In my last column I had mentioned that breakfast was the most important meal of the day for me. While eggs frequently play a starring role in my morning repast I am also a sucker for South Indian breakfasts. Though my lineage spans both north and south I will take dosas over parathas any day. And upma over dalia. I grew up on a taste of upma that I’ve never been able to find in any South Indian joint. The ubiquity of Udipi restaurants is one reason why so many Indians have something of a skewed understanding of southern food. Not that they are bad—I am ever grateful to be within a toss of an uttappam almost anywhere in the country. But their versions of some dishes are merely an acceptable compromise, not a considered choice. Sambar is one of them. The pasty, and often greasy, porridges that Udipi restaurants pass off as upma are another.
I discovered in my adult life the secret to the upma my mother made, which her mother-in-law had shown her. It wasn’t a secret really, merely my ignorance. It involved one simple step that made all the difference—to the taste, the texture and the shelf life of the grain. Before embarking on any cooking, dry roast the raw semolina on a frying pan, stirring continuously so that it doesn’t burn, until it turns a warm shade of tan, resembling fine sand in colour and texture. That step alone will prolong the life of the uncooked grain; insects don’t like it.
After that, do your thing. As in all cooking, there’s no single way to make anything. This is my way: Begin with a handful of rai tossed into hot oil, followed by a bunch of karipatta leaves. Add chopped onions and a tiny bit of finely chopped green chillies, followed by diced tomatoes and salt. Stir for a bit before spooning in the roasted rava, move it about the pan for a couple of minutes and then pour enough water to cover the mixture, swirling it all continuously until the water has been absorbed. Garnish with freshly picked dhaniya leaves. The first forkful in your mouth will reveal the magic of that first step. The almost imperceptible resistance of the grain, its toasty fragrance… it all makes sense. Because it tastes so much better.