The tale of the ubiquitous ‘upma’

The easy to rustle up but rather tasteless dish has a special place in south Indian homes

Updated - May 26, 2021 01:29 pm IST

Published - August 26, 2018 12:19 am IST

Nothing presents the reality of a Monday morning better than the smell of fresh upma from the kitchen. As my brother and I got ready for school, and father for office, the smell of upma, the thought of having to survive two rounds of battle with it at breakfast and lunch, prepared us for the week ahead. If upma was served for a second time in the week, it was a clear indication of hostilities in the family. And as upma made its way to our breakfast plates, surrenders were imminent.

The dry, powdery, colourless and sometimes tasteless breakfast dish has been referred to as “concrete” by men of wisdom. This lack of subtlety, uninspired preparations and the user distress when upma is prepared, have dented its brand image.

For starters, upma always served as a substitute and would never be the first choice. I still remember grandmother having upma on Ekadasi day. And post-eclipse, we were all force-fed upma for dinner. The preparation was done in a hurry. Switch on the stove, roast some rava, boil some water, add a couple of green chillies — upma was ready to be served. The intent was always to fill the stomach, not to serve something that pleases the eyes or taste buds. And if some quantity was left over, it would invariably find its way to the lunch box the next day.

On the lunch table that day, poor upma competes with biriyani, pulao, bisibele bath and other delicacies that the whole office has been talking about since morning. The grumpy husband thinks a hundred times if he needs to offer the upma to colleagues, who are passing the more illustrious preparations — and decides against it. He is bound by marital code to clear his lunch box while there is an overwhelming temptation to dig his spoon into his neighbours’ plates. The meal starts with anger, transitions through frustration and ends in surrender.

The variants

With this daily narrative in most homes playing spoilsport, upma has looked for resurgence through multiple avenues. Not least, piggybacking on other ingredients to become palatable. A mishmash of vegetables to begin with. Onions, for instance, lent their flavour, and “onion upma” was considered acceptable. The more imaginative kitchens added some colour with turmeric. A spread of cut beans, carrot, capsicum and curry leaves took attention away from the blandness. This “vegetable upma” earned a few appreciative nods as well. In a departure from tradition, someone served upma with chutney, and the masses started looking forward to it.

Going mainstream

What definitely changed the fortunes for upma was when it started going mainstream. Being a traditional south Indian dish, it was preferred for an evening snack just before the beginning or during the interval of a Carnatic concert. However, here, it wasn’t powdery concrete anymore. It was a delicacy — a pleasing green with strategically placed beans and carrot, embellished in ghee and cooked with just the right amount of water to make it semi-solid. The aroma wafted through the concert halls, playing with your olfactory faculties even as the musician played with the swaras .

Hotels went a step ahead and carved out a chow chow bath — a mixture of upma and kesri bath. Upma was now enjoying a status equal to a sweet. Hotels, with their panache for presentation, used a bowl in which to fill the hot upma. When they emptied the upma on the plate, the stuff took the shape of the bowl. Powdery concrete was finally history in front of this classy looking presentation.

More important, upma slowly became the de facto breakfast at weddings. Again, a challenge for the bride’s family — which generally takes care of the food fare. A good breakfast meant a great start to the proceedings. If guests were displeased at breakfast, it would take a humungous effort to get back into their good books. And upma quietly shouldered this responsibility.

From the melt-in-the-mouth craftsmanship of wedding upmas to mustard-infested dump-in-your stomach funeral upmas, upma has seen it all. The rage of a husband pushing away a plate of upma in contempt, as a worried wife looked on. The delight in the eyes of prospective in-laws as the groom tucked into the upma and relished mouthful after mouthful. Yet, what could tug the heartstrings would be a boy, crying over the phone, saying “Uncle, rescue me! They are killing me with upma every day!”

Some things never change!

alok_simha2006@rediffmail.com

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