The southern part of India is home to some of the country’s most popular breakfast and snack items. Even a cursory investigation into the vegetarian dishes of southern Indian states reveals they have enough to offer beyond the scrumptious ghee roast Dosa and the crunchy Medu Vadas.
Upma is the perfect case in favour of the age-old ‘don't judge a book by its cover’ adage. This simple, unassuming-looking porridge is a flavour bomb that can both be savoury and sweet.
Undoubtedly, if there is one variant of Upma that has stood the test of time, it is the Rava Upma, made of sooji (ground semolina). This style of Upma is a customary presence in homes and breakfast joints across Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The dish was traditionally made by first dry-roasting the sooji in a wok, then adding it back into the pan and sauteing it in ghee alongside lentils, tempered spices, grated garlic, and onion. Once the spices and the sooji assume a golden-brown tinge, a pot of water is gently poured into the mix and stirred until the concoction starts to resemble the consistency of a sludgy porridge.
Despite its omnipresence in the country, mapping the exact origin of this bowl of comfort is a challenging ordeal. The name of the dish is derived from the Telugu word "uppu", which literally means salt, and perhaps implies the dish has its roots in Karnataka. The name could also have been an inflexion of the Tamil word "mavu", meaning powdered grain.
Whatever may have been the case, Upma is a self-contained meal that can be consumed on its own without a side of coconut chutney or Sambhar. This dish has changed forms and can be made with all kinds of grain meals, be it the dalia (cracked wheat) variant popular in Tamil Nadu, or the rice variant widely consumed in Karnataka. Cooks have frequently experimented with the original recipe to lend it more body. So breakfast options have expanded exponentially to include dishes like Corn Upma and Aval Upma (Upma made with flattened rice).
Similarly, when finely chopped caramelised onions are folded into the Upma, it becomes the crowd-pleasing Onion Upma; and a plate of Upma decorated with colourful bits of sauteed cauliflower, carrots and beans is called Vegetable Upma. Often, cooks sprinkle a dash of turmeric into the mix to create a dish similar to Khichdi (rice and lentil porridge).
In Odisha, Upma is often served as a breakfast item with a side of Ghugni (chickpea curry).