India Makes the Best Porridge
Upma, daliya, kambu koozh and plenty more
You might think that in a country as hot as India, natives might veer toward cool, refreshing morning meals like smoothies or cereal or even a nice acai bowl. In fact, the opposite is true—Indians love dealing with the steamy weather by eating steamy breakfasts. One of the universal favorites: Porridge. (For our purposes, a porridge can be any type of carb/grain-based stew.) In the US, porridge doesn’t necessarily have the hippest reputation, but in India, it is all the rage. This is because Indian porridges rock. They have everything your standard porridge does not: loads of flavor, lots of textures, and they are nice to look at.
Last time I was in India, the hottest new packaged food was a quick-cooking packet of savory Quaker oatmeal called “Masala Oats.” It’s delicious, and unfortunately not available in the United States because let’s face it: Savory oatmeal is still not a thing here.
While I wait with bated breath for trendy porridges to catch on in this country, here are eight of the most popular Indian porridge varieties—many of which you can easily make for yourself.
Remember Cream of Wheat—the pretty lame health trend of the ’90s with the friendly-looking chef on the front of the box? Suji—essentially the Indian term for Cream of Wheat—is in fact insanely popular in India, and most commonly used to make upma, an earthy, polenta-like stew with chopped vegetables, curry leaves, nuts, and mustard seeds. Lentils sometimes make an appearance, too, for seasoning.
There are also sweet uses of the grain, called Halwa (suji + sugar + ghee + cardamom) and Sheera (suji + sugar + milk), but these are usually eaten for dessert, not breakfast.
There are lots of variations of this dish, but the basic gist is the following: beaten (flattened) rice gets mixed with peas, carrots, and potatoes, doused with a fried mixture of curry leaves and mustard seeds, and sprinkled with lime. One of the tastiest iterations comes from Gujarat, where the dish has sweeter notes from the addition of raisins and sugar. A pro-tip with poha: It’s on the drier side, so the move is to drench the whole thing with a spicy chutney (cilantro works well) before eating.
Daliya (pictured at the top) is one of the chewiest and most filling of Indian porridge offerings, made with coarse bulgur wheat. The main flavor here is ajwain, which is like a sharper version of oregano; chopped vegetables, green chilies, and cilantro also come to the party in most versions. A more unembellished breakfast comes in the form of sweet daliya, which gets cooked in milk with plain white sugar. You can treat this one like oatmeal—nuts, raisins, apples, or maple syrup are all fair game for toppings.
This very light, mild-flavored-but-protein-packed breakfast consists of rice and lentils that get cooked until they become extremely soft—as my mom says, “like a paste with some tooth to it”—and spiced with whole peppercorns, curry leaves, and sometimes shredded coconut. People love pongal because it’s a complete meal with all your daily nutrients, but one that thankfully doesn’t taste like cardboard.
Sabudana Kichidi (also known as Sabudana Poha)
My personal favorite Indian porridge is not really all that porridge-like at all. It’s more of a room temperature mix made with tapioca balls (not the giant ones that come in bubble tea—these are smaller and more transparent), plus green chiles, curry leaves, peanuts, salt, and loads of lime (in my household, at least). Another popular version seasons the tapioca with a cumin/red chili mixture. Regardless, you will love this dish because it’s soft, crunchy, salty, and tangy all at once.
Sevai Upma (also known as Vermicelli Upma)
Rice noodles: they aren’t just for pho! But really, they make for the absolute best variation on upma (the cream of wheat based porridge). Like sabudana, sevai upma is served with lots of peanuts and lime. Other riffs mix in turmeric, to give the dish even more nuttiness and a beautiful yellow hue.
This is a suuuper simple pearl millet based porridge whose only other ingredients are buttermilk and salt. You can jazz it up with onions, chilies, or achar (pickles), but the real beauty of this dish is that it is typically served cool—a rare, actually refreshing Indian porridge on a hot summer day.
Indian cuisine even has its own version of the beloved Asian porridge, congee. This spicy, pungent, rice-based dish gets its kick from turmeric, ginger, onion, fenugreek and coconut paste. It is primarily eaten as a special treat during Ramadan.Priya Krishna is a food writer in New York (by way of Texas), and the author of the college-centric cookbook, Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks. Follow her @PKgourmet.