Modak for Ganesha Chaturdhi

I feel privileged to serve on the board of WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit. My favorite thing about WISDOM is getting to know women from all kinds of faith backgrounds whom I would not otherwise meet, especially now that I’m retired and no longer meet diverse people through work. Today’s guest blogger is Padma Kuppa, an IT consultant in the Detroit metro area. who lives in suburban Detroit.

On the Hindu holiday of Ganesha Chaturdhi this year, I will be with my friend and executive eirector of the Hindu American Foundation, Suhag Shukla, doing something related to advocacy and interfaith.

It is the second time in five years that we will be together. In 2012 we were in Washington D.C., advocating against hate crimes and for human rights in the wake of the Wisconsin gurudwara massacre. It’s no surprise that I sometimes choose to promote interfaith understanding and social justice, and not to do the elaborate prayer rituals typical of such Hindu holy days. I tend to prefer the path of karma yoga, and being faithful through my actions and my activism; bhakti yoga and the devotion and ritual that it encompasses, have long been my mom’s realm.

Ganesha Chaturdhi, or Vinayaka Chaviti, the name variant that I am more familiar with because my mother tongue is Telugu, falls on September 17 this year. The holiday is typically honored with an elaborate prayer ritual at home and/or the temple. The holiday is marked in many different ways, across the many different linguistic and cultural groups that practice Hinduism. My mom always made a special food known as undrallu as part of the offering during worship; these various Indian-style dumplings known as modak are said to be Ganesha’s favorite.

God of Success

Ganesha (also spelled Ganesa and known as Ganapati, Vinayaka and Pillaiyar) is one Hindu way of viewing the Divine. He is known as the God of Success, Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. Because Hinduism teaches that all of nature is Divine, Hindus believe that God manifests in the various forms that are found in nature, including animals, rivers, mountains and earth.  So Ganesha is depicted with an elephant head, symbolizing wisdom, as elephants are recognized to be among the wisest of animals.

Stories are told generation to generation, not simply of how a young boy with a rotund belly acquired the elephant head, but as allegories; the meaning of the stories deepens as the devotee matures. Destruction of vanity, success in the face of adversity, filial duty, how the Divine is formless yet can have a form: all these themes are found in stories of Ganesha. The symbolism of what people simply see as “the elephant headed god” seems limitless, while the rich, underlying philosophy is approachable.

And because of all this, Ganesha is widely revered all over the cradle of Hinduism – India – and the among the Indian Hindu diaspora. Murtis (an image of the Divine which itself becomes divine) and images of Ganesha are found everywhere, in many different forms, and he is invoked before the undertaking of any task.

No place is Ganesha more widely celebrated than in the Indian city of Mumbai, where my WISDOM sister Anjali Vale hails from. The favorite dish of Ganesha takes on a different form in the Indian state of Maharashtra where she grew up. In fact, it  takes on different names across the Indian landscape: in Tamil Nadu, it’s kozhakkattai, in Karnataka, it’s modhaka, and in Andhra, it’s also called kudumu.

Sweet or savory, steamed or fried

Modak can be sweet or savoury, they can be steamed or fried, and the fillings can be traditional (like shredded coconut and jaggery) or innovative (like paneer, coriander and tomatoes). I had many opportunities to see the elaborate mandap – the altar setup and decorated for worship – at Anjali’s home during the 10 days each year when her family celebrated the holiday. But the best part was eating many of the wonderful modaka – filling my tummy to have a belly like Ganesha’s!

The recipe that follows is from a blog on healthy Indian recipes by Swasthi,a mother and homemaker who lives in Singapore. She says you can use store-bought rice flour, but it’s not nearly as good as rice flour you make yourself! Click here to see how to make your own.

Here are some links to for more information about Ganesha Chaturdhi and some recipes for the holiday:

16 recipes for Vinayaka Chaviti from Swasthi, including one for undrallu, the Andhra style steamed modak

NDTV’s Food site with 7 modak recipes

ssure cooker steam for 10 minutes; a small pressure pan will need only 6 minutes.

