Is there such a thing as mulligatawny soup?

"a cornerstone of the classic British Indian restaurant repertoire, always there, yet never ordered." Felicity Cloake

I think this picture is the one that ties in most closely with what I think of as mulligatawny soup. But, as we shall see this is just one on the vast array of possibilities.


"Soup from the left end of the mulligatawny spectrum may scarcely resemble one from the right." British Food in America

Interestingly, considering the British heritage that dominates Australia, with all the scorn attached to that, mulligatawny is relatively unknown here. In my youth we would sometimes buy a tin of Heinz mulligatawny soup. I think we may have eaten a version on one of my dad's ships and because we liked it it had been bought every now and then. Mind you the bowl shown here on a current tin, does not resemble the one of my youth which would have looked much more like the one at the top of the page - more green/brown. These days in England every supermarket chain seems to have its own home-brand version of mulligatawny soup, but our two major supermarkets here do not have a version at all. And as for the restaurant menus - well our old favourite Haveli has it but the more modern, trendier restaurants such as Curry Café and Base Camp do not. Maybe take-away has something to do with this. Soup I guess is possibly a bit messier to do for take-away than curry? No - not really.


I have long been thinking of doing a very irregular series on Anglo-Indian cuisine, so when I was flicking through one of my recently purchased cookbooks - Madhur Jaffrey's The Ultimate Curry Bible I landed on a couple of pages dedicated to this Anglo-Indian dish and thought it might be a good place to start on this particular little venture.


So to begin with a brief history - much better covered elsewhere. The website called British Food in America, has a particularly detailed piece called The Multiplication of mulligatawny for example. But let me summarise - and repeat.


The Indians do not 'do' soup. Interesting in itself because all of South-East Asia does, indeed all of its neighbours do. But they did have pepper-waters - rasams which were really used as medicine.


"it was a watery infusion of either black pepper or chilies and tamarind; nothing more. Used in an effort to treat a rangy spectrum of maladies from fever and cholera to dyspepsia and hemorrhoids, mollo tunny was a bit more (or less) than medicine, sometimes added to rice as an aid to digestion." British Food in America

Its other name was millagu-thannir (or variations thereof), which means pepper water, and from which comes mulligatawny. The version above looks to be at the thinner end of the spectrum although with more ingredients than the original - the picture at left describes itself as rasam and is even thinner. I doubt however, that anyone familiar with mulligatawny soup would consider this to be what the real thing is. So obviously there was a way to go from here in this particular evolutionary story.


"Before the arrival of red chillies and tomatoes, the main spice in the infusion was lightly roasted peppercorns, with additions of roasted cumin and coriander seeds. The souring agent was usually tamarind water, a coolant in the Madras heat." Madhur Jaffrey


For Madras and the state of Tamil Nadu is said to be where it originated, which is why several modern cooks recommend using a Madras curry powder. More on that later.


It is said that the British in 18th century India, working for the East India Company and yearning for home and their soup, told their Indian cooks to serve them soup.


"Unfamiliar with this soup thing their masters seemed to require with every meal, Indian cooks served the nearest thing to it that they knew, bulking it out with meat and vegetables to suit the extravagant tastes of the British." Felicity Cloake


It also became much thicker - the British liked thick soups that were a meal in themselves:


"A true Mulligatawny Soup is really a curry, a meal in itself. Anglo-Indian families often ate it for Sunday lunch, accompanied by rice, relishes and chutneys ...

Over time, a more official soup evolved. The thickeners used were as varied as versions of the soup. The Singapore Raffles Hotel, for example, in its turn-of-the-century recipe, used oatmeal and still does." Madhur Jaffrey


And there it is - much like the version at the top of the page I have to say.

So when the British returned home they took this soup with them and it soon became a staple in English households with cooks such as Mrs. Beeton and Eliza Acton - whose Eliza Acton's vegetable mulligatawny recipe Delia has, slightly adapted on her website - shown here. Not quite as green. One writer I found was very firm that it had to be green, which actually, I think, demonstrates how this dish has evolved into a very personal thing. There is no authenticity argument here. There is no authentic dish to begin with.


However it became extremely popular throughout Britain and started to appear in restaurants and tea rooms. In 1827 William Kitchiner wrote:


"Mullaga-Tawny signifies pepper water. The progress of inexperienced peripatetic Palaticians has lately been arrested by this outlandish word being pasted on the windows of our Coffee-Houses; it has, we believe, answered the "Restaurateurs' " purpose, and often excited John Bull, to walk in and taste — the more familiar name of Curry Soup — would, perhaps, not have had sufficient of the charms of novelty to seduce him from his much-loved Mock-Turtle. It is a fashionable Soup and a great favourite with our East Indian friends, and we give the best receipt we could procure for it." William Kitchiner/Wikipedia


They were into marketing way back then.


I am therefore a little surprised that Elizabeth David does not mention mulligatawny in her book Spices, salts and aromatics in the English kitchen. Because the Indian influence on British cooking was huge - and still is of course.


