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Upma: Southern India’s Quick and Comforting Breakfast Bowl

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Meet the versatile dish providing a link between culinary cultures.

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This is Inside the Breakfast Bowl, a series in which Eater profiles breakfast soups and porridges from around the world. Today: upma.

To say "Indian breakfast" is as vague as saying "American dessert" — there are regional favorites, personal preferences, influences from around the world, and all kinds of options, from stuffed flatbreads like aloo paratha to sweet kesari bhath, a porridge flavored with saffron and fruits. And then there's upma, which fits into none of the stereotypical Indian-food categories: It's flavorful but not overly spicy; it's dry, not curried; and it's a standalone dish rather than part of a composite meal.

Upma is a porridge eaten across India but mostly in the Southern states. Usually made with dry-roasted semolina, upma now mostly refers to the porridge's preparation rather than the main ingredient — it's also frequently made with poha (flattened rice), grains like millet or bulgur wheat, noodles, or even pieces of bread. Upmas are seasoned most commonly with mustard seeds, cumin, ginger, green or dried red chilies, curry leaves, and onions. In many recipes, cashews, urad dal, and vegetables such as tomatoes, peas, and carrots are cooked in ghee with the spices and heated until fragrant. Water is added and brought to a boil (with salt and sugar to taste), and the roasted semolina is stirred in until the water is absorbed; the texture is similar to that of polenta. Upma is served hot with garnishes of grated coconut or coconut chutney, cilantro, and lime.

"It’s more interesting than other porridges because of the variations on seasonings and flavors."

What makes it a staple is its versatility. "It's more interesting [than other porridges] because of the variations on seasonings and flavors," chef Meherwan Irani points out. "When I serve it, people freak out — no one thinks they're eating gruel." At his restaurant Chai Pani, with locations in Atlanta and Asheville, North Carolina, he's used upma in a take on the classic Southern dish shrimp and grits, but also to replace polenta, risotto, corn bread, and even mashed potatoes. "I've put everything from raisins and cashews to goat cheese and peas in it."

Taking the comfort food of a culture and turning it into something au courant is nothing new. Irani points out that while Western porridges haven't evolved much, Eastern variations are "very much becoming a part of globalization and 'foodie culture.'" Modern chefs are bringing upma into the spotlight, whether it's through Floyd Cardoz winning Top Chef Masters by cooking the dish or the off-menu upma special at a trendy hotel restaurant in Mumbai. In her latest cookbook, author Madhur Jaffrey makes a version of upma with quinoa. And at Houston's Pondicheri, chef Anita Jaisinghani has used Texas-ground stone grits to make upma, a twist on Irani's using "traditional" semolina upma to stand in for grits.

And it's not just Indian food: Irani says he's also seen dishes like congee go through the beginnings of a renaissance similar to the ones now-trendy noodle dishes like ramen and udon have experienced.

Photo: Depali S./Shutterstock

Chef Vishwesh Bhatt from Snackbar in Oxford, MS, attributes this in part to cooks pushing boundaries and using traditional Indian ingredients in new ways. "If you're not from India, it's a gateway into Indian flavors, because you recognize the grain. You can think, 'Oh, this is another way of cooking grits, but it's still grits.' And it's easier to sell that than to sell something that somebody's not familiar with. They recognize it and then it doesn't taste the way it should, but it’s good. That makes it fun for people, and they want to keep trying new food."

For the Indian community, this is true in a different way: Access to new ingredients often leads to incorporating them into traditional dishes. Cooks are able to take a product that's available wherever they are and make dishes they're familiar with, like using brussels sprouts in place of cabbage in a vegetable sabji in a country where the sprouts are accessible but cabbage isn't readily sold. "That becomes a link between two cultures, and that's what's interesting and fun for me," Bhatt says.

"It’s a link between two cultures, and that’s what’s interesting and fun for me."

Thinking culinarily, Irani adds that upma is "one of those dishes that's a blank slate onto which regional, religious, and cultural variations inform the eater of a sense of place and tradition." The use of semolina, which Bhatt points out isn't a traditional grain of the Deccan peninsula, shows some evolution, and the different spices and vegetables mixed in speak to the different cultures that have adapted the dish to their own needs.

While upma today is most commonly made using semolina, many believe that the poha version, made with flattened rice, came first. "We've had poha for centuries and centuries, and it's always been a travel food," says Jaffrey. The grain is hearty and stores well, so for generations it's been considered a portable, easy staple. At its simplest, it can easily be rehydrated or eaten with milk and fruit. "Or if you could make a fire, you could quickly stir-fry it with any spices and vegetables you had on hand," she adds. "So poha itself has been a wonderful travel food, and whatever you can make out of it as you travel has always been very popular within India. I don't know when it originated, or how, but I know it's been around for a long time."

Photo: Eve's Food Photography/Shutterstock

Irani speculates that the earliest humans in south India likely have ties to the east coast of Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Somalia. "The early cooking techniques of porridges and pancakes/crepes are still almost identical across the subtropical belt — genfo and injera in east Africa translate to upma and uttapam in south Asia," he says. "And upma is eaten for breakfast for the same reason all porridges typically are: It's warming, carb-loaded with slow-release energy for a long day's work, easily digestible, cheap, versatile, and efficient — it's a one-pot dish that cooks quickly with minimal fuel needed."

So upma is an age-old dish, and a nourishing one, but according to Jaffery, much of its popularity also comes from its convenience. "It's a quick snack. Upma is certainly encouraged at breakfast time, and even at lunch and teatime, because it's quick to put together. You can have it with a cup of tea, and it’s just perfect — particularly when it's served hot and spicy."

Cooking upma has always been quick, but in this age of convenience, it's becoming quicker. In 2012, mega-brand Quaker even experimented with launching an instant version. "In general I'm not a big fan of instant anything, but I know that's what people are going to do," Bhatt says. "It's a huge market for people who move away from home and don't have space or don't know how to cook and are craving that familiarity." He adds, "More people are traveling now, more people are eating new things, more people are becoming aware that there are regional differences in Indian cuisine."

And these differences are making dining better. "The reason why upma is so important today is that there are many people who don't eat meat, and for them, this is a great opportunity to have an enriched breakfast with protein that doesn't have any kind of meat or gluten [depending on how it's made], or a milk product," Jaffrey says. "And that's why it's something all Americans should know about."