The politics of porridge

Sugar or salt, everyone has strong opinions on how to cook it. But what about the new trend for kale porridge, asks Lucy Dunn? 

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By Lucy Dunn on

I won’t hear a word against porridge. In fact I love it so much I will often eat it for dinner, especially on those nights when I'm late home, too tired to cook and all I want to do is flop on the sofa and watch Bake Off. My porridge preference is unsweetened almond milk with a dusting of brown sugar, or a teaspoon of almond butter if I’ve got any hanging around.

Not everyone shares my ardour of course (the mere mention elicits a shudder of horror in one friend), but figures show that I’m not alone in my porridge fandom. To date, close to a million people have posted their oatmeal creations on Instagram, there are Tumblrs devoted to the stuff, and there's even a global fan club, should you be so inclined. According to a survey by Mintel a quarter of us Brits are porridge eaters. And while chefs such as Heston Blumenthal have tried to claim it as their own with their snail oatmeal and silly porridge menus, porridge will, and will always be, cheap and filling – a classless, blank canvas that can be dressed up or down that requires very little cooking "technique".

However boy, can it be territorial. No other food seems to elicit such impassioned opinion over what to put on it and *how* to cook it. Smooth or chunky, with salt or sugar, with Lyle’s Golden syrup or fancy-pants Agave, everyone has their own way and their way is the only way, or so they think.

No other food seems to elicit such impassioned opinion over what to put on it and *how* to cook it. Smooth or chunky, with salt or sugar, with Lyle’s Golden syrup or fancy-pants Agave, everyone has their own way

If there is one person who understands this best it’s Alex Hely-Hutchinson, founder of London’s first porridge cafe, 26 Grains, whose cookbook of the same name is also out this week. “Everybody has a different experience of porridge, and everyone has very different preferences. My first memories of eating it was with my mum; a big batch of porridge was her staple dish to satisfy five mouths every morning. Although this daily affair was chaotic at best, it was the only time of the day when the whole family was together.”

Alex rediscovered her love of porridge as a student on a year out in Copenhagen. “The Danes are incredible at baking and I became fixated on the simplicity of Danish cooking – porridge especially. Plus It’s a cooler climate, so porridge is more integral over there - and they make it with not just oats but different grains such as spelt, barley, rye…"

Determined to capture this, Alex brought her vision back to the UK, and fast-forward a few years and a lot of hard work 26 Grains was born, a bustling little cafe in a corner of  London’s Covent Garden. Serving different types of porridge as well as grain-based salads and stews, in the year it has been open one dish has struck a huge chord – savoury porridge. “It’s one of those things that customers can’t get their heads round, but once they do, they love it,' says Alex.

She points to the fact that porridge is an ancient concept, with roots in so many different cuisines from around the world – congee in Asia, grits in South America for example, “when you think about it like that, it’s actually not as weird as you think.”

And once, you *have* got your head round it, she’s right. Think outside the (breakfast) box and porridge is really just a dish that uses different grains cooked and/or soaked in a specific ratio of liquid so it becomes porridge-y in consistency. Sweet or savoury, the ingredient combinations are endless and with the recent interest in healthy eating, more unusual grains such as spelt and rye are now easier to get hold of in supermarkets, so you can really let your imagination fly.  

In her book Alex has created a few savoury porridge recipes that really push the envelope, such as Kale, Fried Egg, Avocado and Chilli (which I will attest, I’ve already made and it’s delicious) and Brown Rice Indo Chicken Porridge, featured here. “It is an Indonesian traditional savoury porridge and a recipe taught to me by my friend Tanita – the combination of cloves and bay with galangal and chilli is warming, but not overpowering”.

For those who aren't porridge-for-dinner people like me Alex also has also created some great breakfast dishes, recipes such as Blueberry Porridge (below). It's a combination of maple-sweetened blackberry compote and the rich, deep flavour of the bay leaves which she says, “delicious and comforting. Exactly what I believe a bowl of porridge should be.”


Blueberry Porridge



Serves 2

For the porridge:

  • 100g rolled oats, soaked in 250ml water for at least 30 minutes
  • 250ml unsweetened almond milk
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

For the blueberry compote:

  • 250g blueberries
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • Squeeze of lemon juice

To serve:

  • 2 tablespoons mixed seeds, such as flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
  • Few strawberries, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons coconut flakes
  • 2 tablespoons Almond Butter from a jar or homemade
  • 2 tablespoons amaranth (optional)
  1. First make the blueberry compote: place the blueberries, maple syrup and lemon juice into a small pan with 1 tablespoon of water and allow to come to the boil. Once bubbling, take it off the heat and set aside.
  2. Place the porridge ingredients, including the water the oats have been soaked in, into a pan over a medium heat and cook for 3–4 minutes, stirring continuously, until the oats have come together.
  3. Spoon into 2 bowls and add the toppings in this order: a tablespoon of blueberries in a line down the middle with a pool of juice around the edge, then the seeds, strawberry slices, coconut flakes, almond butter and amaranth, if using.


Brown Rice Indonesian Chicken Porridge



Serves 4

For the porridge:

  • 250g short grain brown rice, soaked in water for 1 hour, then drained
  • 1.5 litres chicken stock
  • 2 thumb-sized pieces of galangal (or use 1 piece of root ginger)
  • 4 cloves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • Good pinch of white pepper

To serve:

  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted peanuts
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • 200g cooked chicken, shredded
  • 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 small bird’s eye chilli, thinly
  • sliced (deseed if you prefer less heat)
  • 2 large handfuls of spinach
  • Handful of coriander leaves, picked and roughly chopped
  • Kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) or regular soy sauce
  1. Place all the porridge ingredients, except the coconut oil and white pepper, in a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30–40 minutes, topping up with a little water if it looks like it needs it.
  2. While the porridge cooks prepare the toppings. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for 2–3 minutes, stirring continuously to stop them catching. Do the same with the peanuts to toast them too, giving them a lovely crunch and depth of flavour. Be careful not to burn them. Once the peanuts have cooled, lightly crush them with a mortar and pestle.
  3. In the same pan, warm a little olive oil and add the shredded chicken to crisp up.
  4. When the porridge is cooked, remove the bay leaves and galangal (or ginger), stir in the coconut oil and white pepper and taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour into bowls and top with the spring onions, chilli, spinach, chicken, peanuts, sesame seeds, coriander and kecap manis (or soy sauce) to serve.

26 GRAINS by Alex Hely-Hutchinson is published by Square Peg.   Twitter: @26Grains

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