Foreign Porridge

My friend’s backpack dropped from his shoulders before he stormed through his living room, into the kitchen. I froze. He left his backpack on the ground and forgot to take his shoes off. Standing in the foyer, I looked at my feet wondering if I should wait for permission. I decided to ask.

“Should I take off my shoes?!”

He peeked his head out from behind the fridge door. The expression on his face confirmed what I had always suspected: I’m a complete idiot.

I looked down at my feet again, but the pressure of custom was too great. I buckled and decided to take my sneakers off, placing them neatly to the side so as not to block the entrance. Meanwhile, my friend was pulling things out of cabinets and drawers, tossing them onto the countertop. He shouted, “Do you want some oatmeal?”

He pulled out two small glass bowls and a box that was half-full of brown paper packets. On the packets were printed the picture of a smiling man with long white hair, sporting a wide brimmed hat.

“Oatmeal? I’ve never had oatmeal. What is it?”

My friend looked genuinely shocked. He proceeded to explain, “it’s oats and you mix it with boiling water, you know like, erm, porridge?” The look on my face must have communicated that using the word “porridge” to define the word “oatmeal” was unhelpful, because now he just seemed annoyed.

He poured a packet of oats into each of the two bowls. An electric kettle was just starting to gurgle. He emptied the boiling water into the bowls and then stirred the steaming soup. I watched as the mix gradually became paste-like, when it occurred to me.

“Oh, haleem!”

My friend glared at me like I had just sneezed all over the food.

“Sorry?” I think he meant to say, what the hell was that word that came out of your mouth?

“Oh nothing, I just figured out what this is! My mom makes it for me sometimes in the winter, but I’ve never seen it packaged like this before. That’s so cool!”

Choosing not to acknowledge my lame use of the word “cool” to describe packaged oatmeal, he pushed one of the bowls towards me. I lifted a spoonful to my nose. It didn’t really smell like haleem, but it sure did look like it. I jiggled it. He was already scarfing his down. I blew over the spoon watching the steam swirl, then delivered the grey mush into my mouth.

It took a moment to process the new information on my tongue.

When you’re expecting haleem and, instead, you get a mouthful of plain Quaker oatmeal, a feeling of devastation overwhelms your entire being. I pursed my lips and tried to contain my disgust. The residual shame from the shoe thing was still bothering me. I was afraid of exposing more of the green scaly skin under my normal suit. 

Look, I can’t imagine a recipe more primitive and underdeveloped than porridge. The Wikipedia entry on porridge includes the words “palaeolithic”, “neolithic”, and “hunter-gatherers.” It references “traces of barley porridge” found in excavated pots on the Western Isles of Scotland, and dated to 2,500 years ago! Two thousand five hundred years and many sensible adults are still mixing dry grains with hot water for nourishment! And not just for subsistence. People actually eat this stuff for comfort; as a full meal when other more delicious options are readily available.

I don’t mean to come across as a condescending bigot, but you have to understand where I’m coming from.

Throughout the middle-east and south Asia we also once enjoyed crushed grains pounded in trough water, but somewhere along the line an ingenious cave-dwelling ancestor decided to use leftover meat broth instead of water. Later, another genius threw in portions of the tender boiled meat. Then someone decided to pound the mixture into a sticky uniform paste. Various spices like cinnamon, turmeric, fennel and garnishes like shaved carrots or fried onions were mixed in, depending on regional preferences. Honey was drizzled over the soup and allowed to permeate the dish. Those of us who immigrated to Canada adopted maple syrup, fusing old and new, East with West. It’s all really quite beautiful…but it’s definitely NOT porridge!

I have to admit, at some point during my adult life something changed.

I’ve had time to sit with the idea of porridge. To appreciate it as something far more than pig feed. I’ve come to recognize that hydrated grains can take many forms of perfection. I’m learning to enjoy a piping hot bowl of steel-cut oats boiled in whole milk. It’s actually quite delicious. Especially with a glob of maple syrup.

As a kid, I might have rejected this foreign variation on a familiar favourite as an abomination, a different kind of thing altogether. But I’ve had a chance to get to know porridge, to ponder its beauty, and to appreciate its simplicity. I’ve even grown to prefer some of its more subtle notes to the boisterous ensemble of haleem. I don’t know how I missed these before. It appears that my palate changed with my mind.

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