Breakfast is one of the most criminally undersung aspects of Indian cooking.
Indian breakfasts are rarely, if ever, sweet. They use of a truly staggering variety of grains, vegetables, and spices, and they occur in a mind-boggling diversity of forms.
They’re also incredibly regional, so that you you’ll hardly ever see people eating the same thing for breakfast from one state (or city) to another.
Uppittu (or upma as it’s often known in the north of India), is an incredibly easy and common Indian breakfast. It’s endlessly variable and the exact ingredients that go into it really depend as much on where you’re from as it does on what your family likes to eat. The most common version of uppittu is a simple dish made with fine semolina that gets sautéed with spices, aromatics, and some chopped vegetables, and then cooked with water till it forms a thick, spoonable pudding that you eat piping hot with a chutney or on its own.
I particularly love this version because it has a small culinary lesson built into it. A lot of people assume that Indian food depends, insurmountably, on rice and wheat. While it’s true that Indians across the country have developed a pretty thoroughgoing appetite for these two grains, there is, in reality, a wonderful variety of other starches and grains that go into regional Indian cooking.
Sabakki are pearls of sago starch that appear in a handful of Indian cuisines. They’re most often associated with the food of Maharashtra (where they’re called sabudhana), but they also appear in the cuisine of Northern Karnataka. This recipe, for an uppittu made from sabakki, is one I got from a family friend, Shashi Ranjan, a formidable cook who lives in the old imperial town of Mysore and showed me how to make this dish in her daughter’s kitchen in Bangalore.
A note on sour yogurt: The recipe calls for sour yogurt, a staple in a lot of South Indian cooking. The slightly fermented yogurt adds a lovely tanginess to the dish, and gives it a great probiotic boost if you’re interested in that kind of thing. You can make your own sour yogurt by leaving unflavored, natural yogurt out of the fridge overnight at room temperature. You want the yogurt to be just tangy, not unbearably sour.
A note on sabakki: Sabakki is often sold in Indian stores as sabudhana.
A note on dhals: The original recipe called for split, hulled moong dhal, which you can get at almost any natural food store where it is sold as mung bean. I’ve substituted the whole, skin-on beans because I think they taste delicious and add some color and flavor to the dish. Chana dhal is often sold as split Bengal gram. Urad dhal is sold as split black gram or, sometimes, as matpe beans. Look for the split, hulled version for this recipe.
1 cup sabakki
¼ cup dried moong dhal
1 cup sour yogurt + 1 cup water
2–3 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp black mustard seeds
2 tsp chana dhal
2 tsp urad dhal
2 sprigs curry leaves, stripped from their branches
2 green chiles, roughly chopped (or to taste)
¼ cup fresh grated coconut
¼ cup fresh cilantro (leaves and stems), washed and roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime (optional)
Soak sabakki in the yogurt-water mixture overnight. Soak moong dhal in water overnight.
Cook moong dhal in plenty of water till just soft. Drain water and add salt to taste.
Get all your prepped ingredients ready: the dish comes together in minutes and any dilly-dallying could lead to burnt spices which will ruin the taste of the finished dish.
In a medium-sized wok or kadhai, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add in this order, the mustard seeds, chana dhal, and urad dhal. When the mustard seeds turn grey and are busily sizzling in the oil, quickly add the curry leaves, asafetida, and green chile. Be careful when adding the curry leaves: they will sputter furiously when they hit the oil.
Keep stirring, making sure that the dhals don’t burn.
Add the sabakki along with any unabsorbed yogurt and the drained moong dhal.
Add 1 tsp of salt and cook the mixture, stirring often, till thoroughly combined.
Turn the heat down to low and continue cooking for 5 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed and the pearls of tapioca are shiny and translucent. If the mixture becomes too thick and unwieldy, add upto ½ cup more water, or as needed.
Once the tapioca is cooked (it will still be slightly toothsome), check for salt, and, off the heat, add the grated coconut, chopped cilantro, and lime juice if needed.