My first encounter with oats was something out of a fairy tale. Literally. I was a kid, reading the story of Goldilocks, when I came across this bewildering thing called “porridge”. It was not only not pronounced “porridugee”, but my grandmother — the indulger of all my toddler-sized whims — flatly refused to make this dish for me. Porridge was oats boiled in milk, she explained with a shudder. It was tasteless slop. I was extremely confused. Why would Goldilocks eat three bowls of tasteless slop? It made no sense.
Approximately 30 years later, as I sprinkled bacon bits as a final garnish over my oats with fresh pineapple jam, I found myself longing for my grandmother. She opened up the world for me, with everything that she fed me, whether it was with food or stories. I’d have loved to have changed her mind about porridge because here before me were the boiled oats that she’d so despised and in their ungarnished innocence, they did indeed bear a striking resemblance to slop. But tasteless? Not by a long shot.
Here’s what not enough people tell you about oats while singing their praises. Yes, they’re nutritious, a great source of fibre, low calorie yet filling, and capable of boosting your superpowers. But most importantly for gluttons like me, oats are very easy to cook and incredibly versatile.
Not that I knew this when I picked up my first packet of oats. The idea of having oatmeal (or porridge) for breakfast had been part of a doomed attempt to lose weight. If I’d stuck to the instructions on the back and simply boiled the oats in milk and drizzled honey or sprinkled a little sugar over them or added some fresh fruit, as per the instructions, maybe I would have lost a kilogram or two. Unfortunately, in this avatar, oats taste the way they look: awful and gloopy. There was no way I could begin my day with something so depressingly bland.
So I started rifling through my fridge and found some chunks of pineapple, some bird’s eye chillies and a couple of strips of bacon. About 30 minutes later, the pineapple had been blitzed and cooked with sugar to become a lovely, runny, fresh jam. The bacon had been fried crisp and the chillies had been diced. Into the oats all this went — warm, yellow jam; bright, red spots of chilly; crunchy, rust-coloured bacon. It was no longer low calorie but praise the pineapple, it was delicious.
The beauty of oats is that they can be sweet, savoury, spicy, tangy — whatever you chuck at them, oats will absorb that flavour. Boil the oats in milk (with a touch of vanilla, if you’re feeling indulgent) and they become the perfect base for a sweet breakfast. Swirl in some strawberry puree or treacle or some ginger syrup. Garnish with some pomegranate or chopped walnuts or even green chillies (depends on how adventurous you want to be with your breakfast).
For savoury oats, cook them in water or diluted milk and fold in leftovers. From chilli chicken to sambar, bhindi bhaji to kosha mangsho, everything works with oats. But don’t limit yourself to recycling. Cook the oats in stock and turn those humble grains into gourmet. A few minutes in a tom yam broth and suddenly, each spoonful of gloop is plump with spice. The trick is to pick strong flavours that will swamp the oats and add a garnish that’s crunchy or compliments the oats with a little extra texture.
So yes, it’s taken a few decades, but finally, I understand why Goldilocks slurped her way through three bowls of porridge. And yes, like the bears in that story, I’d be extremely upset if Goldilocks ate my oatmeal.
Tom Yam Oatmeal with Tomatoes
This is a very basic recipe that you can add bells and whistles to, depending upon your taste. Non-vegetarians can add prawn to this, for instance. How much you use of each ingredient will depend on how much you broth you want to make. I usually make a big pot and freeze half of it for later use.
Ingredients (All measures are approximate)
For about one litre of broth
5 to 6- Chopped tomatoes
2 stalks- Lemon grass
10 to 12- Kaffir lime leaves
½ inch- Galangal
5 cloves- Garlic
Bird’s eye Chillies, to taste
Lemon juice, of 5-6 lemons
1 tsp- Sesame oil
A pinch of sugar
Salt, to taste
*Bruise the stalks of lemon grass and galangal. Tear up the Kaffir lime leaves. Bruise the garlic and slice the chillies. If you can’t get Kaffir lime leaves, use regular lemon zest.
*Heat the sesame oil.
*Add the tomatoes, lemon grass, galangal, garlic, chillies and lime leaves. Let it cook on medium flame for a couple of minutes. When the aromas are released, add a litre of water. Lower the flame and cook for at least 30 minutes. Some foam may collect on top. Just skim it off. Add sugar and salt to taste and stir. The broth should be pungent. Turn off the flame and add the lime juice. You can also use tamarind for the sour taste.
*The easiest option, though, is to buy tom yam cubes that you just have to drop into boiling water to make the broth.
*Cook oats as per instructions on packet, only replace the milk with tom yam broth.
*Add sun-dried tomatoes to the oats.
*Cook until both oats and tomatoes are soft. Add broth if the mixture becomes too thick.
*Chop up one green tomato and half an onion.
*Heat a dash of sesame oil.
*Add the chopped tomatoes and onion. Sprinkle some sugar over them. Take off the flame when the tomato has browned a little. The crunch of green tomatoes with the thick pungency of the tom yam oats works beautifully.
Oatmeal with Fresh Pineapple Jam
Ingredients (All measures are approximate)
For Fresh Pineapple Jam
1 cup- Pineapple, cut into chunks
½ cup- Sugar
1 tbsp- Lemon juice
*Put the pineapple into the blender so that it breaks down. If you want it smooth, keep blending. I like a few chunks of fruit in my oatmeal so I leave it lumpy.
*Pour the pineapple puree into a saucepan and put on medium flame. Add sugar and mix well. Once the mixture starts bubbling, lower the flame. Keep stirring and cooking for about 15 minutes, until it thickens to a sauce-like consistency.
*When it’s thickened, switch off the flame.
*Add lemon juice and mix well.
*Fold it into oats cooked in milk (as per proportions given on the packet).
*Garnish with crushed walnuts or green chillies or both.