Every year, as India celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi, the fragrance of coconut and jaggery wafts through households across the country as variations of stuffed dumplings are lovingly twisted into little flower bud-like shapes.

In Maharashtra, these pockets of sugary goodness are called ukadiche modak. In South India, they are called kozhukattai. Both have a soft outer cover of rice flour holding in the sweet mix. But that's where the similarities end, say fans of the kozhukattai.

To begin with, the kozhukattai has always been more versatile. Some of the sweet varieties come stuffed with a mixture of coconut, jaggery and cardamom, or of little balls of sesame seeds coated with jaggery.

Some families also like to use milk in the cooking process.

Then there are the savoury varieties, which come with fillings of black gram, green chillies, mustard seeds and lemon, or green gram.

By contrast, the traditional modak is only just being modernised – it now comes fried, or stuffed with chocolate, dry fruits and even paneer.

The kozhukattai has always had variety, says chef Praveen Anand of Dakshin, the South Indian restaurant in Chennai’s Crowne Plaza Hotel.

A festival favourite

Unlike in Maharashtra, where Ganesh Chaturthi has been celebrated for more than a century, Tamil Nadu has mostly celebrated Vinayaka Chaturthi – as the festival marking the birth of Ganesh is called here – in a traditional way.

Families would decorate handmade clay idols with clumps of the commonly found purple crown flower. A small paper umbrella was the only other ornament. A plate of kozhukattai and pongal, a fragrant rice dish, rounded off the modest festivities.

Today, huge crowds dance to popular songs around great, big idols, just like in Maharashtra. What remains is the kozhukattai.

The dish is just as popular in the other southern states. It is prepared with mild variations in Kerala and Karnataka, says Sabita Radhakrishnan, author of the cookbook Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu.

According to this South Indian food blog, some Catholic communities in Kerala make it the day before Palm Sunday, which kicks off the Easter week.

"It is a misconception that kozhukattai is made only in Tamil Brahmin households," Radhakrishnan said.

The stuff of folklore

Today, many families don't prepare most versions of the kozhukattai. "It is time-consuming and requires finesse," said Dhanlakshmi Ayyer, a 56-year-old homemaker in Chennai. "But I remember my mother making them all when I was a child.”

That doesn't mean the kozhukattai is losing popularity. It is, in fact, a part of common speech in Tamil Nadu. If someone doesn’t respond to a question, they are admonished with the expression “vaayla kozhukattai irukka?” or “do you have a kozhukattai in your mouth?”

It is also a favourite metaphor for anything round, best explained by this old folktale:

There was once a man who visited his in-laws’ home where his wife had given birth to their baby. During his stay, his mother-in-law served him a dish he had never eaten before but absolutely loved. On his way back, he kept muttering the name of the dish to himself, lest he forget it. Just then, a labourer walking a little way ahead leapt across a stream, yelling athiribacha. The man must have liked the sound of that word, for he yelled the same while crossing the stream. Thereafter, he kept muttering athiribacha to himself. When he got home, he demanded that some athiribacha be prepared right away. His parents had no clue what he meant and when he wouldn't stop with his demands, his father slapped him hard. In shock, the mother cried, “What are you doing? His cheek is going to swell like a kozhukattai.” At which the son exclaimed, “Ah, that’s it. Kozhukattai!"