Upma on Top Chef Masters: Breakfast of Champions

Floyd Cardoz is America’s Top Chef Master. He won the show’s final challenge despite LA traffic leaving him with the least cooking time of the finalists, and he did it his way. His menu featured upma in addition to rice-crusted snapper in broth and an Indonesian dish called rendang a Malaysian beef stew called randang. It was exciting to see a familiar-to-me-from-home-not-restaurants desi food like upma on the screen in the finale on the kind of show that often has me looking up its mentions of French foodie terms.

upma.flickr.jpg (Photo by ukanda)

Given the recent praise and admiration expressed for the humble dish known as upma following its Top Chef Masters appearance (Three cheers to upma, Upma still a hot hit, Up, Up Upma!, One upma-nship), you may want to ward off the evil eye the next time you have some, maybe with a pinch of salt or chili powder. Dressed up with chicken stock, mushrooms, coconut milk and kokum by Cardoz, his upma (picture, recipe) caught the attention of the show’s judging panel. Cardoz made the dish to evoke one of his earliest memories of food; the second dish reflected the moment that inspired him to become a chef, and the third was chosen by a randomly assigned judge (James Oseland) to reflect the dish that made the judge decide to pursue the career of a food critic.

Critic Ruth Reichl was very taken with Cardoz’s upma. “The more attention you give it, more and more flavors start ricocheting around in your mouth.” She declared it brave to do the up-ma and described it as really taking a chance to put out a dish that simple. That simplicity made Gael Greene doubtful. “I  don’t know about this,” she said, suggesting that it was too simple. James Oseland really liked Floyd’s upma and praised the food. “He took this utterly plain Indian home dish yet made it elegant.” See how they decided to vote for Cardoz.

Cardoz, who celebrated his win by nursing a champagne hangover and heading over to Dosa Hutt in Queens, will be opening North End American Grill in Battery Park, NY. His win raised $100,000 for the Young Scientists Cancer Research Fund in honor of his dad, who died from cancer. He joins two other chefs who have won the title of Top Chef Master–Rick Bayless, known for his Mexican cuisine, and Marcus Samuelsson, whose cooking includes influences from Swedish, Japanese and African cuisines.

Clips: Contestants instruct their initially unidentified partners on how to cook their dish. Cardoz is paired with his sister, though he does not realize it is her.

Suvir Saran, eliminated earlier in the series after taking a stand on vegetarianism, talks about his elimination and his fun experiences on the show.

20 thoughts on “Upma on Top Chef Masters: Breakfast of Champions

  1. So interesting- I’ve never heard of mushrooms and chicken in upma before but it looks/sounds yummy!

  2. Hey guys – Suzy Singh, a Punjabi Sikh from Chicago is also currently on MasterChef on Fox – she’ll be on tonight and the judges have been pretty impressed thus far. She’s got a blog as well as a Facebook page dedicated to her MasterChef experiences thus far.

  3. She declared it brave to do the up-ma and described it as really taking a chance to put out a dish that simple. It’s quite funny that even in it’s basic form, the spice combination used in upma (curry leaves, asafetida, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chili, fresh green chili, ginger, cilantro, etc) makes it considerably more complex than many of the European dishes that I’m sure those TV chefs would consider to be “proper” cuisine.

    a Malaysian beef stew called randang RENDANG! With an E. And you can start riots in Indonesia by calling it a Malaysian dish. (It’s both, but it really started in Indonesia, which Indonesians are very quick to point out.)

  4. Thanks for your enlightening comments, Gur and Eurasian S. And Joey, I thought there was chicken in his upma at first, but it looks like it was chicken stock. I like the mushroom touch too.

  5. So would anyone be willing to link or describe their favorite upma recipe? I’d like to give it a try!

  6. Pavani: I posted this story about Upma and Floyd Cardoz on SM on June 16th. Although we are from Gujarat, we love Upma for breakfast – not every day like they have in South India – but once a week it’s OK. By the way another meaning of “Upma” in Sanskrit, as well as in Gujarati is “Title”, as in Shree, Shreemati, Aadarniya, Manniya, etc…

  7. No diaries about Herman Kaur Raju , the “educated” snob on the NY train? How can sepiamutiny pass up the chance to comment on such a funny story?

    • I have a feeling that we don’t have the whole story there. Maybe it was a reaction to the conductor being condescending or rude or asking her if she spoke English. I doubt it was snobbery.

  8. “Maybe it was a reaction to the conductor being condescending or rude or asking her if she spoke English. I doubt it was snobbery.”

    If you watch the video, the conductor remains professional, whereas the woman comes across so comically condescending that I thought it was a joke at first! Just goes to show you can buy education, but ya can’t buy class ;)

    “So would anyone be willing to link or describe their favorite upma recipe? I’d like to give it a try!”

    Yeah same…I don’t think I’ve even tried South Indian food, how sad! If anyone wants to post a good recipe (or a link to one online) that would be awesome.

  9. Yo Dad, not all southern families eat upma everyday. I would say twice a week may be closer to the truth. In my own family, it’s less than that, but I notice my cousin’s families have it once in a while. It is not a favorite of mine though I don’t hate it.

    I hope Pavani didn’t mind the minor hijacking of the thread. But in response to John Jacobi’s comment, oh, it doesn’t matter what the context is. Anyone with such a cartoonish accent is a snob.And she didn’t even go to a top college and she has been cited on other blogs as looking down on SUNY as an educational option. I think we need a sepiamutiny blog item on something I noticed among desis “I am very educated” as an excuse for bad behvior.

