Porridge used not to be my favourite dish. The word was usually synonymous with a large amount of congealed starch, impenetrable to the butter, milk and sugar small people added in ever more desperate quantities in the hopes of redeeming the oats or maize meal. It did not help that this sorry substance was usually served up in the most dread institutional contexts of apartheid South Africa: school trips and then the army. When UCT outsourced its catering in my second year at university, the porridge no doubt declined along with everything else we had enjoyed till then. When I finally put those dismal milieux behind me, I turned my back on porridge as well.Three years ago, I was staying temporarily with a friend, James, in Muizenberg, in a dim but pleasant flat very close to the railway line. My bedroom window was about four metres from the trains and a thoroughfare to the beach and level crossing ran right past my window. I was reading voraciously at the time, my back usually against the wall. Most of the voices I heard passing four feet behind me were French, testimony to the many West Africans living in the area.
James regularly cooked porridge. Lovingly, for hours and hours in a double-boiler, and using a variety of grains, some so exotic I had then never heard of them: qinoa, amaranth, alongside the more conventional oats. Porridge took on a whole new, rather pleasant, set of contexts.
Inspired, I began to explore this new territory myself. Doing so was particularly good for me as I discovered that having a goodly amount of slow-burning carbohydrate in my stomach levels out my energy during the day, mostly eliminating awful mid-afternoon slumps where I can barely stay awake. Yes, I know, I am not the first to discover this.
Like James, I have assembled a range of different grains for my porridges: oats, rye, spelt, qinoa, amaranth, barley. I mix them up randomly.
I used to cook them for on the stove for a fairly lengthy period, half an hour or so, while I did other things. There was a problem with this approach, however: my tendency to forget that something was on the stove. I would inevitably be alerted by a dreadful smell of burning, a spoilt breakfast and a dreadful cleaning job. This all happened with a frequency that exacted a terrible toll on my flatmate’s favourite little red (heart-shaped) Le Creuset pot.
On top of that, I began to feel that my porridge could do with just a little more flavour, so I evolved a new way of preparing it which is a little different to anything I have encountered elsewhere, though almost certainly not unique.I first put a pot on the stove, and turn up the heat to about 80-90% of maximum. At the same time, I boil about
– half a litre of water.
When the pot is glimmering with heat, I pour in
– the day’s combination of grains, usually about a cup and a half for one person, of some combination of oats, rye, spelt, qinoa, amaranth and/or barley;
– a very small amount of salt, perhaps half a twist on the grinder.
And then I dry-roast the grains, swirling the pot around, usually for about a minute. When a warm, toasty smell rises, or the grains start to brown slightly, one is ready for the next step, adding
– enough boiling water to wet all the grains.
I pour it in slowly, amidst furious foamings and boilings, until the grains are all wet; then add another splash or two. Sometimes I add
– a twist of butter
at this stage as well.
From there, it is usually a matter of another two or three minutes till the water has boiled off. I take the pot off the stove just as the last water boils up through the grains, and the porridge begins to stick.
The method has these merits:
- Most of these grains are unrefined.
- The dry-roasting adds wonderful flavour.
- The pre-heating of the pot speeds up the actual cooking process immensely.
- The pace of the process leaves the grains separate and anything but stodgy.
- Because everything happens so quickly, I hardly ever forget what’s on the stove, and so avoid burning it.
A magnificent panoply of dressings can be added to the final product. These are some of the combinations I use:
- Coconut cream, pawpaw and honey;
- raisins, chopped apple, cinnamon and honey;
- banana, full cream Greek yoghurt and honey;
- cream, whisky and sugar (an old Scottish favourite I was told by the hotel proprietor who introduced me to it);
- sometimes, even, plain old butter, milk and sugar,
- or variations and recombinations of the above.
But the porridge, thus prepared, can be so tasty that it’s enjoyable with butter alone, or even by itself.
There is yet another option, going savoury.
- Olive oil, parmesan or crumbled feta cheese and if possible, olive paste.
This last combination is fantastic, though I find the mention of it usually rouses some profound conservatism in people: “Olive oil and cheese with oats?!” Perhaps it’s a South African thing. Until the mid-90s, the mention of sushi would provoke suspicion and revulsion even amongst those who considered themselves cosmopolitan. A few years later, and fashion had completely vanquished this hesitance; conspicuous revulsion was jettisoned and the same erstwhile conservatives were oohing over the latest sushi bar and declaring that they could happily live on sashimi and wasabi alone. It was a triumph of food as lifestyle accessory … which I acknowledge will never be matched by quick-cooked, lightly toasted oats served with olive oil and feta!
A new thought springs to mind: sesame oil. Perhaps with chopped spring onions, some chili cooked into the oats, tofu and soy sauce: the slow ascendency of porridge advances another tiny notch!