Upma Improv

Oat-Groat Upma

Whenever the subject of breakfast comes up, I always feel like I’m harboring a dirty little secret. I don’t know exactly what people expect me to eat, but as a food blogger, food writer and generally adventurous cook and eater there’s an expectation that my breakfast should at the very least be interesting. Surely I’ve encountered so many unusual morning foods in my time that a few have wiggled their way onto my own breakfast plate… right?

Sadly, no. While I’ve eaten all kinds of exotic things for breakfast while on the road, when breakfast is on home turf and up to me I tend to rotate between three quite unspectacular things. These are: cereal, usually granola or müsli, sometimes homemade but just as often not; whole-grain toast with either jam or honey; and smoothies, usually featuring bananas, yogurt and whatever looks to be on its last legs in the fruit bowl. On the odd morning that I’m feeling extremely ravenous I’ll whip up some oatmeal, and occasionally on weekends there might be some form of eggs. Whether it’s weekday or weekend, though, and whether I’m peckish or famished, one thing never changes: at least part of the meal must be sweet. It’s like an unwritten rule in the canon of breakfast law that the day must start with sugar, and until recently it never even occured to me to question it.

Chances are, more than a few of you will find the idea of sweet breakfasts odd. Maybe not my fellow Americans, or Western Europeans for that matter, most of whom probably share my feeling that breakfast isn’t breakfast without an insulin boost. Beyond that, though, that the majority of the world’s population eats savory things for breakfast. Across Asia people eat rice porridge topped with things like pork and pickled vegetables. In Jamaica they eat ackee and saltfish, sautéed greens and fried bread. In Egypt they eat stewed fava beans. In Japan they eat rice, fish and fermented soybeans. In India they eat everything from potato-stuffed parathas to steamed rice cakes with lentil soup. In other words, there are billions upon billions of people eating exclusively spicy, sour and salty foods to start their day, and as I sat there, slurping down my bowl of peach-melba müsli, it got me thinking: if I’m really as intrepid an eater as I’d like to think, why on earth don’t I work on broadening my palate at the start of the day rather than just at the end?

As I discovered, early-morning palate-broadening is easier said than done. I did try: for a week I forced myself to eat nothing but savory food for breakfast: leftover rice and stir-fried vegetables from dinner, arabic flatbread wrapped around olives and cucumbers, instant Tom Yum soup in creamy shrimp flavor. I even drank my coffee bitter. On the one hand, I felt great; with nothing but slow-acting carbs in my system, I stayed full well past lunchtime. Sometimes, I even skipped lunch entirely. The strong, salty flavors also seemed to kick-start my system much more quickly than my usual fare. On the other hand, though, I walked around all week feeling like something wasn’t right. I didn’t wake up looking forward to breakfast, I found that I put off eating it until my stomach was practically digesting itself, and afterwards I felt full but somehow unsatisfied. It was like I was wearing someone else’s shoes, and though they fit, they rubbed in all the wrong places. I kept thinking that in another day or two my appetite would start to acclimate, but when on day eight I woke up craving a frozen-blueberry smoothie like it would be laced with heroin, I simply couldn’t keep it up.

To be honest I was shocked and ashamed by my stomach’s stubborn inflexibility, though I’m hoping it has something to do with going cold turkey rather than easing myself into this new way of eating. But I can’t second-guess myself too much on timing since it did have one very positive outcome: in scrambling around for a week’s worth of appetizing, sugar-free morning meals I made the acquaintance of a delicious new addition to my culinary vocabulary called upma.

