The Pagan’s Progress: How To Make Your Upma And Eat It Too
First as a child, then as a tween, a teenager and a young adult — in other words, as long as I lived in my parents’ home — I hated Uppittu, the South Indian dish made out of roasted semolina into a kind of porridge. I hated it even more that my mom loved to make it at the drop of a hat. Perhaps that was why I detested it. It was the most popular breakfast dish and mid-afternoon snack, it was the go-to dish when unexpected guests came home (and the go-to dish when we unexpectedly showed up at other people’s homes), and the quickest meal to put on the table when we came back home past lunch time or late at night from a trip.
The dish’s name in the various South Indian languages (uppittu in Kannada, uppindi in Telugu and upma in Tamil) offers a clue as to how simple the dish is to make. In all those languages, it’s a contraction of words meaning salt and (coarse) flour — the ingredients are few, the process is simple. As if the many occasions on which it made an appearance as a meal at home were not enough we (the kids) weren’t spared it even at weddings or family functions. There was no respite.
Is it any wonder that it became stale and boring and not at all what I wanted to eat at any given time?
True to life’s vagaries, all this changed when I left home and moved away. The change didn’t come immediately, of course. A new home and a new school in a new city in a new country cranked up excitement levels to the max; there just wasn’t time to miss favorite foods let alone dishes I was happy to get away from.
In time, once I slipped into a routine and mundane things ceased being anything but, and especially as the weather got colder, the days got shorter and stayed darker for longer, a craving for the hot, spicy foods of home marked its presence and settled in for the long haul. The war against homesickness called for prompt deployment of my stash of mom-made masalas and chutney powders. All manner of vegetables, known and hitherto unknown (zucchini and lima beans, primarily), were commandeered into playing starring roles in curries and sambhars. Thai sticky rice subbed for the sona masuri I grew up eating at home and tortillas subbed for chapatis and rotis.
As you can imagine, the initial high of replicating mom’s cooking wore off. That my attempts produced mere approximations of her dishes did not help at all. I saw the whole process for what it was — most of the basic ingredients were imposters, the utensils and cooking pots were imposters, the appliances were imposters, and I was the biggest imposter of all.
The proliferation of Indian grocery stores improved matters somewhat, at least in the ingredients and (some) appliances departments. But I’ll tell you what it also did. It spurred me to try to cook the ‘authentic’ way, which in my case was ‘mom’s’ way.
And you know what’s coming next, right?
All my enthusiasm and energy turned to that reviled dish, the good old Uppittu. Because? It was easy to make! The ingredients were few, the process was simple. Sound familiar? If I made it well, I would get to sign my release papers from being the prisoner of my own insipid cooking. Get out on parole, at the very least.
Pretty soon, Saturday mornings were given over to perfecting the art of crafting Uppittu. For a number of months, Uppittu with nothing but onions was more than sufficient as a stand-in for all that I missed of home and mom’s cooking. Then I got ambitious. Or greedy. Take your pick. I experimented with variations — diced carrots and capsicum a few times, a combination of peas and onions at other times, and chopped cucumber at yet other times. This whole enterprise was generally successful, with a few disastrous trials thrown in, mostly caused by using the wrong kind of semolina that turned the Uppittu inedibly lumpy.
But I tell you what. It was still not the real deal. The consistency was ever so slightly off and the process felt like it had strayed from the one true path. Still, I chalked it up to the sacrifices and compromises that life extracted from the immigrant. I convinced myself that it was the environment. Stripped of its traditional context, perhaps the Uppittu felt alien in a new continent.
Then on one of my trips back to my parents’ home, I stumbled upon the problem with my Uppittu. Or the answer to the problem. As my mom stood over her stove, her die-hard cast-iron wok held firmly in one hand with tongs and the other gripping a steel ladle trying to scrape the roasted-on bottom layer of Uppittu, a flashback occurred in an instant. That used to be my favorite part of a not-so-favorite dish. Mom carefully transferred the crisp bits onto a plate and wordlessly handed it to me. She’d remembered.
