Monday, August 5, 2013

The Spirituality Behind Upma

This humble dish that is a staple South Indian breakfast item won a million dollars when it was judged a winner at Top Chef Master contest in NYC. Its maker was Floyd Cardoz and the dish is called Upma - variedly called as Uppummavu in Malayalam, Uppitu or Kharabath in Kannada, Uppuma in Tamil.
The Malayalam term best carries the meaning of Upma; the literal meaning being 'salted flour'. And that's what it is. Made out of semolina / rawa, saamo, broken wheat / daliya, vermicelli / semiya, beaten rice / poha and most recently oats, it uses the simplest of spices and garnishes, is cooked in water, and takes only a few minutes. It is thus a paragon of culinary simplicity, a marvel of tasteful combination of ingredients, and an example of versatility and utility.
Upma is so common and lowly a dish that it is difficult to find a restaurant or breakfast pad that outshines the others. In terms of the pecking order of South Indian dishes, it is lower than even the dosa, idli or wada. The upma occupies the lowest place. It is always found as a single inconspicuous word in the menu and is usually available only till 10a.m. or so, in most places. So commonplace it si that if you order upma at a restaurant, most people would look at you with doubt and pity, if not scorn and disgust.
At home, the upma's story is even worse. Because it is so easy to make, the upma is every mother's delight and every child's woe. As a result, there are many who grow up with a lifelong hatred towards upma. The humble upma conveys many things: it signifies the housewife's lack of concern for the family members' distinguishing palate, it indicates extreme paucity of time like the entire family going out early to some place like a temple or marriage, or it shows a no-frills/ no-nonsense attitude towards treating a large number of people to breakfast.
There are very few genuine lovers of upma and I can count on myself being one. As I said, there are no restaurants (at least I do not know) that can take pride in serving the best upma and that is partly because the number of connoisseurs are too few. Asking a bevy of upma haters to grade an upma is wrong research methodology. Therefore, we lovers of upma, are always experimenting and are constantly seeking the best upma in town and country. We can grade them as very good ones, average and deplorable, rarely do we come across an outstanding one. Even at home the quality varies and so does your appreciation of the taste.
Seeking the good upma is a game of serendipity. There have been cases where I was utterly surprised by excellence and also shocked by the insipidity of the fare. Here are some spots of excellence I can remember:
1. A restaurant outside Dadar station (east) served very good upma early in the morning/ Start the day out with a warm feeling.
2. The famous Amba Bhavan (I think it is shut down now), which used to be next to Kochu Guruvayoorappan temple in Kings Circle, Matunga served distinctly great upma any time of the day. Wash it down with piping hot filter coffee and face the day with confidence.
3. In general, most standard Udipi joints in Mumbai, serve pretty good upma. But you have to be there in time for breakfast.
4. I have had varied experiences with upma in Bangalore. Often called as kharabhath, some of the makeshift food stalls score over the restaurants. But one restaurant called as Shilpa, bang outside Bowring Hospital, off Infantry Road, serves an outstanding fare. Most of the items in this fast-moving restaurant are par excellence. It is one of the best kept secrets in Bangalore.
5. Indian Coffee House in Gwalior, one or two restaurants outside Guruvayur temple in Thrissur, Kerala, Hotel Saravanas on 26th St & Lexington Ave in NYC are notable and good.
Great disappointments include MTR 1924 (the new one) in Bangalore, all of the South Indian restaurants in Delhi - Sagar Ratna chain. Adyar Anand Bhavan and other are disappointing. In comparison, the Naivedyam outlet in Gurgaon, scored over the others.
In the vein of poet Robert Browning's lines. "The best is yet to be, the last of life for which the first was made"; the quest for the best upma is an eternal one. That's the spirituality behind upma.
Do write in with your best choices in upma.

- ed

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