The Semolina Showdown

A portrait from Brooklyn and Hyderabad

We both grew up eating farina for breakfast, but it was prepared in very different ways.  One day, we had our kids try both and vote for their favorite.


Semolina Showdown

Recently, it occurred to me that our kids only know upma – not cream of wheat, which I had grown up eating. Both are made from farina, but somehow I had only ever made the classic South Indian dish of upma for them!  Determined to rectify that, I decided to add a bit of fun by turning it into a taste test by making a batch of each.

the great semolina showdown: upma vs cream of wheat

I grew up eating plain old cream of wheat and loving it.  Simple but delicious: farina boiled with water and salt, and put into bowls.  Sometimes (maybe to cool it off?) we’d get a bit of milk on top.  I loved when it had cooled enough that the top of the cream of wheat hardened a bit and was sticky to the touch.  It was even better when that top was a tad salty.

But fast forward to nearly two decades ago (circa 2001), I tasted upma – a savory, flavorful version of semolina – and apparently I never looked back. 

It became a personal favorite, simply as is, and with the obligatory podis/ghee/pachadis.  I used to say it was one of my 5 desert island foods.  And so my kids ended up eating it as well. But I never made them my old favorite Cream of Wheat.

Both are semolina dishes, but apparently there is a slight difference in the farina: in a nutshell farina is just a lower-grade, coarser version of semolina.

For the taste test, we went with the meal-specific farina: branded “Cream of Wheat” for the cream of wheat, and sooji from an Indian grocer.  I poured out a bit of each for the kids to observe and taste raw while noticing the color and texture difference).  It was minimal but there were differences. 

laxmi sooji to make upma with

I would typically eat cream of wheat with milk and a bit of salt on top. Technically I guess that makes it savory, but it was pretty minimal. But I loved it! And it still tastes of childhood to me. On the day of the taste test, in addition to milk and salt, I offered brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, cardamom and butter (inspired by the research I had done by other ways people around the globe eat it).


Semolina Soundtrack

I wanted the playlist to encapsulate some of the music of childhood breakfasts but it turns out that was only a thing for me.

Growing up, there was a clear sound to the mornings: Dixieland Jazz on WPLM. At the time they’d play mostly Dixie but also provide the news in brief.

It would be on while I ate my cream of wheat, or dropped eggs on toast, or cereal, or Eggo Waffles…

But my husband was hard pressed to come up with any specific music of his childhood much less breakfast.  I pressed on inquiring whether anyone in the house would sing or maybe there were other sounds, like a fruit or vegetable wallas, or a loud neighbor… but nope.  What about Bollywood movies from that time?   “Nope. Nothing that influenced.  I was always up early and out for martial arts or cricket practice.”

Ok, so we were both eating semolina, but we weren’t both jamming.

But then all of that made me think about what our own kids will someday remember about their own soundtrack to breakfast.  They will undoubtedly remember lots of news from WNYC and playing ‘name that tune’ for the segue songs between segments. 

They may also remember being wowed to catch not one but three of their Brooklyn friends’ moms on air, for very different reasons.  And I will never forget dear daughter’s response to my asking “Wow isn’t that cool to hear so-and-so’s mom on the radio?”

“But Mom, why aren’t you cool like them?” 

Hmm.  Well… maybe someday.  In the meantime, I’ll just continue being a radio junkie. 



big pan of freshluy cooked upma, and all the pickles and podis to accompany it
big pan of freshluy cooked upma, and all the pickles and podis to accompany it

Upma is quite savory, with much flavor and texture on it’s own, but it is also typically served with ghee, a variety of podis (we have 3 from India at all times) and pickles (ginger pickle for sure).


Cream of Wheat

Simply right off the back of the box below, definitely with salt.  On this day, we experimented with adding butter, maple syrup and brown sugar, but when I was growing up I never had any of that with it!

Until I poked around the interwebs a bit that morning, I hadn’t realized just how many other versions of this simple hot cereal there was.  Obviously, semolina is versatile but I simply hadn’t come across these home-style breakfasts.  Have you tried Crema di Farina (Puerto Rican style: spiced and with butter), or Dominican style, or pudding style with an egg for texture and protein.



So there I was doing the final recipe test* for the upma this weekend and when the family was in the living room, preventing me from using my Sonos speaker with the above playlist.

Not up for headphones or music blaring from an iphone, I flipped on the under-cabinet radio that is so often on in our kitchen and was SO happy to find that The Sunday Show was on! Now manned by the great Paul Cavalconte, of wonderfully eclectic taste.

That particular day, the jazz timing was impeccable, providing many jazz greats of my childhood while the upma was on the stove. I had to take a video to capture the serendipity of the moment.

* I never measure! But I had to in order to share the recipe.


And the Winner Is…

Both! Ever diplomatic, they claimed they liked each, because ultimately each dish was so different. And of course, they are correct. There is room in this family for both.