Celebrating the Season of Gratitude

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us start thinking about what we’re grateful for. I asked my Facebook friends and got some interesting answers:

  • I’m grateful that you and I are still breathing, still know each other and still have our wits about us!
  • I am grateful for so many births and young people in the family for filling a small part of the space lost from loved ones departed. I am grateful those departed are forever woven into the fabric of our lives and not so gone after all.
  • I’m grateful more than anything for lessons in human awareness. Learning how to be kinder, more compassionate, whatever the circumstance, for speaking up for what is true to me instead of suppressing emotions. Those close to me would say this is a very good thing.
  • I’m thankful for my mom. Even though she’s been gone for almost 10 years, she’s still my best friend and my rock. Every day, I still feel like she’s right by my side. I’m so thankful for all the days I was able to laugh, hug, and hear her voice.
  • I am most grateful for all those I know who are more about “us” than “me,” who have a social conscience.
  • I am most grateful for the full, rich life I have, which has nothing to do with “stuff” and everything to do with having an awesome son, amazing and loving family and friends, and a deep spiritual connection to my religion.
  • Having worked in hospice for the last 10 years, I have learned to be grateful for the things that we take for granted. I find myself, daily, being grateful for my wonderful parents, who nurtured me, gave me a strong Jewish identity including moral guidelines and a strong sense of awe for the miracles that are daily with us. Due to this safe, nurturing home, all of the other blessings in my life have followed.

One thing I am grateful for is being a board member of WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue in Metro Detroit, an amazing and diverse group of women committed to fostering interfaith connections through friendship.

In fact, a book by WISDOM members, Friendship & Faith, was one of the first books published by Read the Spirit!

In about 10 days, WISDOM will host one of its periodic potluck dinners, where participants are encouraged to bring dishes that represent their religious or ethnic heritage.

This is a good month for a WISDOM potluck, because it perfectly defines the type of Season of Gratitude event envisioned by the  Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC).

We associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, and churches and villages in the colonial and early American periods often held annual harvest dinners similar to the first Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving didn’t truly become an American holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln’s issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation, inviting “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

You’ll find lots of fascinating historical materials about Lincoln and Thanksgiving at our Lincoln Resource Page. In addition, the IFLC has prepared a guide, available online, to help congregations and organizations plan a Season of Gratitude event—a “salon” (discussion group), or meal, or a combination—that is open to people of all faiths. “The event should celebrate and demonstrate gratitude for all of the diverse contributions people make to our civic community,” notes the IFLC’s guide.

Here is the recipe for the dish I plan to bring to the WISDOM potluck: Jerusalem kugel. A kugel is a pudding, It’s most often made of noodles, but can also be made of potatoes, corn, rice, zucchini or just about any grain or vegetable bound with eggs and baked. Most people pronounce it with a “u” like in “sugar,” but others say “koogle” or even “kiggle.”

A Jerusalem kugel is a sweet-and-spicy noodle pudding, with lots of caramelized sugar and black pepper.

I’m also planning to bring it to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, because Thanksgiving this year coincides with Chanukah. That’s a subject for another blog. Suffice it to say that traditional Chanukah foods use a lot of oil, usually to fry the food in. This dish is not fried, but it does use a lot of oil so it qualifies.

Most recipes direct you to cook the noodles, then caramelize the sugar in the oil and add it to the noodles with the eggs. I adapted this recipe from one that appeared in the New York Times in 2005. You caramelize the sugar first, then add water to it for cooking the noodles. I found this to be an easier method that results in a smoother consistency, without little hard bits of caramelized sugar in the kugel. It’s somewhat time-consuming but well worth the effort.

You have to be careful when caramelizing the sugar. If you let it go even 30 seconds too long, it will burn. And if you’ve never done it, you may not know what to expect. This is what happens when you mix the sugar with the oil and heat it: First the sugar will seem to dissolve, but much of the oil will remain separate. As the mixture continues to cook, it will seem to solidify as the oil is absorbed, and you’ll have clumps of moistened sugar. Keep stirring. Finally the sugar will start to melt and turn brown. Stir it constantly and watch it like a hawk. As soon as the color is golden brown, almost as dark as you want, pull it off the flame–I say “almost” because the hot syrup will continue to cook for short while.

This makes a very large kugel, enough to feed 12 or more. To make a smaller kugel, use 8 ounces of noodles, ⅓ cup oil, 1¼ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. black pepper, 1 cup sugar and 3 eggs, and bake it in an 8-inch square pan.