I tried very hard to nail down absolute must ingredients that makes mulligatawny mulligatawny but this rapidly disintegrated. At first I thought the basic three were curry powder, apples and rice. I vaguely remembered the mulligatawnys of my youth contained these three - the apples are an example of how the British always seemed to put something sweet like sultanas, apples and dried apricots into their curries - nuts too. Which I also didn't like, and when I discovered Indian restaurants in my later youth I realised that this sweetness was not a dominant feature of Indian food. Yes, sometimes, but not in the dishes we have all come to know and love.


As I perused my vast array of recipes I rapidly realised that the apples disappeared - or were often replaced with other sweeteners - chutney was a favourite, or later still sweetish vegetables


"Though not traditional Indian vegetables, the parsnips and leeks give the soups they grace a pleasant sweetness which means I will need to add less sugary chutney, which can only be a good thing" Felicity Cloake


Felicity Cloake does her thing with trying to achieve the perfect mulligatawny - and this is her result. Personally, having now browsed the net for an hour or two looking at what's around, I think the perfect mulligatawny is a very personal thing. There is no correct way.


The rice in that basic three is definitely not an absolute must, and even if you do include it how, when and which are all questions which need to be answered. Some pour the soup over cooked rice, some cook the rice with the soup, some serve it as an aside. And as Madhur Jaffrey has said, other thickeners vary from flour, to noodles.

Mulligatawny with beef and noodles from Thomasina Miers is a case in point - noodles? Mind you Charmain Solomon, in one of her versions says that 'hoppers' which are a kind of Sri Lankan noodle were added to the versions of her childhood. But does Meera Sodha's version look anything like 'traditional' mulligatawny soup? What gives her the right to even give it the name of mulligatawny? There is a bit of rice and various spices, but not curry powder. Why would she choose to attach the name of mulligatawny to it at all. There's no need to really is there?


And that last ingredient - curry powder. Madhur Jaffrey muses that:

"I have now come to the conclusion that some curry powder has to be included for a true East-West flavour." Madhur Jaffrey


And this is her version of Mulligatawny Soup - well made by somebody else I think, so I'm not sure how close it sticks to her version. It's the right colour though.


In my mind I think she's right. Lots of cooks concocted their own spice mixes, and they were very varied let me say. Jamie used Patek's Madras curry paste rather than a powder which is acceptable, although it's not got quite the same slightly inauthentic taste of good old packet curry powder has it? I mean it's Indian not a British idea of Indian. Mind you many cooks did seem to take the Madras origin bit seriously and used a Madras curry powder or a similar concocted spice mix. At the other end of the spectrum others recommend a mild curry powder.


So here is a varied selection, some more 'authentic' than others: Parsnip and carrot mulligatawny soup from Meera Sodha; Venison mulligatawny from Mike Robinson - well it seems that the Indians would sometimes use venison to please their British masters; the Hairy Bikers give it a good hard 'authentic' go and Jamie Oliver has three versions - Mighty Mulligatawny Soup - a Tesco version; a different Mighty Mulligatawny the recipe for which comes from his Jamie's Great Britain book, although he hasn't published it online - luckily Con-Stella-rations has - and claims it to be the best thing in the book; and finally a Christmas mulligatawny soup which rather fits this description:


"I could never, never ever find a Mulligatawny Soup that didn’t consist of something resembling a bowl of curry with some rice thrown in as an afterthought" The Flexible Chef


as does the version from Adam Liaw. Rick Stein is said by many bloggers and commenters to have a good recipe from his series on India, but I cannot find a version online. Not even a picture - well there is a picture of Felicity Cloake's attempt at his recipe - a brown one.

And to end - some outliers. Constance Spry who was writing way back in the middle of the last century has a vaguely French version from Pondicherry which is heavily leek based and called Potage Pondicherry but alas no picture. Peter Kuruvita who is of Sri Lankan heritage I believe has two versions featuring prawns - the first uses prawn stock but has no picture and the second is called Ceylon tea prawns with mulligatawny soup. Sri Lanka - has also been claimed as the original source of mulligatawny. And finally, and possibly the most beautiful of them all and really a Middle-Eastern take on the whole thing - Mussel mulligatawny with preserved lemon risotto from Greg Malouf.

So in the end I am left somewhat confused. If I were to set out to make my own version of a mulligatawny soup how should I proceed? What should I have in it? Is it just any old soup with curry powder and rice - the rice did seem to be a relatively common ingredient? Should there be meat or just vegetables? I tend to think meat with chicken and lamb seeming to be the most popular. And I almost forgot to mention coconut milk - lots of them added coconut milk somewhere in the process, and that is definitely a south Indian thing, but I don't think I remember coconut milk in the mulligatawnys of my younger days. And considering how the original rasams or pepper water included tamarind it's rather amazing how most of the versions I found did not include it all.


No I don't think there is such a thing as mulligatawny soup. It's just curried soup, but yes mulligatawny soup is a more impressive name than curried soup.


It would be fun to play around with though wouldn't it? This is a random foodie blog version - the blog is Jo Cooks. Now she thinks the apples are vital - and the curry powder too, but she likes her soups creamy and nutritious, so:


"The great thing about this soup is that you can really make it your own, throw in whatever veggies you have, skip the meat or the rice, or use small pastas instead like orzo or acini di pepe. Use half and half over coconut milk, but I would strongly recommend to keep the curry and apples, after all that’s what makes this Mulligatawny soup."


A perfect fridge raid dish for a cold damp day like today. Alas I'm fasting.













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