Forget Oatmeal. Start Your Day With Indian Upma.
Chef Chintan Pandya shares his tips and tricks for making this traditional South Indian breakfast porridge.
As a kid growing up in Mumbai, India, Chintan Pandya wasn’t a fan of vegetables. Like many youngsters around the world, his unwillingness to eat his greens presented a challenge for his parents—but his mother was undeterred by his picky eating habits. She had one foolproof trick up her sleeve to get her son, now chef and partner at New York restaurants Adda Indian Canteen and Rahi, to eat his daily dose of veggies. She hid them in his bowl of upma.
A breakfast or brunch porridge made from semolina flour, spices and veggies, upma (pronounced oop-mah) is filling, but not too heavy. It’s also relatively quick to make, taking no more time than it would to prepare a bowl of oatmeal or grits with a similar consistency.
“It predominantly started being made in the southern part of India, but also the western part, which is where I’m from,” says Pandya. “I think the beauty of it is that my mother would put all the vegetables into upma that she felt we needed to eat.”
Its versatility has also been a boon for Pandya’s restaurants, where he’s featured a range of upma variations on the menu. “It’s easy to manipulate,” says Pandya. “If you want to make it vegan, you can make it vegan. [Or] you can put as many things in it as you want.”
Upma also remains a staple of his home cooking, where he’s on family breakfast duty for his wife and two-year-old daughter. “There are days when I get up in the morning and I don’t want to do too much,” says Pandya. “It just needs to be simple—let’s make upma. It’s that kind of a dish.”
Needless to say, his mother’s efforts have come full circle and given Pandya a new appreciation for its ability to conceal everything from kale to zucchini. “I never understood it until I started making it for my daughter,” he says. “I put everything inside it and she eats the whole porridge.”
Whether you’re looking for a filling dish for your brunch menu or need a way to sneak vitamin-packed greens into a picky eater’s meal, here are Pandya’s tips and tricks for making this Indian favorite.
Semolina is the star of upma. Essentially a flour made from durum wheat, it has a higher protein content than standard all purpose or bread flours and is also often used for making pasta, bread and couscous. To start off, Pandya dry toasts the semolina flour in a skillet, giving it a little color and added aroma and flavor. “You have to be on point doing it because if you don’t keep on stirring your pan while toasting it, the bottom layer [of semolina] will get burnt very quickly,” says Pandya. “So make sure that when you’re toasting it to keep on stirring it.”
The vegetables are where you can really get creative and use what’s in your fridge. Pandya’s recipe calls for green chili, red onion and tomatoes, but you can expand the roster of veggies as you see fit and include things like kale, spinach and arugula. Just add the additional ingredients once you’ve first cooked the onions and tomatoes.
Another easy way to customize upma is to swap out the ghee (clarified butter) for another oil. “If you want to make it vegan, use vegetable oil or any oil that you prefer,” says Pandya. “Coconut oil would give a phenomenal flavor.”
When it comes to upma, there’s no hard and fast rule about exactly how much liquid should go into the dish. “It depends on the consistency that you’re looking for,” says Pandya. “I like [it to be] a little porridge-y, a little bit watery.”
To achieve his preferred consistency, Pandya uses three to four cups of water for every one cup of semolina. If you want the finished texture of the upma to be a bit firmer, just add a little bit more semolina as it will absorb the extra liquid.
To give the dish an added bit of flavor, Pandya toasts mustard seeds in the ghee prior to adding the vegetables. He also incorporates green chili for heat, aromatic fresh curry leaves for a hit of savory aroma, fresh ginger root for a pop of bright spice and a teaspoon of split urad lentils for flavor and texture.
“For me, it’s a no-nonsense kind of a thing, it’s a simple thing,” says Panya. “Let me get it done and get my energy for the day.”
Before digging in, Pandya likes to mix in some yogurt (“we make our own yogurt at home, but any market bought yogurt is fine”), a bit of fresh cilantro and some lemon or lime juice.
Even though Pandya delights in the simplicity of upma, in his restaurants he’s also embraced less traditional approaches to the dish. “Once a guest was like, ‘Can you put a fried egg on top of it?’” says Pandya. “We thought it was a nice idea, so then we gave the choice to the customer.”
Pandya has also served squid ink-infused upma with octopus at Rahi—a likely nod to risotto, another historic grain-based dish. Similarly, he’s found that topping upma with cheese at home not only adds a satisfying savory finish, but it also serves the dish’s ulterior motives. “We put extra cheese on top for [my daughter],” he says. “It’s a plus point for her to eat the entire porridge.”
- 1 cup Semolina
- 2 tsp Ghee
- .5 tsp Mustard seeds
- 5-6 Fresh curry leaves
- 1 tsp Split Urad lentils
- 2 Green chili, chopped
- .5 tsp Ginger, chopped
- .5 cup Red onion, chopped
- .5 cup Fresh tomatoes, chopped
- 3-4 cups Hot water
- Salt to taste
- Half a lime
- 1 tsp Cilantro
- Heat a sauce pan and add the semolina. Let it toast until it begins to get brown. Remove the pan from heat and set aside.
- Add the ghee to a medium-sized pot and heat over a medium flame. Add the mustard seeds and toast them until they crackle. Then add the split urad lentils and curry leaves, followed by the green chili and ginger.
- Add the chopped onion and let it cook until it becomes translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes and season with salt, to taste, and mix well. Add the dry roasted semolina and mix thoroughly. Sauté the mixture, being sure to stir constantly and not burn the semolina. Then add the hot water. Continue to cook over medium heat until the water is fully absorbed and the upma is the consistency you prefer. Add some yogurt if you like and mix well. Finish the dish with some chopped cilantro and the juice of half a lime.