Upma: Justice for Cereal Killers

Published: July 16, 2015 - 17:43 Updated: July 16, 2015 - 17:48

For an answer to the packaged food crisis, we need look no further than our own cuisine

Ratna Raman Delhi 

It is odd how the printed word controls our eating habits. Aggressive advertising has helped branded cereals supplant traditional, local foods. In beautiful pictures of showpiece homes, perfect children cheerfully ace their exams after consuming branded cereals for breakfast. Today, the corner store sells branded cereal in single-serve-packs—vanilla or chocolate, take your pick—but the picture is no longer so rosy for Maggi Noodles. This Nestle brand has been declared too dangerous to be consumed: unwelcome news to Indians, who scarf the stuff down all over the country.

So what is the problem with Nestle’s Maggi noodles? Is it true that they contain dangerous levels of poisonous lead? Is that the reason that Maggi noodles have been withdrawn? Or was it monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, also known as ajinomoto—a Japanese flavouring agent said to cause headaches and neurological disorders?

Nestle erred on the side of rumour by announcing that there was no MSG in their noodles, which is true. The MSG that Nestle hid, like a dirty secret, was in the little sachets, enclosed within noodle bags. Is MSG really bad for us? The jury is still out on this. As Vir Sanghvi pointed out in his column, MSG, or Ajinomoto, was invented by the Taiwan-born Chinese expatriate Momofuku Aldo in Japan. Supposedly it caters to the ‘umami’, or what we could call the ‘zing point’, which hits the palate when savoury food is consumed (nobody adds MSG to sweet items). 

Perhaps Ajinomoto’s reputation took a beating because it suited some flavour manufacturer to eliminate the competition. In the 1970s, when Mother Dairy was set up, everybody whispered about how the milk was extracted from soyabean. Full page articles, with the headline “Who Spread the Soyabean Rumour in our Milk”, featured in the national dailies to counter this. In New Delhi in particular, we breathe bad air and eat vegetables laden with pesticides and wash it all down with privately treated water. And the labs generating these reports are decrepit, underequipped places hardly worthy of the name. But the real focus should be on whether these noodles themselves are healthy—whether or not they’re contaminated with lead or MSG. Maggi, and all instant noodles, are made from refined wheat flour (read ‘maida’). Does it have the nutrients that kids need, outside of the ad with smiling children, a stress free mother and a benevolent Amitabh Bachchan? (Perhaps the film star is skeptical: He shifted since to recommending long grained  basmati rice—in which, incidentally, the Americans have discovered arsenic, but apparently not enough to force people to change
cereal preferences.)

Meanwhile the internet is rife with jokes about distraught mothers and wives whose cooking skills have been entwined with noodles all this while. We should move away from this sticky mess by recalling media postings of six months ago: A combination of three idlis, a bowl of sambar and a cup of coffee was declared to be the most nourishing optimal breakfast all over India. Despite serious political reservations about Amma from Tamil Nadu, we must commend her for having pushed idlis in her eateries, thereby restricting the packaged food industry from amassing disproportionate assets. 

There is new possibility here, an occasion wherein food chauvinism can bind us together as a nation, since yoga as a soft option is beginning to contort into yet another foot-in-mouth position. The cereals that we make in kitchens in Indian homes are definitely healthier than the ones made in factories. I, for one, have resumed my engagement with upma. While I was eating this morning’s portion, I recalled why I’d given it up: one of the stories in Manjula Padmanabhan’s collection entitled Hot Death, Cold Soup.

Located in America, the story dealt with the falling apart of interracial love. A Tamil Brahmin boy visits his mother with his menstruating black girlfriend. Mother discovers miniscule blood stain on the bedsheet and insists that the offender must wash the sheet at once. The girlfriend takes offense and decides that she wants out. Every right thinking reader (knowing or not knowing of the Tam-Bram menstruation taboo) is firmly on her side. She storms off angrily, refusing the offer of upma that her ‘could have been’ mother-in-law puts on the table. (A separate essay is required to document women’s protest against pollution rituals and their perpetration in Tamil orthodoxy.)

It may be unfair to depict upma as some pinkish mush which must be disdained along with pollution taboos, but the story put me off the stuff. Upma in its persona as an unappetising, inappropriate food replaces the offending mother-in-law. It is time to redress such sleight of hand: the upma must no longer be made to suffer in place of anti-diluvean taboo rituals.

Upma is a composite word. It gets its name from uppu (salt) and maavu (flour), the key ingredients from which it is made. Most people make it with semolina (also known as suji or rava). Both finely and coarsely ground varieties will work. Semolina is the kernel of wheat, a by-product that is arrived at along with maida and whole wheat flour through the processes of grinding.

To make upma, dry roast a cup of semolina flour in an open pan and set it aside to cool. Then heat a table spoon or two of ghee and oil in a wide mouthed saucepan, adding mustard seeds after it is hot. When the seeds splutter, throw in a pinch of asafoetida, slivers of chillies and ginger, chopped curry leaves and a spoonful of Bengal gram lentil and toss the ingredients with a ladle to coat them in the oil. If you are using finely ground semolina, add two cups water. If you prefer the coarse variety, add three cups, as it absorbs more water. When the water comes to a boil, add a dash of salt and slowly sift the semolina into the water. Once the semolina grains absorb the spiced liquid and become a full bodied mass, turn off the fire and allow the mixture to stand for a few minutes. It should be crumbly, moist and ready for eating.

That’s a very basic upma recipe. For vegetable upma, stir in onions, carrots, peas, cabbage and cauliflower to the garnish before adding water. You can also add peanuts. And you can make upma from other cereals and millets such as dahlias of wheat and bajra, wheat noodles (semiya), oats, parboiled broken rice, rice flakes, couscous, cornmeal, sago—sometimes even crumbled brown or white bread. In these forms, upma lacks the fermented protein that idlis offer. But idlis can be crumbled and turned into upma, and garnished with select vegetables.

Here in India, we think of upma as a humble dish, but it recently made waves on Masterchef America, where semolina dressed in mushroom and coconut milk won Chef Floyd Cardoz top berth. Compare this with the sorry moment when an MTR advertisement had a mother  parachute from a plane to prepare upma for her son; this ghastly selling proposition ensured that demand for upma plummeted, too. We need to thank Chef Cardoz, “kyonki unke karya se, ab upma ke acche din aa gaye hain.”

Homemade upma, not the fake packaged stuff, is an artisanal food. It needs our attention, as India lurches closer towards becoming world leader in diabetes and heart disease.

Because it’s made with unprocessed grains, it has far less sugar than packaged alternatives. And with the addition of vegetables and nuts, it tastes better, too.

It can even satisfy your cravings for something sweet. Halwa, after all, is nothing more than sweetened upma. To make it healthier, substitute jaggery or honey for white sugar.

 It is time we returned to our grandmothers’ kitchens and revived cereal cooking.

For an answer to the packaged food crisis, we need look no further than our own cuisine
Ratna Raman Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews