Did he whistle when he sliced those magic mushrooms and threw them on top of a heap of semolina? Did he shout and sing along with the old Beatles anthem, “Semolina Pilchard, yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” as he stirred his upma? Did the drumbeats of the Tabla, his signature New York restaurant, roll as fragments of his Mumbaiya childhood sputtered in his oily wok of memories to create a dish that would make him a Top Chef Master in a hard-won competition that would net him $1,00,000 (that’s all of 46 lakhs in Indian rupees) and the everlasting schlock horror of the natives back home. The humble upma elevated to a star status we exclaim, the song of the sooji on everyone’s lips!
Et tu Cardoz? Did you ever eat the semolina custard when your mother made it? Admit it, the only reason for leaving the motherland in the first place was to avoid a dish that makes the word lumpen sound tasty. Or one whose grainy character can only be compared to the lumps of postal office paste that postal department clerks leave for their customers to smear with dirty fingers on to money orders and the flaps of grey inland letter forms.
Yes, yes, there are many sub-sects amongst the Indian population who will claim that the upma is their favourite dish. It’s possible that civil society, even as it positions itself as the voice of the ‘volk’, will table its demands to make it the Indian national dish and insist that the prime minister be served upma for breakfast every day. They may even now be planning to band together and have a sit-in on the grounds outside Parliament, stirring huge cauldrons of humble upma as the food of the masses. One that will unify the country on a common platform of nutritious pap as various expert cooks and bawarchis create the ultimate upma.
Therein lies the rub. There’s no clear consensus on what makes for the ideal upma. Schoolboys and girls know that an upma in the tiffin box is the last recourse of the harassed Mum. “Eeea-ow, upma!” is how they respond when they open their aluminium or plastic boxes and peer into the congealed mass lurking at the bottom. Sometimes it has the texture of reconstituted thermocol, at other times the fragrance of a lumpy mattress that has been left out in the rain. For some it is the smell, or should one say aroma, that is distracting. It’s got an earthy quality to it thanks to the tiny insects and boll weevils lurking in the sooji.
Needless to say, in the hands of an expert chef all this falls into place. If Cardoz doused his upma with generous helpings of white wine, chicken stock, white port, coconut milk, oyster mushrooms and then disguised it altogether by calling it ‘Wild Mushroom Polenta’, he was only following a time-honoured tradition of value addition to a traditional peasant dish. Udipi-style cooks prefer to add generous helpings of ghee so that their upma gets a golden glaze. They pack the melting mixture into small moulds and upend them onto slivers of banana leaf, with a circle of tomato on the top.
As an adult you don’t eat the pure stuff, you have it in the form of various disguises, Kara Baath for instance, where the upma comes as a spicy combo that is more of a veggie biriyani, with all manner of additives, or made from other wheat- or rice-based derivatives such as vermicelli, broken wheat, beaten rice flakes, sago pearls, rice rava, oats and so forth.
On the other hand, there are individuals who refuse to be fooled. My father, for instance, was a lifelong member of the anti-upma brigade. He was not a musical man but he would start humming a little tune when the upma appeared on the table. He whistled under his breath: “Why oh why, did I come to Ohio?” as he gazed at the upma on his plate.
My mother would start stabbing at her plate as he proceeded to ask for a banana, then a spoonful of sugar, a helping of pickle, whichever variety that was not in season, and finally, he would look up at all of us and say: “Can I have some jam? A little marmalade might be a good idea to go with my upma.”
My mother would have stabbed her way through a whole mound of the upma by then. None of us would have touched the stuff. You could slice the air with a bread knife.
“I never said that I would not eat the upma,” my father would say under his breath. But we knew that he was whistling, “I’m so glad I’m going to Ohio!”
No wonder Americans have risen to the challenge and shouted. “Up-mom! Yes we can.”