And the answer to my problem? I needed a cast-iron wok, I realized, not the fancy-pants non-stick one I’d been using in my American kitchen. Non-stick pans did not allow for crisp-roasted layers of semolina porridge at the bottom. And only a steel slotted ladle would make the characteristic clang against the cast-iron wok as I roasted the semolina, the rhythm blending harmoniously with the sizzle of the oil and the onions that only perfectly heated cast-iron pans could produce. The muted thud of a wooden ladle against a non-stick wok just wasn’t going to cut it any longer.
I fully and irrevocably succumbed to the call of home and childhood. When I returned from my other home to my own home, I made Uppittu — the way I should have all along. I scooped some into a bowl, drizzled ghee on top, plonked a heaping teaspoonful of mango pickle on the side, and proceed to enjoy it with unadulterated glee.
Thus, a once-banished dish was reinstated in its rightful place in the pantheon of the indispensables. And my transformation from apostate to uppittuvangelist was complete.
Makes 3 servings: Made of roasted semolina (called a variation of ‘rava’ in the South Indian languages, it is a byproduct of milling wheat), Uppittu is a one-pot dish, a convenient breakfast food or a mid-afternoon snack. Rava’s consistency is that of couscous, but finer. The finished product has the consistency of a thick porridge. If you cannot find roasted semolina at the grocery store (see notes for buying tips), roasting the semolina at home is very important as it prevents the grains from clumping together when cooked in boiling water.
4 tbsp oil
½ tsp urad dal
½ tsp channa dal
½ tsp mustard seeds
4 green chilies, chopped
6 curry leaves
3 cups water kept on boil
1 cup roasted semolina (see tips and variations below)
2 medium-sized onions, chopped
Salt to taste (about 1 to 1½ tsps)
¼ tsp sugar (optional)
Juice of ½ lemon (optional)
3 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
2 tbsp grated fresh coconut
Put the water to boil. Heat a heavy-bottomed wok or a medium pan (cast-iron works best), add the 4 tbsp of oil and heat until shimmering. Add urad dal, channa dal and mustard. When the mustard seeds stop crackling, add green chilies and curry leaves and sauté for about 2 minutes.
Add onions and sauté until golden. Add the rava and salt and give it a quick mix. Lower the flame and add the boiling water slowly, all the while stirring the ingredients in the pan. It’s important to lower the flame because once the boiling water hits the heated pan, it will spit heavily. Mix well, taking care to break any lumps that might have formed as you add the water. Add sugar and lemon juice, if using, stir once, cover with a tight-fitting lid and let cook on a low flame until the rava softens and has absorbed all the water. This should take about 8–10 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with coriander leaves and coconut.
Serve hot in bowls, with a drizzle of ghee and a teaspoon of mango or lemon pickle. Uppittu also pairs terrifically well with plain, unsweetened buttermilk (or plain, unsweetened kefir) seasoned with a handful of chopped coriander leaves and salt to taste. Add a ladle-full to the side in the bowl.
Tips and Variations
1. A cup refers to the US measurement. One cup = 8oz.
2. Look for Roasted Upma Mix in Indian grocery stories. If you cannot find it, ask for plain upma rava. To roast it, heat 1 tbsp of oil on medium flame in a heavy-bottomed wok or medium pan until shimmering. Do not let it smoke. Add the rava and roast, stirring frequently, until it acquires a nice golden color. Rava burns very easily, so you must watch the pan. Remove the pan from the flame and transfer the rava to a plate or a bowl, taking care to clean the pan of any rava grains.
3. Add the green chilies to your taste. Four might be too spicy if the chilies are thin and small.
4. Put a large saucepan of water to boil. The proportion is 3:1 for water to rava. Once you add the roasted rava to the pan, add enough water for it to cover the ingredients in the pan completely and go above by about an inch.
5. You may add ½ cup of shelled fresh or frozen peas or finely chopped carrot or capsicum. Add once the onions are cooked and sauté for about 3 minutes before continuing with the recipe.
6. You may add 1 medium-sized peeled, seeded and chopped cucumber in place of the onions. Sauté until the cucumber is translucent before continuing on with the recipe.