This is quite possibly the most comforting breakfast food I can think of. And it’s a fairly recent discovery. I have always loved hot cereal – or porridge. My mom used to make us Cream of Wheat or Red River cereal when we were younger, and oatmeal was always a staple upon waking up in an icy tent on a cool morning at camp. But this one takes the prize for most comforting, and I’ll tell you why.
Two summers ago, we were travelling in the Xinjiang-Uygher Autonomous Region of China (a gross misnomer for what I prefer to call “Occupied Turkestan”) This region in the western reaches of China is Islamic, and the Uyghur people are Turkic in descent. You would think that this would bring about some good food, but it’s not that straight forward. Uyghur food was delicious – but only if you could find it. We happened to be in Turkestan shortly after a bloody uprising in the city of Urumqi, where Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese clashed in the streets. Arriving a mere 7 days later, we were immersed in a state of military lockdown, curfew and frozen communication. I am fairly certain we were among mere dozen foreign tourists in the region and we had only to look to the food to know that they weren’t expecting us.
Anyway, you didn’t come here to read about the ins and outs of the Chinese occupation of East Turkestan (although I would love to tell you about it!) You came here to read about breakfast. And here’s where it connects. Turkestan offered us up some pretty grim food choices. You know me – I’ll try anything once (provided it has no mammals in it) but breakfasts in Turkestan really tested my limits. I remember one morning watching another man in our group peel a hardboiled egg and find the egg itself black and brown and rancid. Other options included last night’s dinner, a variety of pickles, congee and old, tasteless steamed buns. I found it hard to believe the Chinese-owned hotels were serving up leftovers for breakfast when merely metres away, Uyghur bakers were churning out piping-hot sesame naan and bagels and onion stuffed breads with fresh roasted eggs and grapes and melons straight from the farm.
So, that leads me to semolina. When we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, I felt the weight of the world lifted. No more guns in our faces, no more ‘wanted’ signs hunting down Uyghur activists, no more convoys of military trucks and Communist Party propaganda music playing in the square. And…no more rotting black eggs. We spent our first night in a yurt camp outside the Tash Rabat Caravansaray that was run by Russians. I cannot describe the ecstacy of finding bread, cheese, jam, yoghurt and…cardamom infused semolina porridge on the table the next morning. I wrapped my hands around the hot bowl as we crowded into a dinner yurt on a frigid August morning (winter comes very early in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, and that morning we awoke to frost and ice). I remember watching the morning sun turn the impossibly green mountain slopes aglow, and turning to someone to say “I am so happy that they let me out of China!” Semolina porridge will be forever attached to that wonderful feeling of freedom and warmth. I now make semolina porridge every time I crave comfort.
This version is a blend of Moroccan, Russian and Indian flavours. There is a famous dessert in India known as Rave Ganji (ironically, ganji is ‘congee’ – and congee is what traumatized me at breakfast in China) and from this recipe I have taken the idea of ghee and saffron. The Russians brought me cardamom – although that could come from Indian, too. The rest is Moroccan. Put them all together and you have a decadent but healthy breakfast. I am including two recipes – one is a simpler version that is perfect for early fall when mission figs and blue plums are abundant and succulent. The other is for the dregs of winter, when nothing seems to taste succulent.
1 1/2 cups milk (or water)
1 1/2 cups water
6-8 tbsp semolina
1 tsp cardamom
pinch of saffron
1 tbsp ghee
a generous handful of slivered almonds, pistachios and walnuts
4 dried mission figs, chopped (or raisins)
pinch of crushed dried rose petals (optional)
1. Very slowly bring milk, water and cardamom to a near boil – don’t let it boil fully or the milk will curdle and develop a skin
2. When hot, remove 2 tbsp of water/milk mixture and mix in a bowl with crushed saffron. Add semolina, one tbsp at a time, to the pot of milk and water, and whisk to blend. Continue until all of the semolina is blended.
3. Continue to whisk until the mixture thickens, then remove from heat but keep covered.
4. Heat ghee in a pan and add the nut mixture, with figs and rose petals, tossing frequently to avoid burning
5. Serve the semolina into two bowls. Then pour the nut and fig mixture on the centre (scraping in any remaining ghee), pour the saffron around the edges of the bowl, and drizzle with a tsp of honey on each.
Summer Semolina Porridge
Do the same as above, but do not add saffron, and do not mix dried figs with the nuts. When the semolina is cooked, garnish with chopped fresh figs and blue plums (and even banana slices, if you want), followed by the nut mixture, and drizzled honey.