Eating a fresh bowl of upma or dry-roasted semolina flavoured with mildly caramelised onions, julienned ginger and mustard, can be an emotional journey.
For most, it begins with anger and frustration, which then transitions into plotting ways to finish the dish quickly, eventually surrendering and convincing yourself you ate something healthy.
For the very few who actually enjoy eating a good bowl, the journey is more of relishing and accepting the humble dish as is, sometimes even opting for a second serving. However, it seems as though the former journey is comparatively more prominent than the latter.
The thing about upma is that a bad one can ruin all your plans of eating the dish again, whereas a good one will help you experiment with the dish by incorporating or substituting ingredients.
For the love of food, who invented this dish?
It is claimed that the dish was born among widows and the poor. Widows were restricted from eating salts, spices and even a full rice meal, whereas the poor slept hungry on certain days. The lack of resources and ingredients from both sides forced them to find a solution. Soaking rice, drying it and then grinding it to smaller grains, seemed doable and eventually, rice was replaced with wheat grains. Thus, rava or semolina was born and so upma.
In India, upma goes by several names, especially in the south where it is known as uppittu, uppindi, uppumaavu and uppeet in regional languages. Over the course of time, the dish has taken several forms – with the classic recipe being changed to suit every palate. Not to mention, each state has a distinct flavour when making upma – some add a tinge of colour, some use coconut to sweeten the savoury dish a bit and even add cashews or raisins to elevate it a bit further.
Chow chow bath, semiya upma, millet upma and rice upma are all the various avatars of this dish.
Today, the 'south' simply cannot do without it, whereas in other parts of India, upma is a substitute and even a solution for those who are short of time. As simple as the dish looks, it is packed with nutrition and is quite filling as well.
However, the dislike towards it begins at a young age
Food by Gulf News spoke to a few readers who weighed in on their personal journey with upma.
“I didn’t like the dish when I was younger, especially when it was served regularly. But, moving away from home really reminded me of how much I used to take my meals for granted. Eventually, when I got home during college breaks, I began to like eating upma, especially when it is served with a side dish. I think a lot of the dislike toward it begins because there are vegetables in it and children don’t like vegetables. But it changes over time, and we all begin to appreciate it for the way it is. I like it now, and that’s what matters,” said UAE-based 27-year-old Indian expat and Gulf News reader, Alex Williams.
As for Anita Viji, another Indian expat and Gulf News reader, liking the dish took time: “As a child I never liked it. I used to dread the days we used to be served upma… I still don’t know why. It was only recently that I have grown to like it a little more, it’s become a part of our meals, it is easy to make and it has a lot of health benefits. I think as children a lot of us looked at it more like a battle we have to win rather than enjoying the meal.”
However, the pattern doesn’t seem to end any time soon. For 16-year-old Nina Anish, the dish is too “plain”. “There are way too many vegetables, especially onions. I usually eat it with sugar, but I still don’t like it a lot. I do like it when there are some spicy gravies to accompany it. Also, once you eat it, it fills your stomach for a while and later you feel extremely hungry. To be honest, I would avoid it completely if I could.”
Sona Wilson is another 17-year-old who maintains a love-hate relationship with upma: “No matter how many ingredients are added, I feel like it is still so bland. I only like it when it is occasionally served because then it doesn’t feel as simple as it usually is.”
For 16-year-old Seba Sam, the dish can be “tolerated”. “I only dislike upma because of its texture – it is not very pleasant, however the addition of mustard seeds, curry leaves and chillies make the dish flavoursome and a little better to eat. I think it also depends a lot on the way it is made – I don’t like it when it is too mushy.”
But not everyone shares the same view. Some people can really surprise you: “I never had anything against upma, I also don’t know why people don’t like it. Instead, I loved it more than the other dishes that were made at home. Give me idli and I would take hours to eat it. Any time I’ve mentioned my love for upma, my friends would react as if I said something wrong. It is a savoury dish and it tastes amazing when paired with a banana and a hot cup of tea – that entire experience is just unique in itself,” said 25-year-old Indian expat Achila Varughese.
Making upma takes time to perfect and can’t be achieved overnight. So, chances are you may be getting your ingredients right, but there’s a catch to it…
It all depends on the water content
The preparation is always done quickly and within a few minutes, you have a serving ready for either breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Light the hob, roast the rava before you begin to a very light brown. Remove. Set aside. Use the same pan to heat oil and splutter a few mustard seeds, add chopped onions, green chillies, salt and then the roasted rava. And then comes the addition of water – a step that could make or break your recipe.
The trick to making the perfect upma depends solely on how much water you add to the rava. Too much and you will have a mush, too less and you’ll be eating chunks of upma. So, adding water is key, but getting it right is what you have to aim for.
Not to mention, cooking your upma with ghee or clarified butter instead of oil turns the dish around for the better.
How to enjoy your upma
Adding a few finely minced vegetables undoubtedly elevates the dish, making it bearable for children who are picky with their greens. However, the sophistication that upma really brings to the table can only be understood with time. To devour a bowl of upma, you must first look at it as a gift rather than a task because you do not have to resort to other dishes or ingredients to obtain the nutrition your body needs – you can find it all in upma.
The trick to liking upma is simple. Over the years, I personally have understood that when you pair it with boiled egg, roasted with onions, tomatoes, curry leaves and a drizzle of vinegar, you’ll be wiping your plate clean in 5 minutes. Or even the south Indian gram-based kadala or kala chana curry will help. If these two sides feel like a lot to make given the lack of time, all you need is a spoonful of pickle and you will undoubtedly enjoy the dish.
Try out our Editor’s recipe to making the tastiest South Indian upma here, perfect for breakfast!
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