Upma vs. Cream of Wheat: A Breakfast Showdown

Eats:  Two very different ways to prepare farina for breakfast: Cream of Wheat & Upma
Tunes:  Free Spotify playlist: a compilation of Dixieland songs from mom’s childhood breakfasts
Story:  Childhood foods of our parents, extreme variations on a theme


Recently, it occurred to me that our kids only know upma – not cream of wheat, which I had grown up eating.  I decided to make both one morning for a fun taste-test.


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.

Nearly two decades ago, 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.  Later, it became a family favorite, and also a staple when we host our South Indian brunch feast.   Even the kids enjoy it, doused in ghee, of course.

Upma itself is tasty but it’s typically eaten with a variety of condiments.  We always have alum pachadi (ginger pickle), ghee and 3 different podis on hand.  For the taste test day, I also brought out milk, brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, cardamom and butter for the plain cream of wheat.




Why not give yourself some musical accompaniment before continuing?  Here’s the free Spotify playlist as our soundtrack for Upma vs Cream of Wheat.

Fans of Culture Capsules know that the intention is to capture the music related to the entirety of the stories and memories connected to the food.  For my part, it was easy to recall the great Dixieland Jazz playing when I’d eat my cream of wheat.  During breakfast in my childhood home, the radio atop the refrigerator was almost always tuned to WPLM, which at the time had great Dixieland and some news throw in as well.

As much as I pressed my husband for what music might have been playing, he said there were no songs that reminded him of childhood, much less breakfast.  I pressed to ask if anyone in the house would sing or maybe a neighbor or walla going by selling the day’s fruit (or any/everything else).  What about Bollywood movies from that time? Nothing.  “Nope. Nothing that influenced.  I was always up early and out for martial arts or cricket practice.”

This of course 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.  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?”  😀

Hmm.  Well… maybe someday.  In the meantime, I’ll just continue being a radio junkie.  Fast forward to me doing the final recipe test for the upma this weekend and finding that The Sunday Show was on, and Paul Cavalconte (thank you for your awesome shows!) timing was impeccable, providing many jazz greats of my childhood while the upma was on the stove.


We went with the meal-specific farina: branded “Cream of Wheat” for the cream of wheat, and sooji from an Indian grocer.  No, I haven’t yet gotten around to trying to use the products in alternate ways (sooji for cream of wheat, and vice versa).   I did pour 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.  In a nutshell, in a nutshell farina is just a lower-grade, coarser version of semolina.


Makes 4 servings.  I often double it and have it the next day, too.

To warm it up in the microwave: add a few tbsp of water, stir it a bit and cover w/ plastic wrap, and microwave it for a 1.5 minutes. Stir, recover and heat again. Repeat until hot, adding more water if needed.

  • .75 cup raw cashew pieces
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1.5 tsp mustard seeds
  • 4 tbsp ghee (buffalo preferred) or sunflower oil
  • 1 serrano chili (or small green chilies)
  • 1.5 cup yellow onions, diced
  • 15 curry leaves (we use dry or fresh – whatever we have on hand)
  • .75 – 1 cup additional veggies optional: frozen peas, diced or shredded carrots….)
  • 1 cup sooji
  • 1.25 salt (or more to taste)
  • 4 cups water


  • Up to a cup of additional veggies optional: peas, diced or shredded carrots….  1/2-1 cup of frozen peas have made a frequent appearance lately).
  • Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, to stir in at the end, or for garnish. I used to do this all the time but somehow I never have it in the house when I make upma lately, and I haven’t missed it. 


  1. Chop onions and chilies, and any veggies you plan to include and have all ingredients on hand (especially the ghee and the water which need to be added at a moment’s notice).
  2. Put cashews in a pan and heat to medium.  To toast without burning, stir/shake pan constantly.  When they begin to brown, put them in a bowl and allow them to cool.
  3. Heat a different large pan (unless you have allowed the first pan to cool some, lest you burn the spices), add the cumin seeds turn the heat to medium,.  About a minute later, later add the mustard seeds.  Shake the pan continuously so as not to scorch the seeds.  When fragrant (1 minute or so), add the ghee immediately, and allow to melt (if needed).
  4. Add the onions immediately and stir to combine.  When the onions begin to get translucent, add the curry leaves.  Stop to enjoy that wonderful aroma. mmmm.
  5. Just when the onions begin to brown, add the cashews and stir to combine. When the onions are golden brown, add the carrots or peas (if using) to cook them for just a minute.
  6. Add the sooji and salt. Stir to combine.  Roast the sooji for a few minutes. Stir frequently.
  7. Add the water a cup at a time, continuously stirring to prevent and/or remove any lumps.  Add more water if needed to reach soft yet thick consistency.
  8. Garnish with cilantro, if desired, and then enjoy as is, or with ghee and your favorite podis and pickles!


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.