An ode to upma
A treatise about upma; what it is, why it is the best dish in my opinion, and the variations of the dish that exist across the length and breadth of India.
My tryst with upma began right from my childhood in Hyderabad, the southern state of Telangana. The humble upma was the go to breakfast at our home when there was no more idli and dosa batter left, when guests suddenly decided to drop in or when my mother was fasting. Breakfast was a must at our home, and skipping breakfast was a sin according to my parents. So we had upma at least twice a week for breakfast, but never got tired of it.
I was usually the target of all jokes during my Engineering college days at Kakinada for being an upma lover. Upma was not a regular dish on the menu under the weekly list of breakfasts. But whenever we went back to the hostel after vacations we were served upma for breakfast, as the strength of students was less and the cook could churn out upma in a jiffy.
The humble upma has come a long way from its origins in South India, to having a fan base throughout India. The word upma in all the South Indian languages is a combination of salt and flour. It is called uppittu in Kannada, upma in Telugu, uppuma in Tamil, uppumavu in Malayalam and upma all over India. In Maharashtra, upma is known as sanza and is prepared using different flours. Semolina is the main ingredient of upma across South India, but there are a few variations apart from the staples.
I love my upma cooked and tempered with mustard seeds and lentils, onion, green chillies, ginger, curry leaves, salt, and dollops of ghee. This combination is fried until cooked, after which boiling water is added. Once a thick porridge consistency is obtained, it is seasoned with a dash of lemon juice and roasted cashews. The very thought of eating upma makes me happy; the richness of ghee and cashews and the spicy chillies combined with the tanginess and zing of lemon that makes the upma melt in my mouth.
As a typical Hyderabadi, and a native of Andhra Pradesh, we - and most of the Telugu-speaking families – love to celebrate the versatility of upma. Upma was and is the most popular breakfast dish during any ceremony, for all happy occasions, family reunions and during all sorts of gatherings. There is a Telugu movie in which the protagonist always carries a box of upma with her. That’s how popular my all-time favourite dish is, and the best part is, it can be eaten for lunch or dinner as well.
The other versions of upma are made by substituting semolina with vermicelli, wheat granules, rice flour, flattened rice, quinoa, oats, bread, and tomato and adding a variety of vegetables. But the version that I love the most is the plain upma that is made with semolina. Upma is packed with fibre, vitamins and iron, it is slowly digested, and it keeps you full for a longer period of time, therefore preventing you from overeating or unhealthy snacking. For a healthier version, add some green peas, beans and carrots along with the onions, and voila! This is a delectable and wholesome meal.
In Karnataka, Chow Chow Bhath is another popular dish apart from Bisi Bele Bhath which is a combination meal of Khara Bhath (Semolina Upma) and Sheera (Semolina Halwa), with one being a savoury dish and the other a sweet dish. Khara Bhath is served with coconut chutney, roasted cashews and dollops of ghee. These traditional recipes with a twist are a big hit with the younger crowd; a meal of Chow Chow Bhath followed by a cup of piping hot coffee is bliss.
Aval Upma or Atukula Upma or Poha Upma is prepared using flattened rice instead of semolina. This dish can be prepared quickly and can be eaten for breakfast or as a snack.
Vermicelli or Semiya Upma is prepared with vermicelli and a combination of vegetables. This is an easy and convenient dish to pack into lunch boxes, and is a healthy breakfast or evening snack.
Rice Upma, which is also known as Uppu Pindi in Telugu, Arisi Upma in Tamil, and Akki Tari Uppittu in Kannada is another variation on upma in which raw rice flour is used instead of semolina. This has a different taste altogether and is best eaten hot.
Idli Upma is another popular breakfast dish that is mostly famous in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka which is prepared with left over semolina idli. Tempered and grated coconut is added to the leftover crumbled semolina idlis; this recipe is ideal when it is eaten hot.
Wheat Semolina Upma is a healthy version of upma that is prepared with broken wheat or dhalia, as it is popularly known in North India. This upma is prepared with wheat semolina and fresh vegetables, and is an ideal breakfast or dinner dish when you’re on a diet. Millet Upma is a dish that has gained popularity lately due to the new found enthusiasm towards embracing traditional millets. Foxtail Millets and quinoa are the best substitutes for semolina.
Bread Upma is another version similar to Idli Upma; it is prepared from leftover bread slices that are crumbled, after which vegetables are added and the entire thing is tempered. This upma is more popular as a snack and it can be topped up with peanuts for added crunch and flavour. Oats Upma is another variation preferred by health conscious people, which gained popularity with the introduction of cereal as a breakfast. The oats are dry roasted and vegetables are added as per a person’s preference; this has gained popularity as an instant dish which is now available on the shelves of Indian supermarkets.
Sabudana Khichdi is a popular Maharashtrian dish and is similar to upma; it has been adapted by other states and is customized with other toppings in different regions.
There are international dishes that are similar to upma as well, such as ribollita and panzanella which are made with leftover bread, in addition to the many salads and pastas which can be prepared in less time by blending leftovers and tossing with vegetables and flavoured toppings.
Served with love, the humble yet versatile upma that originated in South India has been adapted by the whole country, with people customizing it to their liking. Vying with stiff competition from other popular South Indian dishes such as dosa and idli, upma has come a long way, and now has its own loyal fan base.