Upma, in case you don’t know, is a breakfast dish from southern India. In its traditional form it’s made by cooking fine semolina with a few vegetables and pulses into a kind of savory porridge seasoned with fried ginger, mustard seeds and curry leaves. The internet is littered with variations on the general theme, though, with everything but the spices seemingly optional, so I decided to use the idea as a sort of take-off point for something a bit more flexible. My version was inspired in part by my own tastes, and in part by the container of cooked oat groats committing hara-kiri in the back of my fridge. However untraditional, it worked spectacularly, tasting kind of like a cross between a savory oatmeal and an Indian-spiced fried rice. The only thing that bothered me was that I found it a little time-consuming for a weekday breakfast, but having the grains pre-cooked definitely helps, as does chopping the vegetables the night before. Once those two tasks are out of the way, upma is actually very quick to throw together, and what you’ll find yourself eating is quite unlike anything you’ve tasted at this early hour: pungent nuggets of ginger and fiery chilies bumping up against sweet green peas, buttery cashews and caramelized onions, all held in check by plump, chewy grains that despite their new clothing seem to retain all the wholesomeness of a bowl of hot cereal.

Not that I want to mislead you into thinking upma will be much like a bowl of hot cereal; for better or for worse this is a pretty exotic breakfast experience. If you already love salty, spicy things at this hour you’ll probably be in heaven. If, however, your tastes lean more to mine you might want to lessen the blow with some fruit or yogurt alongside, or perhaps a mug of sweet, milky tea. Then again, you could also just put off making upma until later in the day – I can tell you from experience that it also makes a easy, filling and fragrant lunch or dinner. And don’t worry, I’ll be the last one to pass judgment if this is how you end up preferring it.

Upma Improv

I don’t make any claims to authenticity here, but I doubt that will bother anyone; most people seem eager to put their own spin on upma. This is a great use of leftover cooked grains, but you can certainly cook them to order too. The seasonings are also fully modifiable depending on availability and personal taste – omit the curry leaves if you can’t find them, for example, or the garlic if you’ll sharing breathing space with sensitive co-workers later in the day. Likewise use the vegetables as guidelines: maybe throw in some frozen green beans or a leftover cooked, cubed potato if you have one on hand. If you’re short on time, skip the browning of the onion and just throw it in with the garlic and ginger for a few minutes; if you have the time, though, the sweetness of caramelization adds a lot of depth. As for how to eat it, I loved it both hot from the skillet and barely warm a few hours later, and if you’re hankering for a little more protein, a fried egg goes great alongside. Oh, and one last thing: upma keeps beautifully in the fridge, so make a big batch and eat it over several days, heating it briefly in the microwave or in a lightly oiled skillet.
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons dried unsweetened coconut
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup (50g) raw cashew halves
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
1 1-inch (2.5cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1-2 hot green chilies, minced (optional)
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4-5 curry leaves
1 medium carrot, chopped
1/2 cup (70g) frozen peas
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
salt, to taste
2 cups (500ml) leftover cooked grain of your choice (oat groats, rolled oats, wheatberries, farro, quinoa, millet, rice…) or 1 cup (250ml) uncooked, boiled in plenty of salted water
until chewy-soft
large handful fresh cilantro/coriander, chopped
lemon juice, to taste

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and toast the coconut, stirring constantly, until golden. Remove and set aside. Add the oil and cashews to the skillet and fry, stirring constantly, until the cashews are golden and fragrant. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. If you’re not pressed for time, add the onions to the pan and saute until golden and caramelized in spots, about 12-15 minutes, and then add the garlic and ginger and fry for about a minute. Otherwise, add the onions, garlic and ginger all together and fry for about 5 minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the chilies, mustard seeds and cumin and fry, stirring constantly, until the mustard seeds begin to pop, 1-2 minutes. Add the carrot, peas, tomatoes and a generous pinch of salt, and stir for 3-4 minutes, until the tomato begins to soften and collapse. Add your grains and stir for another couple of minutes, until any stray liquid has evaporated and everything is sizzling. Stir in the reserved coconut and cashews, the chopped cilantro and salt to taste and remove from the heat. Squeeze some lemon juice over the top and serve.

