You really have to be a South Indian to understand the value of upma and tiffins. In the north, tiffin seems to mean anything which is packed to be consumed later, either at school or workplace, and from what I see, it is mostly roti, puris or variations thereof. Of course, with idli and dosa batter being available in most supermarkets now, people are venturing to pack these items too, but largely they stick to what is familiar.
When I was growing up my tiffin dabba consisted almost exclusively of a very non-tiffin item : curd rice. I have blogged earlier about how this is comfort food for most South Indians and I must be one of the many who carried this item to school everyday throughout my school life. In fact, during those brief ocassions when I had to carry a tiffin dabba to work, I again ended up carrying this item only. ‘
When I explained this to my Delhi raised husband, he was stunned. According to him curd rice was almost never carried to school because the tiffin dabba is kept with the school books and carrying curd rice means you risk ruining your books. The concept of having a separate basket which would carry your dabba, water bottle, napkin and spoon seemed alien to him, whereas almost all of us at school always carried our food separately from our books.
Which brings me to upma, a very typical tiffin item.Upma is made with a wide variety of base items :powdered rice, vermicilli, beaten rice, wheat, semolina. Basic principles of making it are the same, dry roast the base, and then add it to boiling water and let it cook. Your base items decides the extent of water which is added to ensure it is well cooked. One needs to be careful with the water because cooking in less water makes the upma very hard and unpalatable, and pouring excessive water will make it overcooked and feeling like tasteless porridge. With rice, there is also a variation called upma kozhakattai where you cook the rice half way as in upma, then make it into small balls (like dumplings) and then steam it. It is a kind of cross between upma and idlli and being double cooked makes it very soft and is a favorite of my daughter.
As a matter of fact, I personally have disliked upma for most of my life. I realized its value onlly when I had to daily pack a tiffin for my daughter and I knew that no matter how much I tried my parathas and puris would never be great and what is more I didnt have the energy to make them everyday. Upma, in its various forms can be alternated for most of the week, and allows me to plan breakfast accordingly.
Upma is easy to make, easy to carry and generally not so messy to eat (as long as you have a spoon). It requires little preparation time (no need to soak and grind batter). In fact it is generally regarded as a kind of item you offer to unexpected visitors, because it hardly takes time to make. A point of South Indian protocol : If you are have invited a person to eat and have had plenty of time to prepare for their visit, it is bad form to serve them upma, because upma is almost exclusively made for guests only when they drop in suddenly.
So upma is definitely not a fine dining item. Be that as it may, it is definitely a very quintessential south indian item. I havent seen variations of this in other parts of India, and although I have not travelled the world so much I doubt if there is any equivalent of upma anywhere.
And while we are at it, can anyone enlighten me on why this name. It is the same in all south indian languages (upma in Tamil, Uphittu in Kannada and Uppupindi in Telugu). Roughly translated it means salt and flour, but we rarely use fully ground flour in it.