During the shapeless weeks of self-isolation, a handful of rituals have marked out my weekdays from weekends. Visiting the mailbox to pick up a shrink-wrapped copy of the newspaper. Stocking up on provisions during one mandatory trip to the grocery store. And dry-roasting semolina to make upma.
It’s been years since I’ve craved this centuries-old savoury porridge, a regular fixture at breakfast and teatime across households in Sri Lanka and the southern states of India. Then, my mother made it for me the last time I saw her in Perth. Then, Western Australia closed its borders. So, on Saturday mornings, I fry mustard seeds until they sputter, fry cashews until they turn golden, add peas and onions. I top up the pan with boiling-hot water.
When the semolina absorbs the spices, expands enough to fill us, I take heart in the way that combining disparate ingredients in a certain order can sometimes result in comforting things.
Gunjan Aylawadi has always relished upma. When the founder of Sydney’s Flyover Fritterie was growing up in Delhi, upma – which loosely takes its name from the words for ‘flour’ and ‘salt’ in many South Indian languages – wasn’t as common across the northern parts of the subcontinent 20 years ago. But an aunt would regularly gift her a parcel of the dish.
“My aunt used to live across the road from us and she loved making it,” she says, and laughs. “No one else in the house was too fond of it, because they have very North Indian palates – whereas I was adventurous, I wanted to eat curry leaves, all sorts of exotic flavours. I would love getting those little parcels from her. It’s one of my fondest food memories.”
Often, we think of porridge as one-note. But upma is as versatile and adaptable as the person who’s making it. Prefer to swap semolina for bulgur wheat or poha, a beaten rice beloved across Western India? Sure. Want to add tomatoes and carrots or crown with grated coconut? No problem. (A squeeze of lime is non-negotiable.)
Aylawadi, who regularly makes upma for her young son, says that the dish lets you be resourceful with ingredients, an asset when you can’t regularly swing by the market or the grocery store.
“You can use whatever is in your kitchen, even vegetables like celery or kale,” she says. “I can always get the same results with the base because of the semolina, the spice, the ghee, curry leaves and dahl. I like to eat it like polenta – roast the vegetables quickly and pile them on top, so you get multiple layers of texture.”
It’s easy to perceive Indian food as a monolith. But for Ravnish Singh, the owner of Melbourne’s Cafe Southall, upma is proof of the country’s culinary diversity.
“I’m North Indian but grew up in Bombay, our neighbours were Hasidic Jews, some were from Kerala – and when we came home from school, we would have upma,” he says. “From our point of view, it was simple, but from a Western point of view, it feels exotic. We would have it with achar [Asian pickles] or mint chutney. When I make it myself, I like to add peanuts. And if you add a sunny-side egg on top, it tastes amazing.”
“I’m North Indian but grew up in Bombay, our neighbours were Hasidic Jews, some were from Kerala – and when we came home from school, we would have upma.”
Upma has always been the province of home cooks, mostly women, who often make food for their loved ones without credit.
“Upma is traditionally made by a mother – you learn to make it as she did,” says Singh.
Aylawadi, who is currently home-delivering poha at Flyover Fritterie, says that upma is always a love letter to the recipient from the cook.
“To me, it’s an example of Indian home cooking that never makes its way onto a restaurant menu because of how much love goes into making it,” she says. “It’s not about skill, it’s about patience. It’s about someone who is willing to stand in front of the burner for someone else.”
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