Meena’s biscuit trail led me to look into the history and story of what is perhaps one of the favourite pan-Indian sweets—the modak or laddoo. This seemed appropriate in a week marked by the preparing, offering and the partaking of this sweet for Ganesh Chaturthi.
The connection between the elephant-headed God and his love for modaks can be traced back to ancient lore and legends. One story goes thus. One day, Anasuya, the wife of the ancient rishi Atri invited lord Shiva, his wife Parvati, and their baby son Ganesha for a meal. Shiva was ready to start eating but Anasuya said that the adults could eat once the Bal Ganesha was fed. She laid out a sumptuous spread, and Ganesha immediately started to partake of the goodies. He ate and ate everything that was before him, but just did not seem to have had enough. His parents and hostess looked on in wonder. Anasuya then went in and brought a single piece of sweet and offered it to the seemingly ever-hungry Ganesha. As soon as he ate it, Ganesha let out a loud burp. At last, he was sated! At exactly the same time, by now the very-hungry Shiva also burped 21 times. Parvati was curious to know what this wonder sweet was that seemed to have satisfied the hunger of both father and son. Anasuya told her that it was a modak. Thereafter Parvati expressed her wish that all devotees of Ganesha should offer him 21 modaks. This tradition has carried on to this day.
While the traditional modak recipe is said to have its origins in Maharashtra, modaks are prepared across India in a variety of ways, and are known by various names– mothagam or kozhukattai in Tamil, modhaka or kadubu in Kannada, or modakam or kudumu in Telugu. Modaks are made both by steaming, and by frying. Their traditional recipe includes fillings of grated coconut and jaggery with a hint of cardamom or nutmeg, encased in a covering made of flour.
While in several parts of India, modak refers to the steamed and stuffed version, in some states like Gujarat the word modak and laddoo are synonymous. The word laddoo is used to refer to the spherical sweet primarily made from flour, ghee, and sugar or jaggery. Laddoos themselves have a long history, both in lore as well as in the culinary culture of India.
An interesting folktale traces the origins of what may have caused the difference between laddoo and modak. The story goes that Ganesha’s maternal grandmother Queen Menavati used to indulge her grandson by feeding him with laddoos that she made. As he grew, his appetite for the sweet was insatiable. Grandmother could not keep up with his endless capacity to gobble them down, especially as making laddoos is a laborious and time-consuming process, as each ball has to be individually moulded and set . She thought that by making a similar stuffed sweet that could be steamed together in larger numbers would hasten the process. Her grandson was equally delighted with this variation. And thus came about the steamed modaks, and Ganesha’s moniker Modakpriya—lover of modaks.
The history of laddoos can be traced back a long way. The term ladduka first finds mention in the Mahabharata. Sushruta Samhita the classical Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery also has references to laddoos. It is believed that Indian physician, Sushruta, used ladoos as an antiseptic to treat his surgical patients. In the 4th century BC, he used a concoction of ingredients like sesame seeds, jaggery and peanuts which had nutritional properties, to make laddoos which provided strength and energy. Even today new mothers and pregnant women are given laddoos with special additional herbs and seeds to boost their immunity, and improve lactation. Old texts also mention laddoos being carried during long journeys, and wartime because of their long shelf life.
The wonderful diversity of culinary traditions across India has led to a mouth-watering array of ‘speciality’ laddoos made with different ingredients. Over the years, people from different communities started experimenting with the ingredients and replaced them with whatever was readily available in their region. Other elements like geography, weather and diets of communities also play a significant role. For example laddoos with gond (edible gum) are eaten in winter as they are believed to give warmth and energy. The Sankranti festival in Gujarat is incomplete without the variety of laddoos made from seasonal ingredients like sesame, peanuts and jaggery.
From the besan laddoos which are common to several states, the boondi or motichur laddoo that is originally said to hail from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, churma laddoo from Gujarat and Rajasthan, coconut ladoo and rava laddoo from the southern states, the Assamese black sesame laddoo–each region-specific laddoo has its distinct identity, and has specific associations with the local traditions and culture.
The laddoo also has associations with celebrations. While traditionally the partaking of laddoos is a part of certain festivals, the distribution and sharing of laddoos is an important part of any happy or auspicious occasion—an engagement, a wedding, the birth of a baby, exam results, a new job appointment. All “good news” was heralded by sending and receiving a box of laddoos.
Times are changing though. In urban areas, the time-honoured tradition is now being represented by boxes of designer chocolates, and gift hampers with imported goodies. Celebrity chefs are conjuring up fusion recipes for old sweets to create innovative desserts. And yet, for many of us, there is sense of nostalgia and comfort that the very word laddoo or modak brings. For me it evokes memories of my mother-in-law’s literal labour of love in making trays full of churma laddoos coated with poppy seeds, family feasts where these were consumed with gusto, and the wonderful feeling of being happily replete before sinking into a deep siesta. A modak by any name tastes just as sweet!