Across east Asia, there are variations of sweet dumplings whose recipes are similar to the warm and comforting modak. They are stuffed with a sweet coconut filling, encased in a flour coating and steamed or fried. Travel season is around the corner, and those who plan to explore east Asia could sample these sweet treats and discover the familiar flavours of home.
1. Khanom Tom, Thailand
It is a traditional sweet which appears to be a close cousin of the modak. Made of boiled rice flour dough stuffed with shredded coconut, palm sugar and coconut milk, it is rolled in coconut shavings to resemble a laddoo.
Seefah Ketchaiyo, who hails from Thailand and runs the popular Thai restaurant Seefah in Mumbai, loves khanom tom. “The preparation is similar to modak however, unlike the modak, it comes in a variety of colours like red, green, blue and yellow,” she informs.
Colour is added to the dough and in some cases, the coconut filling is also infused with a floral aroma with the help of scented candles. The origins of this sweet can be traced to the royal kitchens of the kingdom of Sukhothai in north central Thailand. Though the kingdom ceased to exist, this delicacy lived on.
“It is a regal dessert and I do not make it at home. However, I really want to go back to my country and learn it recipes, because traditional desserts like these need to be revived,” says Ketchaiyo. Whenever she visits Thailand, she makes it a point to buy these sweets from Wang Lang Pier, a local market in the old city of Bangkok, that offers a wide variety of traditional snacks.
2. Kuih Kochi, Malaysia
Sarah Griffin, a British- Malaysian Naturopathic Practitioner, based in Malaysia, loves to share information about her country’s cuisine. She talks about kuih kochi, a bite-sized sweet dumpling prepared in Malaysia. “It is made from glutinous rice flour and has a sweet stuffing of coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka),” she explains. It is then coated with coconut milk before being placed in the middle of a small rectangular piece of banana leaf. The leaf is folded over on the long edge from both sides, then the short edges are tucked underneath to create a parcel and steamed. As a child, she looked forward to the warm comforting smell of coconut and sugar in this sweet. “Since I love cooking, I prepare these dumplings to satiate my sugar cravings. It makes for a tasty snack to enjoy with afternoon tea,” she adds. Just like khanom tom, kuih koci is available in different colours, such as deep purple (made with black glutinous rice flour), green (from pandan juice) or blue (from butterfly pea flowers). “I use pumpkin puree to get a yellow kuih,” says Griffin.
In Malaysia, these are widely available with street vendors. In Penang, where she hails from, her favourite places to get kuih kochi are Li Er Cafe at Jalan Burma and Kheng’s Nyonya Kuih Stall at Batu Lanchang Market.
3. Tang Guozi, China
“The Chinese cousin of the modak is tang guozi,” says Riya Chandan, a Chinese translator based in Pune. She sampled these treats during the Chinese New Year Festival in Lijian City, Yunnan Province. “It’s usually a Chinese New Year gift from a friend or family which is similar to the tradition of distributing mithais in India. These small parcels of goodness symbolize harmony and re-union,” notes Chandan. These delicate bite-sized goodies are prepared using rice flour or white kidney bean flour kneaded into a dough. These are then stuffed with a sweet red bean paste or custard cream.
The modern versions are filled with chocolate or a fruit, like durian. “The one which I had tried had an outer skin made of white kidney beans and was stuffed with a red bean paste. Compared to the modak, it is softer and glutinous. It is not overtly sweet and the calories are relatively low,” she adds. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, they are generally round, and are prepared to celebrate the lunar festival. They are shaped by hand to form stars, fruits and flowers.
4. Nom Plae ai, Cambodia
It is a sweet with a soft and rubbery outer layer complemented with a succulent inner filling. It is a true coastal treat made with a coating of rice flour and stuffed with coconut and palm sugar. Shianne Sin, a Cambodian home chef and a medical specialist who runs the Instagram page Shianneskitchen, says, “These rice balls are simple to make and the fun part is rolling the glutinous flour into balls. These are stuffed with palm sugar and then placed in boiling water. When they float to the top, that’s when you know they are ready.” Just like the Thai khanom toms, the rice balls are sprinkled with shredded coconut. These are a staple during family gatherings and on special occasions like the Khmer New Year.
A trivia: they are also called “husband killer”. According to Khmer fables, a newly wed wife wanted to surprise her husband with these sweet treats after he returned home from work. The aroma was irresistible, and the delighted husband gobbled everything in a hurry. Unfortunately, they got stuck in his throat and chocked him to death.
“Whether this is true or not, it's a story passed down through generations. Be careful when eating them," jokes Sin.
5. Yamari, Nepal
“Similar to ukadiche modak, in composition and taste, is yamari—a delicacy of the Newar community in Nepal, that is traditionally eaten during the post harvest festival of Yomari Punhi,” says Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks. It is a steamed dumpling, shaped like a fish, with a covering of rice flour and a sweet filling comprising jaggery, khoya, sesame seeds and grated coconut.
As per tradition, on the first three days of the festival, the yamaris are stored and not eaten. However, on the fourth and the final day, people belonging to the Newar community consume the sweet as a gift from god marking the end of the festival. Sapra who tried this delicacy in 2019 at Newa Lahana, a restaurant in Kirtipur near Kathmandu, Nepal, describes it as “sweet, caramelised and gooey”.
6. Kangidan, Japan
Raul Dias, a Mumbai-based food and travel writer, had one of the greatest food discoveries in Japan when he visited the country in 2015. A sweet called kangidan was presented to him in Matsuchiyama Shoden temple in Tokyo, dedicated to Kangiten, who is considered the Japanese avatar of Ganesha. Shaped liked a fried modak, the kangidan is filled with curd, honey and a red bean paste called anko. The outer coating is made of parched flour ground from dry roasted beans and the delicacy is deep-fried. “It tastes more like a fried mochi, a Japanese sweet cake,” he says. Though kangidans are not commonly found in Japan, they are offered to visitors during the Daikon Matsuri festival held on January 7 every year.