Everyone has a different idea of what comfort food is. When I surveyed friends of mine lately on what food or dish they find to be the most comforting, the answers I got ranged from mac and cheese to nachos to chicken soup to dal (lentils) to rice and beans to chocolate pudding! For me personally, nothing beats upma, the classic couscous-like South Indian breakfast dish made with semolina (coarse, purified wheat middlings) tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves, green chillies and ginger. Though it's traditionally eaten in the mornings with some sambhar (lentil and vegetable stew) and chutney of choice (coconut or tomato are particular favorites), it can be enjoyed at any time of the day with any number of accompaniments.
The word upma is derived from the Tamil words uppu, meaning salt, and maavu, meaning flour. I have no idea why, as upma is far from being just a lump of salty flour! Though upma can be made with cracked wheat, vermicelli noodles or pearl sago, it is traditionally prepared with semolina, known as rava in Tamil and sooji in Hindi. Semolina can be found in Indian groceries or places like Whole Foods Market in the States, or can be substituted with Cream of What. Here in France, either semoule fine or semoule moyenne will work, but be sure not to confuse this with the coarser semoule de couscous.
Just about every South Indian cook has her (or his!) own family recipe for upma. Some people don't add any vegetables, while others like my mom, to whom I credit this recipe, like to add peas, carrots and whatever else they may fancy. The standard tempering ingredients are onion, ginger, green chillies, curry leaves, cashews, black mustard seeds (bottom left in the photo below) and two types of lentils, chana dal (center) and urad dal (bottom right). If you're serious about Indian cooking, and South Indian cooking in particular, you should definitely take the time to get to an Indian grocery and pick up these seeds and lentils as well as the curry leaves. Chana dal, yellow in color, is produced by removing the outer layer of black chickpeas and then dividing the kernel. White-colored urad dal is the inside part of black gram lentils and is used in many common South Indian dishes such as idli and dosa. The dals add an incredible flavor and smell, one that distinctly reminds me of home!
Once you have all the ingredients, my mom's upma recipe is super easy to make. Just like couscous or grits, the essence of the preparation is in slowly incoporating the starch (the semolina in this case) to a pot of boiling water (tempered, spiced boiling water in this case!). We had the upma for dinner last night with a simple mushroom curry and some raita. It's warm, tasty, wholesome...the ultimate in South Indian comfort food!
UPMA (adapted from Mom)Serves 4
1 cup semolina
1/2 teaspoon plus 1 scant tablespoon canola or vegetable oil, divided
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon chana dal
1 teaspoon urad dal
1 teaspoon broken cashews
3/4 of a large onion (I used red), chopped
1 inch piece of ginger, grated (or 1 tablespoon ginger paste)
1 green chili, split lengthways
Salt, to taste
1 sprig curry leaves, washed
1 medium tomato, chopped
Pinch of asafoetida powder (hing), optional
1 cup frozen peas and carrots, defrosted
2 1/2 cups water
1. Roast the semolina without any oil in a medium pot over a very low flame. Watch it closely and stir continously with a wooden spoon. When warm, add the 1/2 teaspoon of oil and mix well. Cook for just a little bit more time and then remove from heat. Set aside in a large bowl.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in the same pot. Add the mustard seeds. Once they start popping, add the two dals and the cashews. Stir well.
3. When the dals and cashews turn into a very light golden color, add the onions, ginger and green chili and stir well. Add a pinch of salt and the curry leaves.
4. Once the onions are translucent, add the tomato and saute well. Then add the hing (if using), followed by the peas and carrots.
5. Saute the mixture and then add the water and salt to taste. Bring to a boil.
6. Once the mixture has boiled, turn off the heat. Wait for 45 seconds and then add the semolina a little bit at a time, stirring well after each addition. Once all of it is incorporated, you should have a thick, lumpy mixture.
7. Turn the stove back on to low heat and put the pot back on. Cover it and cook for a couple of minutes. Stir. Cover again and cook for a couple of minutes more. Stir well before serving.
Note: Although they are edible, curry leaves are typically not eaten. They impart a wonderful aroma and flavor to many South Indian dishes, but are generally removed while eating.