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Modernizing Upma: A Fantastic and Delicious Breakfast Staple of India

Modernizing Upma: A Fantastic and Delicious Breakfast Staple of India

  • For this recipe, I wanted to give a new avatar to the trusted upma and make it with new ingredients, while staying honest to the age-old process of making it.

Upma (also known as Uppittu in southern India) is breakfast so staple, as pancakes are for the U.S. The dish is made with Rava (semolina/sooji) to which some chopped veggies and nuts are added and cooked in a vessel. The nearest thing which comes to this dish in North America is grits. A bowl of upma has a great nutrition profile and it is a fantastic and delicious breakfast dish that packs vitamins, micronutrients, fiber, and vitamins.

Working my second year as an FTE in Kolkata, India in the late 1980s, I had the good fortune to run into a very talented and experienced cook. Swami had cooked for the royal family in the state of Orissa, India (while there still were royal families) in the long past. He was a mild-mannered guy in his 60s who was out of a job and had approached me through a friend, looking for work as a home cook for my company-provided apartment home. I hired him quickly as we were two young professionals in a two-bedroom place and we desperately needed someone as a cook. Making a high-quality upma was the first thing I learned by watching Swami make the dish umpteen times. 

Swami had his head in the right place and had learned his craft well. I watched him soften up chopped green beans and carrot bits cutting them into small bits, painstakingly by hand, then precooking these in boiling water seasoned with herbs. Later on, at the right time in the cooking process, he would add these ingredients for a perfect presentation from the perspectives of bite, mouthfeel, aroma, taste, and so on. The guy was meticulous in his work. I learned and carried forward some of his methods in my own cooking down the years and these techniques have helped me well.

For this recipe though, I wanted to give a new avatar to the trusted upma and make it with new ingredients, while staying honest to the age-old process of making it. In this recipe, I am using fine corn-meal (Polenta as it is known in North America) for making my upma. I did include a little semolina in the recipe, just to not stray too far from the traditional. I have also included pickled olives and lemon-verbena leaves(optional) which are not used traditionally.

Ingredients

Quick-cooking fine-grain Polenta – 1-1/2 cups (I used Roland brand, no affiliation)
Semolina – ¼ Cup
Ghee/Grapeseed/Neutral oil – 3 Tbsp
Cashews – ½ cup, slightly toasted with a touch of oil
Thai hot green chilies – 3 (or as preferred) minced using a knife
Onion – ½ of a medium onion, finely chopped
Cumin – 1 Tsp
Black Mustard Seeds(whole) – 2 Tbsp
Ginger ½ inch – minced
Tomato – One Roma tomato or similar, chopped
Green Pepper – One, chopped
Yellow/Orange/Red Pepper mix – ½ cup, chopped
Curry Leaves – 6-8, chopped
Asafetida powder – 1/8 Tsp
Turmeric powder or paste – ½ Tsp
A mix of Yellow gram and Urad lentils – 2 Tbsp soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, then drained
Green Beans – 6-8, broken at ends, de-threaded, then chopped into small chunks sideways.
Sambar Masala – 1 Tbsp (optional, Indian grocery stores carry this) 
Carrots – One large, chopped into small bits
Kalamata and green olives in oil – 2 Tbsp (optional)
Cilantro leaves– ½ cup chopped, packed
Whole milk/cream – 2 Tbsp (optional)
Butter – 1 Tbsp (optional)
Lemon-Verbena leaves – 8-10 (optional, use lemon-basil as a replacement, also optional)
Lemon wedges, to serve the dish with
Salt – As desired

See Also

Method

  • Boil the chopped green beans and carrots in 2 cups of water with some salt, and cook for 4 minutes or so, then drain and discard all the water
  • Set several cups of clean water to boil and let it simmer.
  • Toast semolina and polenta in a heated wok/vessel with ½ tsp oil. Don’t let them turn dark. Set aside in a bowl.
  • Add ghee/oil to the vessel and let it approach near the smoking point (sputtering hot, but not smoking).
  • Add clean, dry, fresh lemon verbena or lemon basil leaves in the hot oil and let the leaves wilt and turn crisp. Extract the crisped leaves into a place, leaving the infused oil in there.
  • Add soaked, washed and pat-dried lentils to the hot oil, stir gently till the lentils brown up (low-medium heat for 3-4 minutes). Remove the lentils from the vessel and collect them in a small bowl
  • Add asafetida powder to the oil in the vessel
  • Add black mustard seeds and cumin to the oil. Increase the heat slightly until you can see the mustard seeds popping. Reduce heat to low medium again
  • Add chopped curry leaves
  • Add chopped onions. Cook for 3-4 minutes until onions begin to soften
  • Add chopped, minced green chilies
  • Add pepper bits (green, orange and red)
  • Add turmeric powder or turmeric paste
  • Add semi-cooked carrots and green beans
  • Add the chopped tomato.
  • Add some of the fresh cilantro leaves (chopped).
  • Add Sambar masala (if using).
  • Add the pre-toasted mix of polenta and semolina to the vessel. Give it a good stir.
  • After a couple of minutes, add enough preheated (and boiling hot) water to the vessel to cover all of the contents, then add another cup and a half of hot water.
  • Raise the heat, then as the water content begins to reduce, add half of the browned lentils into the upma, followed by the rest of the cilantro.
  • Add chopped olives (if using), salt as needed.
  • At this point, you could add 2 tbsp whole milk/cream(optional), 1 Tbsp butter just to enhance the creaminess of the dish.
  • Add the toasted cashew halves to the dish.
  • Once you have reached a thick, pasty consistency reduce the upma some more on low heat then turn the flame off. 
  • Serve hot after sprinkling some fried lemon verbena bits and some of the browned lentils mix on the top. A slice of lemon accentuates the dish once it is squeezed in over the served upma. You can serve this with your favorite hot/sweet sauce. Bon appetit!

Ansh Sarkari has varied interests which range from gourmet cooking to foraging for wild mushrooms, photography to knife sharpening to politics. He researches foods from around the globe and using his nearly four decades of food-centric travels, he has amassed keen insights into food identities of various nations and cultures, and how some even may correlate. He is always tinkering with techniques, spices and uses his deep expertise in all things fire to try to elevate foods of all kinds. Ansh lives in the Midwest with his wife and two grown up children. You can find him on Facebook and Instagram.

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