  10. I love to cook and eat upma, but be aware that if you prepare it using Cream of Wheat (aka wheat minus all fiber), it is quite an unhealthy dish, particularly if you have typically Indian diabetic tendencies. Yeah, I was surprised too.

    The original suji-based dish is probably no health food either, but it’s not as bad for you.

  11. Ashish: “I love to cook and eat upma, but be aware that if you prepare it using Cream of Wheat (aka wheat minus all fiber), it is quite an unhealthy dish, particularly if you have typically Indian diabetic tendencies. Yeah, I was surprised too. The original suji-based dish is probably no health food either, but it’s not as bad for you. “

    Cream of wheat is pretty good for you actually:

    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/breakfast-cereals/1640/2

    Suji/Semolina isn’t all that bad either:

    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/5731/2

    Per calorie, both these foods are extremely good, and an important source of iron in the desi diet. If I remember right, both cream of wheat and semolina are the endosperm of wheat grains (soft and durum varieties respectively), the difference just lies in the type of wheat.

    Sorry to be rude, but if you eat too many calories, the fault isn’t the food’s. It is yours. Personally, I really can’t stand the “desi food is bad” scares, it is ridiculous and almost always ill thought out.

  12. Adding chicken stock and mushrooms to Upma is a big sin for the traditional crowd (or Hindus and Jains in general). Instead of chicken stock, why not just add vegetable stock. I personally have nothing against mushrooms, but lots of traditional types don’t like or touch mushrooms because they are considered unclean.

    I personally love upma wrapped up in pessaratu (moong dal type dosai). That is due to my inner andhra.

  13. It is amazing to see Upma even make it to primetime on the food channel in America. Even if it has been corrupted with non veg ingredients. Although it probably won’t get any more air time after this. (I prefer to “corrupt” the recipe with other grains.)

    I have made Upma with quinoa, both the regular and red varieties. It turned out pretty well, considering quinoa is considered health food. (Since some are talking carbs here.) Some other health conscious people make it with a combination of whole grain bulgur wheat and steel cut oats, and the “cream of wheat” but you can experiment with any grains. My next experiment will be with buckwheat/kasha, but I have a feeling it might end up with a stronger flavor.

    It’s interesting that some Desi’s haven’t tried south indian food! Being born and raised in the US, I never had north indian food until I was 15 years old (but I did try chapathis. I grew up with traditional American & Americanized Mexican & Americanized Chinese foods outside the house and a rice based traditional south Indian vegetarian diet at home ). The first northern dishes I had were the usual mattar paneer & naan from an Indian restaurant. It was love at first bite. But then the love affair soured after a few years because all you get in most indian restaurants are naans, pooris, paneer dishes , samosas, and chole. The typical Indian restaurant menus get boring after awhile. And,the majority of the dishes all come from one region of Punjab and are usually swimming in grease, oil, salt and over spiced. Even some south indian restaurants are falling into the trap of drowning food in oil. I think drowning foods in oil might make it last longer, like a preservative, but it ends up disgusting. You hardly see traditional stuff like dal baati, or rajma in Indian restaurants.

    For those who want to try real south indian food, find a traditional south indian and ask for a dinner invitation. Especially on the days they make dosai, rava idli, akki roti, pesarattu, avalakki, pongal, a good rasam, gojjus,etc. Some Hindu temples sell tamarind rice (puliyogare) and lemon rice as fund raisers, but it is usually cold, mass produced and doesn’t taste as good as home made. But it’s acceptable if you can zap it in a microwave.

  14. I remember having upma about once or twice a week growing up, mostly on weekends as a brunch or breakfast dish, something simple yet a little nicer than having a cold cereal breakfast. As far as recipes, Cardoz’s is linked in the post and here’s Padma Lakshmi’s couscous upma. More non-celebrity ones online too, sorry I haven’t tested any of them out, though. I like carrots, peanuts and tiny chopped-up pieces of ginger in mine. I didn’t realize there were oats and idli and bread varieties of upma either. Interesting!

  15. Cream of wheat is pretty good for you actually: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/breakfast-cereals/1640/2

    Did you click on the link? 85% carbs! Cream of Wheat is the very last thing that diabetes-prone Indians should be eating. It is wheat minus the fiber. A typically “white” American meal would offset those carbs with a source of animal protein. But upma doesn’t provide that. http://www.rediff.com/news/2005/apr/19inter1.htm

    Personally, I really can’t stand the “desi food is bad” scares, it is ridiculous and almost always ill thought out.

    If you look at the health of the Indians you know – particularly the vegetarians among them – and then you look at their starch on starch on starch (with some fat thrown in) diets … well there’s a reason they’re all falling apart by their 40s (my age). And the tragedy is – it’s not necessary.

    Yes, I’m sure you could construct a theoretically healthy Indian meal. But no Indian I know eats (an Indian diet) like that. And Cream of Wheat is not even an Indian ingredient – it’s just a worse version of the original.

  16. Hi this is Payam Nassirpour from TheCelebrityCafe.com. We just recently spoke with MasterChef Judge Joe Bastianich about the new season. In it Joe talks about his start in the restaurant business, the difference between MasterChef USA and Italia (which he also judges), and the food he will never dare to eat. I’m sure your readers would love to read what Joe has to say. You can find the entire interview here:

    http://thecelebritycafe.com/feature/interview-joe-bastianich-06-26-2011