31 thoughts on “Upma Improv

  1. The upma looks spectacular though. You didn’t stray far, these days even back home (India) people with diabetes who have to avoid rice (which means idlis are out) make oats upma. It took me a while to understand (when I first came to the US), how grownups eat muffins – I couldn’t tell the difference between pound cake, sugary cereals ,doughnuts alll of which would have been considered snack food. Now that I have gotten used to it I eat them and do fine. Oily food is a no no for breakfast makes you lethargic and sleepy.Let me toss this out, cooked oats topped with yogurt with a spicy pickle (Indian kind) on the side. Works well for me.It’s funny, there are sweet things other people eat for breakfast that I wouldn’t dream of having first thing in the morning – coffeecake, for example, or doughnuts. But muffins, no problem. I can only imagine how baffling it must be to outsiders to make sense of what to eat and when, particularly since it seems different people have different ideas of where to draw the line between breakfast and dessert! -m

  2. I often have oatmeal or toast with butter for breakfast, I guess I often skip breakfast and opt for coffee. Not healthy I know, but it takes me a few hours to want to eat. And then of course I overdo it. My mother is Korean so we ate savory for breakfast growing up – rice, seaweed, soups, and even kimchee. My favorite breakfasts often are the savory leftovers from the night before. I’ve never had or heard of upma, but looking forward to giving it a try.

  3. This looks like something I would likr yo dive into for breakfast. I’m more the savory breakfast type — when I feel like eating breakfast. I think I’ll have to get the ingredients to give this a try.

  4. Interesting take on the Upma. Traditionally, it is also made with sooji/rava/semolina, fine variety. While semolina is wheat, rava can also be of rice. They are all different forms of rice consumption since it is the staple grain of South Indians…

  5. Hi Melissa,Great article. I too have searched around for varied and not too time consuming breakfast recipes. Being Scottish my staple is porridge, but try to mix it up with different toppings (jam, milk, cream, nuts, seeds etc.) depending on what takes my fancy. Using left over grains in the way you suggest is an excellent idea! will give it a try.David

  6. I love upma (or uppittu as it is called in my language)! Me, I’m a savory girl and crave spicy / salty foods. I like your version of upma and think it’s great to improvise. Couscous is another great ingredient for upma. And if you don’t have time to chop vegetables in the morning, the frozen mix of peas and carrots seems to be made for upma.Couscous, neat idea! With that and frozen veggies I’m guessing you can whip this up in ten, fifteen minutes tops. Great tips! -m

  7. I’ve found that mixing plain yogurt with sweetened yogurt, gradually tipping the ratio to the plain, has helped kick my sweet morning tendencies.Or else ending a savory breakfast with a small sweet yogurt works great too.This is a great post, especially the part about wearing someone else’s shoes. Thanks for sharing!I’ve done the yogurt for "dessert" thing too, and it definitely helps. The only problem is that I’m usually just not hungry enough at that hour to eat multiple courses. So you’re eating yogurt plain? I was thinking of trying to start eating my yogurt in a form like tzaziki, with bread. If I’m lucky that might leave me enough room for a piece of fruit at the end! -m

  8. along the same lines as kedgeree maybe? or leftover indian takeaway… i like a bit of sweet with my salty – think bacon and maple syrup – so maybe some mango chutney alongside. will definitely ensure some leftover rice during the week and give this a go.

  9. Very interesting! I’ve been known to cook up a batch of peas and potatoes for breafast – somewhat randomly seasoned with whatever strikes my fancy. This looks like a great base for riffing.

  10. What a great lesson in breakfast foods. We’re such creatures of habit. Your upma looks very appetizing, although it requires quite a preparation. I’m afraid this simple fact rules is out as my breakfast option. But can it wait until lunch. Then, I’m all for it! Thank you for this splendid write-up.

  11. My friend Matt from Matt Bites told me there were just three blogs he READ for the words. Yours was one of them. Though I’ve been hearing your blog’s name throughout all the many corners of the food world, I haven’t had a chance to spend the proper amount of time here to take it all in. In short, your words (and photos) are beautiful. I’m so glad you’ve been nominated for the Saveur awards so that people like me–readers that love great writing–could find you.

