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I didn’t realize how spoiled I was, foodwise, until I left home. Though both working full-time, my parents made it a point to feed my brother and me a home-cooked Indian meal for dinner every evening while we were growing up. My mother, who is from Bangalore in South India, and my father, who is from Delhi in North India, kept their (quite different) food traditions very much alive in our New Jersey kitchen. Cooking was always part of the conversation, and they included my brother and me in the process by giving us tasks, like washing and prepping vegetables; as we got older, we graduated to rolling rotis and cooking rice.
While living on my own, I often craved my parents’ cooking. I started spending vacations at home, following them around in the kitchen, observing, trying my hand at various preparations, and taking copious notes. I would accompany my parents on their annual trips to India, where I would gather as much knowledge as I could from elder family members. I logged hours on the phone with my parents as I tried to recreate old family recipes. I started to document what I learned on my blog, but before long the recipes took a new direction. Once I got the hang of the techniques, I decided to use fresh produce like delicata squash and garlic scapes from my farm share, or mix in ingredients I had discovered in Brooklyn, like tahini and guajillo peppers. My coconut polenta upma, which appears in my cookbook Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn, is a perfect example.
Upma is my comfort food, a savory South Indian breakfast traditionally made from Indian semolina flour (labeled as sooji or rawa in the Indian shop, or farina or Cream of Wheat in American grocery stores). This variety of semolina is made from soft wheat and is white-ish in color, as opposed to Italian semolina, which is made from hard durum wheat and is yellow in color. Upma is also referred to as ‘uppittu’ in Kannada, my mother’s language, and translates as a portmanteau of uppu (salt) and hittu (flour).
My mom’s upma is flavored with coconut and lemon and ginger, green chili peppers, curry leaves, black mustard seeds, turmeric, and a teaspoon of two different lentils called urad dal and chana dal. Depending on what she had on hand, she would add chopped veggies to the mix, like a combo of onion, potatoes and peas. I would happily sit in front of my Saturday morning cartoons devouring a big bowl of upma, topped with creamy homemade yogurt and hot Indian pickle (achaar).
Upma is simple yet infinitely satisfying, quickish to pull together, and easy to feed a crowd—not to mention it’s very inexpensive—so I had chose to prepare it for a brunch I was hosting with a group of friends (shhh!). I soon realized, though, that I had some gluten-free guests in the crowd, which threw a wrench in my plans. I still wanted to stick with my upma theme, but had to find a semolina replacement that was just as luxurious in texture. Hello, polenta; in a mere trial run, I found its texture was even more pillowy than the original, and now have crossed over to the polenta camp.
As opposed to the traditional recipe where you cook the veggies with the semolina, I decided to cook the veggies in a separate pan so I could spoon them over each bowl of polenta. (Feel free to use quick-cooking polenta in the recipe to save time.) This makes for a more striking dish when serving guests. For this particular recipe, I used vegetables ideal in Spring: green onions, radishes and asparagus, but don’t let that stop you from using other vegetable combos. The dish can be served with a pat of butter, or my personal favorite: plain yogurt and achaar, just like when I was younger.
Note: If you would like to incorporate the two lentils into the mix, make sure you get urad dal that is white in color (without its black skin), and purchase chana dal that is golden-yellow in color. If you don’t have those ingredients, the dish will work perfectly fine, but I personally like adding these fried lentils to the mix for their nuttiness and texture.
- 1/2 cup unsweetened grated coconut (fresh, frozen, or dried)
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinking
- 1 cup polenta* or medium or coarsely ground cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 8 ounces asparagus, tough parts of spears broken of
- 1/2 cup snap peas, trimmed and stringed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon chana dal
- 1 teaspoon urad dal
- 5 or 6 fresh curry leaves
- 1/2 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 Indian green chile or serrano chile, finely chopped
- 2 or 3 scallions or seasonal ramps, both white and green parts, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 4 or 5 red radishes, trimmed and quartered
- Juice of half a lemon (about 11⁄2 tablespoons), plus more as needed
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
- SERVING OPTIONS
- Plain yogurt or butter