Sooji Upma: Savoury Spiced Semolina
The simplest dishes are often the hardest to make and also toughest to cook in a way that they taste good. Sooji upma, Indian semolina made into a breakfast delicacy which could be thought as a savoury halwa is one such dish that entails an understanding of how flavours balance each other to generate taste that's appealing.
In India, sooji is used extensively to make breakfast or lunch preparations like upma, idli, uttapam and sweet dishes like halwa as well as added to batters for making fritters to lend a crisp texture. In many parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha, it's extremely popular for quick servings in the morning or mid-day meals. My family being from Odisha wasn't an exception — upma was our breakfast on more days than I can count.
“I came down as soon as I thought there was a prospect of breakfast.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. This thought of Jane describes me every bit. As long as there's breakfast, I will show up! John Milton definitely taught us that "morning shows the day", which I take a step further, breakfast makes the day!
As long as I can remember, I have always been excited about breakfast. It's the meal I care about most. Not that I care less about the other meals, but breakfast usually sets the tone of my day. Mother always made filling breakfasts on weekdays to keep us on toes until we opened our lunchboxes in school. On weekends, the face of breakfast changed depending on how packed was the day with chores — more chores in the morning meant late lunch and so a heavy breakfast to keep the noisy children at bay.
I've deeply appreciated everything mother cooked, and even when there was something on the plate like roasted semolina lightly tempered and simmered in hot water, I never complained. I'll be honest. I didn't grew up loving sooji upma. Mother's version was rather plain, and perhaps that's why it was always topped up with a spicy aloo jhol (potato gravy) or ghugni (dried white peas gravy); the jhol being served with hot pooris for lunch. My paternal side of the family were flag bearers of this combo while the maternal side favoured sooji upma with copious amounts of coconut chutney. Neither struck a chord with me because the upma itself was insipid.
My love for this ubiquitous breakfast first blossomed in Mumbai with a plate of idli chutney and some subtly spiced upma at a roadside vendor's shop. Everybody called the owner Anna, meaning brother, who showed up at exactly 6:30 in the morning outside our hostel. While walking to the railway station to board a local train and head off to the daily grind, people would pick up a pack of idli, vada and upma or quickly have their breakfast at the stall. Anna also sold fresh filter coffee and a special lemon or tomato rice on some days.
Apart from the idli, I always went to his shop for the rava/sooji upma. His upma didn't have a ton of ingredients — curry leaves, mustard, ginger, green chilies, very few onions and the quintessential south Indian tempering of chana and urad dal. It was utmost tasty on its own, and needed nothing else. Sips of coffee and spoons of that sooji upma made me happy, not to mention Anna's extra special packing of the leftovers and warm wishes for not just the day but the life ahead.
Bangalore got me very close to sooji upma. On moving to a new city after living a decade in Mumbai, I was lucky to unwind with sister M. For a month while I took a break and hunted new jobs, I also got to learn her take on the sooji upma. She added roasted cashews and stalks of fresh coriander, ideas she picked up from the Udipi style upma she had in her college days in Manipal and added big squeezes of lime in the end. Before serving, she would add scoops of the hot upma to a bowl, press it to make a mould, and then invert the bowl over a plate. I later found it was typical in many neighbourhood eateries as well.
In her wonderful book, Vegetarian India, Madhur Jaffrey says,
The Western world has no real equivalent for upma. It is somewhat like a risotto, except that it's not as dense and heavy, and not so wet and molten either. It is perhaps more like Chinese fried rice, except that it is a little wet and tends to collect in small clamps. Upma is, in the last analysis, delicious in itself.
I don't think I have ever come across a better description of upma, especially to someone who may never have heard of it or tasted it. Upma is a class of food rather a single dish. The grains that are most commonly used to make upma are semolina (sooji/rava) and flattened rice (poha), and sometimes whole wheat or cracked wheat, dalia. However, there are more varieties of upma in the contemporary world like bread upma and quinoa upma.
In Tamil Nadu and southern Karnataka, coarse rice flour is also used to make upma that's called akki tari uppittu locally. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it's common to eat upma wrapping in pesarattu, a soft crepe made of green whole moong dal. In Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, upma made with flattened is popularly called as aval upmavu in Malayalam and atukulu upma respectively. In Udipi, upma is made with coarser rava and referred as sajjige.
In it's basic form it's a carb that's easy to put together and gets done quickly and has the flexibility to absorb the tastes and seasoning of spices and vegetables that increase its nutritional value.
Although the western world understands sooji or rava as semolina and for the lack of a better word, Indians also refer it as semolina outside India, it's a bit different from the true semolina, the kind that's used to made pasta. Sooji or rava is made from soft wheat while semolina is made from hard durum wheat. Sooji is a lot like polenta, although cooks much faster and renders a lighter and fluffier texture.
No matter which version of upma you make, if you can master the art of making this modest dish of the Indian cuisine, your definition of easy recipes is bound to change! Don't forget to have a hot cup of coffee to wash it down your throat — a combination that is always great.
Since I always longed to eat a palatable sooji upma, I got a knack of it once I understood the layers beneath the overall dish.
Begin with a fragrant and slightly spicy tempering. The combination of mustard seeds, curry leaves, ginger and green chili never fails. I ensure two types of nuttiness. One with a handful of chana and urad dal and the other with some cashews. If using onions, keep them chunky and just a handful of chopped bits are enough. A pinch of sugar and a bit of lime balance the flavours and round up the spiciness of the chilies. To this you can always add vegetables as you please. And, if you don't, your upma will still taste amazing!
The ratio of sooji to water that I like best is 1:3. For 1 part of sooji, use 3 or 3.5 parts of water. Semolina absorbs water very well, so you needn't worry about how much water you add. The more water you add, the longer it may take to absorb and come to an edible consistency.
1/2 cup sooji (coarse semolina)
1 tsp ghee (optional)
1 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tbsp chana dal
1/2 tbsp urad dal
1/2 tsp ginger chopped
1/2 of a small onion, chopped
1 green chili chopped
6-7 curry leaves
1 and 1/2 cups water
1/2 tsp salt or to taste
1/8 tsp sugar
1 wedge of lime
3-4 coriander leaves with stalks, chopped
In a pan, add 1/2 tsp ghee, let it melt and then add the semolina. Roast on low flame for 2-3 minutes. Take the sooji out of the pan and keep aside. You may roast it without ghee also.
In the same pan, heat oil and then add mustard seeds and let them crackle. Next add chana dal, urad dal and cashews. Let the dal and cashews turn slightly golden.
Next add ginger and cook till its raw smell disappears, and then add the onions, green chili and curry leaves. Sauté until onion is translucent.
Add water, salt and sugar and bring it to a boil. Now, let it simmer for 2-3 minutes to infuse all the flavours. Now, start adding the roasted sooji, continuously mixing it to prevent any lumps.
When almost all water is absorbed, reduce the heat to low and cover and cook for 1 minute. Then, turn off heat, add lime juice, coriander leaves and the remaining ghee. Give a good mix. Serve hot!
You may add some chutney or refreshments on the upma!