  12. I’m a regular reader of your blog and love the fact that you explore food from all regions and always have a neat back story..I’m from India and am coincidentally having upma (for dinner) while reading this post! If you’re missing your sugar intake, there is an Indian dessert called sheera (another addition to the culnary vocab) which has the same base (rawa/semolina) as upma. And you’ll be happy to know that this is also sometimes eaten as breakfast! : )Do let me know if you’d like the recipe..How’s that for coincidence? πŸ™‚ I’ve never heard of sheera either but I’d love the recipe! Why don’t you post it here for others who might be curious too? -m

  13. I love your blog and have been trying to pop-in as much as time allows to see what you’ve got simmering on your stove. This is an interesting twist on upma. Since many of your fans above seem to have commented on time being a limiting factor in making this for breakfast, I just wanted to say that cream of wheat is what is used as the base in a traditional upma. With frozen mixed veggies and 5-minute cook time cream of wheat, this dish comes together really quickly. It’s great with a side of mango or lime pickle (available at all Indian stores).

  14. Looks so delicious. Personally I like the chewiness of oat groats and quinoa rather than semolina. As a kid I would always complain when my mom made this! Now, grown up I do miss it, but tweaked with oats or qunioa. Thanks so much for sharing!!

  15. Here’s the sheera recipe as promised. Let me know if you try and like it.Ingredients:1 cup Semolina (rawa)1 1/3 cup milk1 cup water2-3 tbsp Clarified butter (ghee)1/4 cup slivered nuts (almond/cashews/pistachios/raisins)1/3 cup sugar (increase if you like it sweeter)1/4 tsp nutmeg1/4 tsp green cardamomHeat the clarified butter in a heavy bottomed pan. Fry the nuts; drain and keep aside.Add the semolina to the pan. Fry until golden brown.Heat the milk with the water. When it comes to a boil, add the semolina. Cook a few minutes, stirring constantly so it doesn’t form lumps; then add the sugar and spices and mix well. Continue cooking until it the semolina has absorbed the liquid. Sprinkle the nuts over. Enjoy.P.S. Play around with the recipe for different flavors – try different spices (cinnamon for example), nuts, saffron, rose-water, etc.Looks scrumptious, Heena, thank you! -m

  16. I eat savory food every morning for breakfast. Your one-week break is my every day meal. I don’t feel I’ve properly started the day unless I have something savory and spicy. Typically I do fried rice, kitcheree, garbanzo bean flour chillas (pancakes kind of like dosas), uppama, poha, or congee. Occasionally I do like yogurt with honey and fruit though, although I miss my chiles in the AM when I do that!And coffee – of course!

  17. I agree, breakfast should be interesting. It sets the stage for the rest of the day. With all those spices in there, this aught to wake up the mind along with the pallet. Thanks.

