Upma

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sometimes in a foreign country, a mouthful of a completely new dish changes your idea of comfort food forever. This happened to me in Korea eating sollong tang, a full bodied soup made mostly from bones that I've never been able to duplicate. I had the same kind of revelation more recently in India, where hotel breakfast buffets often included a plain looking porridge with spices called upma. My first bite impressed me so much I flagged a server over to ask how it was made, but we did not have enough language in common for me to learn very much.

Indian cooking has been the toughest for me to grasp, so far. The technique of toasting spices before using them is new to me, as well as many of the ingredients. While researching upma online, I found versions using different kinds of grains as well as bread and noodles, with quite variable seasonings and vegetables as well. (The first upma that I fell in love with had hardly any vegetables, but more peanuts and spices.) Many of the recipes did not make sense to me though - most called for a tablespoon or so of urad dal and channa dal. Yellow lentils - why two different kinds? And why such a small amount?

By this time I'd had enough theory and was ready to jump in and try it. I had channa dal and masoor dal (small red lentils) on hand, as well as some curry leaves (bought fresh from H&W but now dried) and black mustard seed. Ginger, garlic, mild peppers, and frozen peas rounded out the vegetables. For the grain I used cream of wheat, which I think is the same as semolina.

In one pan, I heated one cup cream of wheat over medium heat until golden and fragrant. Meanwhile, in the other pan, I heated a tbs of oil and added one tsp mustard seeds, ten curry leaves, 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1 clove minced garlic, 1 tsp minced ginger, one tbs masoor dal, and one tbs channa dal. These should be toasted gently until they are brown and fragrant. (Mine got a little too brown due to not gentle enough toasting.) I then added half a chopped onion, half a cup of frozen peas, and two small chopped mild peppers to the spices and sauteed them for a minute or so, then added two cups of boiling water and let everything boil together for a couple of minutes. I then added the toasted cream of wheat to the spices and vegetables and stirred til it was the proper consistency. I had to add a bit more water, and salt to taste. I then stirred in about 2 tbs of chopped mixed nuts.

I discovered that the toasted dal did not break down into the porridge, but provided a crunchy contrast. The result was very good, but could use improvements. Next time I will most definitely use clarified butter instead of plain cooking oil for toasting the spices for a richer flavour. I think I would just use a double amount of channa dal next time instead of masoor dal, which were a little too small to provide a really satisfying crunch, and maybe add coconut or other vegetables.

7 comments:

Sara said...

That sounds really good, and what a clever idea to use cream of wheat. I love Indian food, but haven't tried cooking any at home yet. I only have 1 Indian cookbook and half the ingredients in the recipes are things I've never heard of.

Pepper said...

Hi Sara, it was pretty good, but I really need practice getting the flavours out of the spices in the toasting phase. One thing I am learning is that many of the ingredients are just named differently - like 'jeera' instead of cumin. It is like learning a code. Lots of great South Asian food bloggers are making the cooking more accessible though.

Anonymous said...

upma is one of my favorite comfort foods... looks like you have the technique down pretty well! my mom uses cream of wheat too. for me a good upma has to have a fair amount of caramelized onions, and diced potato. and the crunchy fried dal. i've asked my mom why that's done in south indian cooking, and she couldn't really explain it either. perhaps it's an ayurvedic "balance" sorta thing.

Anonymous said...

Hi there! Came to your post from Becksandposh. The Upma looks great :). I think it is more common to use semoline than wheat. Like you, I also like to add more veggies in my Upma to make it more healthy. Hotels usually skip them to cut on costs.

Pepper said...

Thanks a lot for the encouragement and suggestions.

Catherine said...

wow - I'll have to try this. It sounds and looks wonderful!

trupti said...

That looks really good...and you're right, there are so many versions of this favorite...I add toasted Cashews in mine,and use ghee and curry leaves..it makes a tremendous difference in taste, I also love the daals in this,the White Urad daal adds a distinct flavor and crunch.

-T