One of the things I learned at the ashram was that I eat way too much sugar for breakfast.
If I’m not making mamey muffins while Crayton is rolling out of bed, I’m dreaming about making them, or flagging down the bicycle-riding pandulce guy. The problem with this — besides calorically speaking — is that I’m usually hungry again a few hours later. And sometimes kind of shaky from the careening dip in my blood sugar.
This issue could be solved by eating more protein-rich breakfasts, but the healthy ones, such as egg whites, don’t taste as good. (I know I sound like a six-year-old, but I don’t care.)
We ate savory breakfasts almost every day at the ashram. I loved all of them, because they were packed with spices, and they made my nose run. Most involved some combination of grains or starches (wheat, rice, noodles) tossed with fried mustard seeds, chile powder, sauteed chilies, ginger and onion. Usually I had two servings and I wasn’t hungry again until lunchtime.
My favorite of all was upma, a spicy porridge of semolina grains, spices and vegetables. To make it, you fry the spices and veggies, toast the grains, and then let the whole thing steam in the veg’s spicy-oily goodness. It’s served with coconut chutney.
In pictures on various food blogs, upma looks very prim, scooped into a little mound. This is not how we ate it at the ashram. Our upma was messy, and scattered around our plate in various lumps and valleys. We’d pick up a piece with our hand, swirl it in some chutney, and pop it in our mouths. The taste lay somewhere between Mexican rice and couscous, but with ginger and mouth-warming heat from the chili powder.
One day, the ashram’s cool chef/philosophy teacher told me that upma can also be made with oatmeal. A little thrill surged through my heart. Semolina isn’t easy to find in Mexico, so that meant that I could make upma when I got home!
A few days ago, I did. I used the the mustard seeds I’d bought in India, one of the items that the overzealous Mexican customs lady didn’t take. Added some dried curry leaves gifted by Alice; tomatoes, because they were plentiful at the local market, and cilantro, because I have two bunches of it in my fridge. Chopped a little onion and some ginger, and half of a serrano chile.
Traditional upma calls for frying a spoonful or two of lentils, but I used peanuts instead, because I had a bunch on hand.
The result was a hearty, spicy bowl of cooked grains, bright from the addition of the tomatoes, and nutty from the fried mustard seeds and the peanuts. Even Crayton liked it. He took a bite and said, “Hmmm…. gingery.”
I served this with a few spoonfuls of sliced bananas, dates and honey. Hey, the point isn’t giving up sugar entirely — it’s knowing that I can still be creative in the mornings without it.
Inspired by the unparalleled Dr. R., a chef/teacher at an ashram in Tamil Nadu
Note: The amounts below are just suggestions; you can definitely tweak to your liking. Also, Dr. R had suggested adding grated carrot, but I didn’t have any. You can also add a touch of ghee, which adds a kind of unctuous luxuriousness to the whole thing.
It’s best to use fresh curry leaves, which have a sort of sweet, tangy flavor. The dried ones taste somewhat papery, to be honest. You could also substitute dried bay leaves, which have a zingier, spicier flavor than dried curry leaves. I added bay leaves to a savory oatmeal dish of zucchini and grated carrot, and it turned out great.
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups water
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons unsalted peanuts
1 pinch red chili powder
2 pinches of curry leaves (I used maybe eight)
3 tablespoons chopped onion
1/2 of a serrano chile, with seeds, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, minced
1 roma tomato, diced
1 small handful cilantro, or to taste, chopped
Combine rolled oats and water, and zap in the microwave until they’ve cooked. (This is about 2 1/2 minutes in Mexico.) Set aside. Heat a glug of canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat; add mustard seed. When they start to pop, add the peanuts, onion, serrano, ginger, chili powder and curry leaves. Stir and cook a few minutes. Then add the tomato, and top with a few grinds of the salt shaker. While that cooks, grab your bowl of oatmeal, and scrape it into the hot pan. Cook for one or two minutes, until the whole thing is warmed. Stir in chopped cilantro.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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