With chef Floyd Cardoz winning the Top Chef Masters Contest for ‘semolina pudding', the once-ignored upma has taken on a new avatar.
Penury and the plight of the poor were major themes of Thomas Gray's poetry, which also movingly portrayed the sad neglect of worthy causes and people in obscure surroundings. This is the message of the immortal lines from “Elegy written in a country church yard”: Full many a gem of the purest ray serene, the dark/Unfathom'd caves of the ocean bear;/Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness in the desert air.
Unfortunately Gray was not familiar with the South Indian delicacy upma. Had he been so, upma could have figured in the poem along with the “gem” and the ‘flower'. I can hear protests at my labelling upma a delicacy. Why not? In the recent final of the much-watched “Top Chef Masters Contest” held in Los Angeles, Mumbai-born celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz beat two other favourites to win the first prize ($ 100,000) for his culinary delight: upma made from semolina and mushrooms. The contestants had to prepare an item based on food memories (or dishes that inspired them in their lives)
Cardoz (May his tribe increase!) remembered a favourite snack from his school days: upma. What he made at the contest was slightly different. It was a semolina polenta flavoured with coconut milk and kokum and sautéed with wild mushrooms. New York food critics described it as semolina pudding and Wall Street Journal food writer, Charles Passy, explained, “Cardoz won by doing exactly what he does at Tabla (the restaurant where he works); that is honouring his gastronomic roots and finding a way to reinvent his native cuisine at the same time.”
But the many South Indians accustomed to traditional upma may question the verdict. When we were young, the choice of upma as tiffin was often greeted with groans. “It has no taste; it is like paste, why do we have this so often...” Cooks did not experiment with upma; they used only basic ingredients: rava, salt and water. South Indian restaurants served upma for breakfast along with idli sambar, dosas of different varieties but it was the loser. Today the different avatars of idli and dosa are recognised as all-time snacks but upma is still a distant also-ran.
The problem is that upma does not have a distinct personality. Take the ghee roast dosa or Kanjeevaram idli... these had distinct personalities. But upma? It was plonked on your plate as an unappetising mess, often gooey, sometimes dry. A word in defence? Again quoting Shakespeare, “The fault, dear foodies, is not in upma but in upma makers”. Early in life, I had sampled rice upma, which was crisp and tasty. Later, there were different versions with onions or peas, carrots, cauliflower... Upma turned out to be a good absorber. It quietly welcomed these “intruders”, which enhanced its taste and flavour. Unfortunately, most South Indian restaurants did not experiment with upma and failed to add ingredients which made it tastier.
For long, Indian cooking had been identified with tandoori items, chicken tikka, rogan josh with occasional references to palak paneer. When Dr. Abdul Kalam was President, he had our envoy organise a banquet with south Indian delicacies during a state visit to Iceland. The sturdy Icelanders enjoyed this unique banquet and medhu vada with sambar became an instant hit. Once again upma was ignored.
But today, thanks to Floyd Cardoz, one can no longer ignore the upma. It is not as upma, uppindi (Telugu) or uppittu (Kannada) but as semolina pudding it deserved to be served at UN banquets.
Clarification: The photograph published with the article “Upma goes global” (Magazine, July 3), was taken by Sailaja S. and not as attributed earlier.