Upma is a south Indian tiffin dish made by cooking sooji (semolina/rava) with herbs like curry leaves and cilantro, a few simple spices, and veggies. It's a 30 minute, one-pot recipe. It's also vegan, soy-free and can be nut-free.
Upma is something we ate often in my parents' home, and it features with some regularity now in my kitchen when I'm looking to make a quick and nutritious breakfast that cooks up in under 30 minutes and pleases everyone.
This is one of those recipes that, albeit south Indian in origin, has perhaps infiltrated every Indian household, no matter where in India it is, because it's just that good. If you live outside India, you've likely encountered it on the menu of a south Indian restaurant, alongside dosa and idli.
An upma is also perhaps the first dish I actually learned to cook, because it's that simple. All you need to do is roast the rava or sooji or semolina in a wok until it's fragrant and very lightly browned, then add in some herbs, spices and, if you want, veggies. In fact, an upma is almost foolproof and so long as you follow some basic instructions you can make sure yours turns out fluffy and delicious.
What you'll love Upma
- It's super easy. Anyone can learn to make an upma.
- It's quick. All you need is between 20 to 30 minutes and there's no major prep work or do-ahead stuff.
- It's a one-pot dish. A wok is all you need, although a large skillet will do.
- It's everyone-approved: Kids, adults, picky eaters will all love it, especially when you drizzle on some coconut chutney.
- It's healthy. It's just wheat mixed up with herbs, spices and veggies and a minimum of oil. A dry, fluffy, savory pudding, if you will.
- It's organically vegan. Sure, there may be some who likely start out their upma with ghee, but no one I knew did, because it isn't needed. This is one of those Indian dishes that just happens to be vegan, and that's just wonderful.
- Sooji (rava, semolina, cream of wheat). Sooji is wheat-based and not gluten-free. If you are gluten-free, you can use rice rava or rice sooji, also available in Indian stores. Add half cup more water to the recipe if using rice rava.
- Vegetable oil: Any oil used in Indian cuisine is fine, including coconut and peanut oil, or a flavorless oil like avocado. Do not use olive oil please.
- Mustard seeds. Use black mustard seeds, always, in Indian cooking and let them sputter in oil before you add other ingredients or they will taste bitter.
- Green chili peppers (like serrano or jalapeno). If you like less heat deseed them.
- Curry leaves. These are key to the flavor of upma. If you absolutely can't find them, add a couple of tablespoons of chopped cilantro at the time you'd add the curry leaves.
- Ginger. Ginger adds delicious freshness to upma.
- Turmeric. Turmeric is often used optionally by Indian cooks making upma. I like to add some, for both health and color.
- Tomatoes. I love tomatoes in upma because they add wonderful tang and flavor.
- Cilantro. For garnish.
- Grated coconut (optional). A final garnish of grated coconut adds a delicious sweetness to this savory, tangy, salty dish.
- Lemon. To squeeze on the upma at the end, adding more flavor.
How to make upma
- Begin by roasting your sooji or rava in a dry skillet or wok. While some cooks skip this step, I really like it because it makes the sooji nice and toasty and it just tastes better. You want to keep a close eye on the skillet and roast the sooji over medium heat. Stir frequently. At first it may look like nothing's happening for a bit, but once the sooji reaches a certain temperature it will start to brown quite fast, and you don't want it to brown too much. Just a couple of shades darker is good. When it reaches that point, remove the sooji to a dish and set aside.
- In the same wok, you'll add vegetable oil, just about a teaspoon, and add to it some mustard seeds. Once the seeds start to sputter, stir in the onions, green chili peppers, curry leaves, turmeric and grated ginger. At this point you can also add a handful of chopped cashew nuts, if you like. Saute the onions until they're translucent, you don't need them to brown. At this point you can also add quick-cooking veggies, like grated carrots, finely chopped bell peppers, zucchini or green peas. Saute them for a couple of minutes.
- Add water to the wok. When you make upma, you will always need sooji and water in a 1:2 ratio. So if you have a cup of upma, you need to add two cups of water. Add enough salt to make sure that the water is saltier than you'd like your upma to be.
- I like adding tomatoes to my upma, but I add them only after I add the water because I don't like the tomatoes to get all mushy and pureed.
- Once the water comes to a rolling boil, lower the heat to the lowest point. Now this is the only place where you really need to be careful to make sure your upma turns out fluffy and not lumpy, so pay attention.
- As soon as the water boils, add in the roasted sooji and then, without a second's delay, use a ladle or a whisk to begin stirring the sooji into the water. The sooji is thirsty and it will glug up the water rapidly, so if you don't work fast you'll end up getting lumps of dry sooji in the upma and it won't be loose and fluffy. And once again, make sure you do this with the heat turned down to the lowest point.
- As soon as this is done, turn off the heat. Garnish your upma with cilantro, spritz on lemon juice, and serve it hot.
What to serve with upma
Frequently asked questions
You can store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to four days. Freeze for up to four months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and reheat before serving.
Use rice rava instead of the regular wheat-based rava. Add ½ cup more water when cooking with the rice rava.
Upma is quite low calorie and it has lots of protein and fiber: 178 calories, 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber in each serving. Adding vegetables to it would bump up the fiber and nutrient count, making it even healthier. The recipe uses very little oil.
More Indian vegan breakfast ideas
- Wok (kadhai, or a skillet)
- 2 cups sooji (rava, semolina)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 large onion (finely chopped)
- 2 green chili peppers (like serrano or jalapeno. Deseed and use more or less per your taste)
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 2 teaspoon ginger (grated)
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 4 cups water
- 2 medium tomatoes (diced)
- 2-4 tablespoon cilantro (chopped)
- 2 tablespoon grated coconut (optional)
- Salt to taste
- Juice of 1 lemon and more wedges of lemon to serve
- On a dry skillet, roast the sooji, stirring constantly, until it turns just a couple of shades darker and smells fragrant. Always roast on medium to medium-low heat because you don't want to burn it, and don't leave the stove unattended. The sooji should turn just a couple of shades darker and smell fragrant. Once it's roasted, remove to a plate and set aside.
- Heat the oil in the same skillet. Add the mustard and wait for the mustard seeds to sputter.
- Immediately add the curry leaves, green chillies and onions. Saute until the onions are soft but not brown. Add the ginger and stir in.
- Add any additional veggies at this point, if using. Add the turmeric and saute another minute.
- Add 4 cups water and salt it until it's saltier than you want the upma to be.
- Turn the heat to low and have a ladle or whisk ready.
- Pour the roasted rava into the skillet and immediately start stirring it into the water. You need to work fast at this stage, and again, make sure the heat is at the lowest point possible. You want every grain of the sooji to absorb water so the upma is nice and fluffy and not lumpy. If some lumps do form, press on them with the ladle and stir them into the rest of the upma. You can sprinkle on some water if needed.
- Turn off the heat immediately and mix in the cilantro, lemon juice, and coconut, if using. Serve in bowls with more wedges of lemon that you can spritz over the upma.