  18. Hi Melissa, I’ve really appreciated your blog in the past year that I’ve been reading! The stories that accompany your recipes are such a delight to read. Just a few interesting things:-The Sheera which heena posted is also known as semolina halwa (or sooji halwa).-There are actually many fried rices in South India, meaning that pre-cooked rice (or grains as in your dish above) is combined with spices and/or vegetables. For example, tomato rice, mango rice, tamarind rice (a temple staple) and perhaps the easiest and most popular lemon rice. A strict definition of upma requires that the raw grain actually be cooked with the spices and vegetables. Usually, the grain is dry roasted and set aside (I think the roasting is to impart more flavor, like how quinoa is suggested to be roasted for extra nuttiness; and may also help it cook faster??). The spices are sputtered in oil and then any aromatics or vegetables are added. Water is added and brought to a boil; while stirring the boiling water-vegetable-spice mixture, the toasted grain is poured in. Then cover and simmer until the grain is cooked – stir occasionally to prevent sticking, but often a crust does form on the bottom. There’re several options of grain/dry stuff to use in upma: sooji/semolina, which are sort of the same as farina/cream of wheat, if any readers can’t find an indian/middle eastern grocery; goduma, essentially cracked wheat available in several grinds or grades, depending on personal taste (sort of like bulgur, but not parboiled); semiya, thin vermicelli made from durum flour, so in the US, I just buy broken angel hair pasta, often in the pasta section and also in the Mexican section (e.g. Goya brand); oatmeal, as you have done, can also be used. Sorry, that’s a lot of talking writing, but I hope it’s a bit interesting πŸ™‚ I just tend to be a little too thorough when I start rambling about food, much to other’s chagrin…for those Indian fried rices I mentioned, we often make them for breakfast using rice leftover from the previous night’s dinner. For the rices as well as the upma variations, sailusfood and mahanandi are great and reliable resources. oh, these two blogs also have a reliable recipe for sweet flat round stuffed pastry called "bobbatlu" or "puran poli". My mother-in-law likes to stuff these with semolina halwa, or sheera that Heena shared. Being part Chinese, I’ve also stuffed these with adzuki bean paste, pumpkin paste, or any of the sweet pastes that can be put in steamed Bao or flaky pastries (the ones with the water and oil doughs). Anyway, no matter the type of stuffing, you’ll find these delicious! as well as the sweet pongal and semiya payasam and the many many dosa and idli and chutneys. btw, idlis need not be made with the traditional 2:1 ratio of rice:urad dal. You can use any sort of dal, although you won’t be able to ferment it, I don’t think. Instead of rice or idli rice rava, you can add just enough rice flour to hold the mixture together. you can also add finely chopped vegetables or even pureed spinach or carrot or beet, whatever. Before steaming, simply stir in a bit of baking powder — since the batter is not fermented nor sufficiently acidic to react with baking soda I use baking powder. Such "idlis" can be fairly low-carb, high protein, and still tasty. thanks again for your wonderful blog and apologies for being so long-winded. Perhaps I should simply email you in the future? or just learn to be succint? :DBest, moni

  19. I actually forgot 2 things:-for the idli variations, i’ve actually used split peas, those green ones at regular grocery stores, with pureed spinach for some lovely green idlis. Split peas simply with cilantro and green chili is another combination. -I don’t think I was every clear: given the definition of upma and the existence of fried rices in India, I would classify your breakfast above as the latter. monikalwani@gmail.com

  20. hi Melissa! I’m catching up on 5 months of your posts now, believe me, you have been missed. So many great ideas!Shavuot is coming up next week, a Jewish holiday which is originally celebrating the reception of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and is also associated with wheat harvesting and eating dairy products… so this Sheera recipe is a nice option to make as dessert for the Shavuot family meal… I had it several times at various Indian meals, and that (along with Ghajeer Halwa – carrot sweet – to die for!) is my favorite indian dessert. It shouldn’t be too sweet, I think the amount of sugar in the recipe heena gave you should suffice. Yeah! I think I’ll bring this dessert! Sheera and Ghajeer Halwa, small portions side by side.

  21. I love your variation on upma, I will definitely have to try this one out. I made Upma the traditional way on my site, please do read it and see at : http://cuminandcardamom.blogspot.com/2010/09/upma-indian-polenta.html and the sheera recipe at:http://cuminandcardamom.blogspot.com/2010/07/satyanarayan-puja-sheera.htmlI was wondering if I could add a link of your site at my site? I understand that I am very new at blogging, but if you like my site , and only if you do, could you add a link of mine too.

  22. I am currently in India and loving the food choices. Though its difficult to know what anything is on a menu since there are just names, no descriptions. Its been fun trying new things. my new favorite is gobi manchurian with chappatti :)about the upma, I used to have an Indian friend that made the best dish ever and he called it upma. His was made with oats, served very hot and had amongst the variety of spices, serrano peppers and curried cashews. Amazing!!! Give it a tryLet me know if you have a chance and what you think-Sarah

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