Meet upma, the dish that caused a national outrage

Take one cup rava. Add chopped onions, mustard seeds and a generous helping of culinary chauvinism

Updated - June 22, 2017 09:26 pm IST

Published - June 22, 2017 05:06 pm IST

Apparently, we’ve triggered a ‘national debate.’ Twitter wars, panel discussions and heated arguments, the whole caboodle. Cue dramatic background music. Chefs were consulted. A grim nutritionist dragged into the TV studio. Reporters sent out on the street on investigative assignments. The culprit? That dish skulking grimly in the corner of every South Indian buffet, like a super villain just biding his time: upma .

Lock your houses and hide your parathas : Upma has evil designs, and is going to take over the country. Or not.

Years ago, the protagonist in the Tamil play Thanikudithanam sniggered that the person who invented upma should be feted with the President’s medal. Fortunately for him, this was at an age before TV channels were so easily excitable. Before the ‘Southern push’ was deemed worthy of prime time news.

But first, some background about how this storm in a kadai began. A few days ago, MetroPlus carried an interview with actor-director-producer R Parthiban in Bite, Camera, Action , a column about stars in tinsel town and their food memories. In an emotional, and poignant, interview, he spoke about the days he was a struggling actor, and how upma (we shall refrain, henceforth, from calling it humble, since it’s now achieved breaking news status) provided sustenance. He went on to jokingly suggest it should become our national dish. Cue: outrage, scandal and indignantly scrolling headlines on a TV channel, complete with an embarrassment of hashtags. #CulinaryChauvinism anyone? How about resisting this devious #SouthernPush?


But, who can question the versatility of the upma , the one thing you can rustle up in a jiffy when guests suddenly arrive? The staple of studious South Indian students travelling abroad to study, their baggage bulging with ready-mix upma , double-packed. It even made news internationally a few years ago, when celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz won a $100,000 prize at the Top Chef Masters contest in Los Angeles by whipping up an upma with mushroom!

Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it — the dish is ingrained in the South Indian diet. So what if the nutritionist on the riveting upma panel discussion dourly pronounced it “very fattening and full of calories”. Everyone who’s ever started their day with it knows better. And their great grandmothers must be going ‘tch tch’ from the heavens. Whoever heard of upma being bad for health? A travesty. #StopShamingUpma

Parthiban’s ‘Southern push’ took even him by surprise. The National Award winner, known for his ability to string verses in a jiffy, was rendered speechless for a while. When he recovered, he took to Twitter to clarify his stance: “The upma I mentioned in my ‘flashback’ has had a lot of garnish added to it and turned into a ‘ khichdi’ . If I’d known this, I would have mentioned a simpler, nutrition-packed dish, or said that any food that satisfied someone’s hunger must be declared the ‘national dish’.”


As always, the television debate spilled on to social media. Which is when Twitter broke into spontaneous laughter. The puns came quick and heavy. Then there were the debates: upma versus poha , upma versus kesari , even upma versus biryani . One important thread emerged from the two-day drama. How do you make good upma ? And does anyone have a fool-proof recipe that works every time. We’re happy to help.

Because, it’s time the dish got it’s due. #UpmasTimeToShine. After all, soft crumbly upma is the ultimate comfort food. Food that is ideal when you are ill. The one thing you can make in a rush. The first dish cooked in many bachelor kitchens. An easy way to remind yourself of home. Make it with rava , vermicilli or millets: The upma has always been open to interpretation, and there’s no reason why that should change.


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