roll over the tongue, fighting with the spices for texture and attention.
The deep-fried modaks are very different from the ones I remember from my childhood. Those were white, with a smoother texture and definitely not fried. “That’s what you get in the shops,” laughs Dr. Sunita. “Those are dipped in milk and steamed. They are common in Maharashtra and other parts of the country. We prefer them fried.” These days, gourmet modaks filled with chocolate and fruit-infused fillings are also popular.
What else does Ganesha like? Apparently, the elephant-god has quite a sweet tooth. “We make godshe (pronounced ‘goad-shey’), which is a sweet dish. Each day of the celebration has a different sweet associated with it. On one day you could make neureos and modaks, the next day patoleos, the day after that sannas (savory rice cakes), and payasam, a sweet semi-solid pudding,” says Dr. Gaunekar.
When all 21 modaks are done, Dr. Sunita arranges them on a banana leaf, as if she would on the day the idol was brought home. Through my camera lens, the modaks look like marigold flowers, hues of orange, brown, and cream contrasting beautifully with the emerald of the leaf.
I take a few photographs before Dr. Sunita suddenly says, “Wait!” She walks quickly to the living room and takes a few minutes to choose a small Ganesha decorated with colorful gems. She arranges the plates, the offerings, in front of the idol. The small gesture touches my heart. This ritual is an important part of their devotion. Until they bring in an idol for real next week, this is as close as I’m going to get.
About Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Chryselle is a freelance writer based in Goa, India. She has written for TIME, the BBC, VICE, The Atlantic, Marie Claire India, and others.
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