Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Bengali Oatmeal

When I was pregnant with our second child, my husband and I went to visit friends of ours in Sendai, a town in northern Japan. We couldn't have been the easiest of house guests. We had our two-year-old daughter with us and I was suffering from terrible morning sickness. There was almost nothing that didn't give me heartburn, and keeping food down had almost become an obsession.

Our friends Glen and Jayanthi, were a couple I'd known for years, since my own time in Sendai. They too were foreigners, from India. I am crazy about Indian food, so our first night there it broke my heart that I was suddenly surrounded by it and could not really enjoy it.

The first morning at their house, I dreaded the thought of breakfast. Glen, the husband, was stirring something on the stove that looked like oatmeal but smelled like an Indian spice shop. When I asked him what he was cooking, he said simply "Porridge." Then he laughed and added "Indian style porridge, I suppose."

Now in my family, oatmeal was something that was cooked to the consistency of wallpaper paste. It was tough and gluey and there were little chewy bits in it. With the best will in the world, I cannot say that I was a great fan of my mother's oatmeal.

This was something entirely different -- intoxicatingly spicy. I could smell cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. And I noticed that Glen kept stirring the pot, and he kept adding milk. When it was finally finished, the porridge had an almost creamy consistency, and it could be poured into a bowl, not scraped out in hard clumps. Glen sprinkled a generous helping of jaggery over the top, then dusted it with extra cinnamon. He served it with roasted cashew nuts, honey and sliced bananas. It looked so good, I had a bowl myself.

Ever since then, I have never made oatmeal any other way. Even if you use nonfat (skimmed) milk, 'Bengali oatmeal' -- the name my husband and I gave this -- is far nicer than the traditional stuff.

Some hardliners I have met pooh-pooh this. They say that the only way to eat oatmeal is cooked with water to a wallpaper consistency -- and that the only seasoning permissable is a dash of salt. But since these tend to be meat-and-two-veg types who wouldn't touch a lime pickle with a barge pole, I don't pay them any mind.

And perhaps it was the ginger, but I found that Bengali oatmeal was the perfect thing for my heartburn and morning sickness.



Brian said...

I have to say , that sounds delicious . I must give it a try . All my life I have been used to your oatmeal bugbear , and have to admit that the lumpier and chewier it was , the more I have liked it . Probably a taste inherited from my grandmother's somewhat rough and ready style of cooking it !

The method sounds very like the technique of cooking risotto , to which one can also add all sorts of intersting variants.

I ws brought up in a mining community -- eating very meat and three veg. good substantial working class food , Did me no harm , but any exotic variants , which were few and far between , lit up my gastronomic life .

It was not till much later in life , as the waves of oriental migration in particular came to Australia , that I branched out into new tastes , as so many of us have done.

Of course , every country town had its Chinese restaurant , but the fare was very westernised . Nowadays , with a plethora of good ingredients and styles of cooking gone far beyond those of the standard Greek Italian or Chinese restaurants , we can sample delights from all over the world , Argentina to Zanzibar !

Would it had happened sooner !!

mary.whitsell@virgin.net said...

Hello, Brian. I really do love the taste of oatmeal, I just don't love it tough and lumpy. Once I'd tasted Bengali oatmeal, I was amazed at how different something so plain and unexotic could taste.

You are right, the cooking method is similar to that for risotto, which I also love. And it is also similar to the way Indian sweets are cooked in that they are made with milk, sugar, and spices, then stirred very patiently for a long time until the milk is completely reduced.

There are a lot of plain eaters in my family too. When I was a child, nothing was exotic enough for me and nothing was plain enough for my mother and sisters. Only my father shared my love of the weird and wonderful.

Kim Ayres said...

3 posts in a row about breakfast. Are you geting enough to eat in the morning ;)

(Does sound tasty though)

Mary Witzl said...

Actually, Kim, you are right. And no, I am not getting enough to eat for breakfast. How funny -- I am writing about breakfasts instead of eating them -- and I didn't even realize it.

I ought to call this blog 'Bed and Breakfast' with the 'Bed' crossed out.

bella principessa said...

How is it cooked?

Mary Witzl said...

BP -- How like me to leave out the one vital bit of information!

Mix the oatmeal (porridge oats) using roughly three cups of milk to one cup of oats. After mixing well, bring to a boil, stirring frequently, then bring to a simmer and stir constantly until you have a smooth mixture, adding milk or water gradually, as needed, to keep the oatmeal the consistency you like it. This is the labor intensive part, but it keeps the mixture from getting lumpy and sticking to the bottom of the pot. I'm told this works with goat (or soy) milk as well as cow's. Dot the oatmeal with roasted cashew nuts, jaggery or light brown sugar, and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

bella principessa said...

Truly, it was delicious. A new breakfast favorite.

Sue Millard said...

Lumps, ugh. Oatmeal is very good for you (as you have found out) and it should be nice to eat! I've never understood why porridge is permitted to have lumps! I eat oatmeal either as smooth, long-simmered porridge (made with milk) or as oatbiscuits made from a roll of scalded oatmeal - slice them off and fry them lightly in oil, then they're so crispy, hot and delicious that you only need salt on them. A great breakfast that lasts well up to lunchtime and helps you not to nibble (put down that sticky toffee pudding NOW). :)

Mary Witzl said...

BP -- I am glad you liked this too! Trust Indians to know how to take something good for you and turn it into something that also tastes great.

Sue -- One of the hardest things I ever had to do was to serve a woman porridge according to her precise instructions. What she insisted that she wanted -- and what I (reluctantly) finally ended up making for her -- was porridge cooked with salt, left overnight, and served the next morning stone cold. It turned my stomach, but I did it, and she seemed to be well pleased with it, too. No accounting for tastes!

I've heard of slicing oatmeal and frying it, but I usually mix it with strong white flour, a little oil, sugar and yeast, and knead it into bread dough. You need a lot of white flour, though, as oat bread needs plenty of gluten in order to rise. One of these days, though, I'm going to try your way.

The sticky toffee pudding is shameful and I'm going to have to figure out a better way to resist it. Heretofore I've told myself that I can have the rare treats that we get, but our next door neighbor is an excellent cook and he keeps bringing over TOO MUCH. I give in after a long, hard battle.

Carolie said...

I'll have to try your oatmeal, Mary. We eat ours as a savory here...with turkey pepperoni or with cooked, chopped egg whites (I know, very bizarre!) We're both trying to stay away from added sugar and butter, and we've both found that oatmeal with added protein holds us for longer during the day (and we both like it!)

The best part is that instead of cooking it each morning, or using *shudder* instant oatmeal, I use the old fashioned rolled oats, measure 1/2 cup into each of two thermal coffee travel mugs, add 1 cup boiling water and a pinch of salt, and let sit until morning.

In the morning, we mix in our protein of choice and reheat the mixture in the microwave. It's smooth, creamy, great texture, completely cooked, with no stirring and slaving.

However, I do love sweet oatmeal, so I will have to try yours. My militantly-against-fat stepmother's guilty secret is that she loves to plop a big scoop of vanilla ice cream into her piping hot oatmeal. Mmmmm!