My taste for porridge developed from reading Goldilocks and acclimatising to my new home in England as a child. The frigid weather meant I was a bundle of maladies — stomach aches, fevers, chills and coughs. I was always cold too and took to wearing a knitted balaclava and mittens indoors, shedding them only at bedtime when I crawled under several voluminous blankets.
My mother, busy trying to navigate the challenges of setting up home in a new country, had little time or patience for me. Being poorly came with the benefit of her undivided attention. She fussed and fretted and prescribed kitchen remedies: fenugreek seeds steeped in water for weak bones; milk shot with golden turmeric for a snotty nose; shards of toothsome caramel with pepper for a chesty cough; and fennel tea for bellyaches.
The monotony of those days was broken by the meals my mother carried in to me. In the half dark, a glass of Lucozade would cast a neon light on her face as she encouraged me to take slow, careful sips. She skilfully peeled and segmented oranges at my bedside, the citrus scent lifting my spirits. And there were the spoonfuls of porridge, sometimes sweetened with jaggery, other times fragranced with mustard seeds and curry leaves — soothing, dependable and easy to digest.
Occasionally, when her chores were done, she would sit with me, folding her tired legs into her chest, cheering me up with tales of our old home in Kenya. As the steam from the porridge rose up from the bowl, she’d recall the talkative parrot shouting profanities on our veranda or the puny kittens born in the chicken shed. She’d wonder if the jamun trees were still bearing fruit that was so sweet it seduced armies of ants to perish drunk and happy, stickily clinging to its branches.
To some, oatmeal is a joyless breakfast mulch that is nutritious enough to keep you alive, but devoid of the flavour that makes life worth living. Yet its blandness is its very badge of honour. It is forgiving in its preparation and variable beyond belief. When the world feels like a wilderness, I find safety — memories of my mother and the place I come from — in a bowl of it. Its presence is therapeutic.
In this recipe, the grains are simmered in chicken stock for a texture not unlike congee. Once cooked, it is boosted with a riot of chilli oil, mushrooms, ginger, softly boiled egg, sesame and spring onions that provide a glorious contrast to its thick, uniform texture. Goldilocks was a trespassing, precocious brat but even she would have to agree that this is “just right”.
Ravinder Bhogal is chef-patron of Jikoni in London; jikonilondon.com. Follow her on Instagram
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