A chicken soup with an exotic origin, born at the intersection of two entirely different cultures. Though its popularity has somewhat diminished in recent years, you can still find it on enough menus. I’m talking about the Mulligatawny soup, a creamy chicken soup, with lentils and vegetables that can be spiced up as little or as much as you want.
Chicken is the most popular meat in our country, supposedly fit for heroes and winners… as in Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner! 🙂 But I find it so mundane, so quotidian, (dare I use the word ‘boring’?) that there is nothing interesting to write about it. Instead I want to write about a chicken soup with an exotic origin, born at the intersection of two entirely different cultures. Though its popularity has somewhat diminished in recent years, you can still find it on enough menus. I’m talking about the Mulligatawny soup, a creamy chicken soup, with lentils and vegetables that can be spiced up as little or as much as you want.
The story begins in the days of the empire in India, specifically in the Madras cantonment in south India. Apparently tired of the daily offerings of the local cooks in the military mess hall, the British officers ask them to prepare a soup. In the local cuisine the only thing approximating to a soup was a fiery concoction of chillies and tamarind boiled together with some spices, called ‘mulaga thanni’, which literally means pepper water.
Of course, the cooks knew that it was not an option to serve this to the officers. So they set about to modify the recipe to suit the taste of the British.
Red lentils, vegetables and cream added to tone it down. And chicken… maybe because everyone loves chicken. Still too hot. Okay, add some sweet ripe mango. The result was the ultimate fusion dish which was presented to the officers to great acclaim.
Quote from ‘Curry, A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors’ (excellently written by Lizzie Collingham)…
“Mulligatawny soup was one of the earliest dishes to emerge from the new hybrid cuisine that the British developed in India, combining British concepts of how food should be presented (as soups or stews, etc.) and Indian recipes.”
From Madras (today’s Chennai) mulligatawny spread to other British settlements in India and the rest of the east. Quickly it became one of the most popular Anglo-Indian dishes.
There is one more twist to this story. Inevitably talk of this excellent dish and the recipe got back to England. Unfortunately there were no mangoes to be had! What to do? Easy… replace the mangoes with apples!
Richard Terry, the chef at the Oriental Club in London added not only apples but ham and turnips in the recipe in his book ‘Indian Cookery’ published in 1861. Here is a copy of that recipe; hilarious!
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 yellow onion, minced
- 8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cayenne (optional)
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 2 celery stalks, sliced
- 1 large apple, preferably Granny Smith, peeled, cored and chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 1 cup masoor dal (split red lentils)
- 6 cups chicken broth or stock
- 1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk
- Juice of 1 lime (about 1½ tablespoons)
- Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
- Add the mustard seeds to the oil and fry till they pop. I would recommend using a splatter as the mustard seeds will likely to jump around.
- When the mustard stops popping, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent.
- Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until fragrant and softened.
- Add turmeric, curry powder, cayenne and cumin seeds and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute.
- Add the carrot, celery and apple and continue cooking until just starting to soften, about 2 minutes.
- Stir in the tomato paste, then the flour and stir to coat all the ingredients uniformly.
- Add the chicken, masoor dal and chicken broth. Season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pot. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer.
- Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes, then uncover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes more, until the chicken and carrots are tender, the soup is creamy, and the flavors have blended.
- Stir in the coconut milk and squeeze in the lime juice. Serve in bowls with cooked rice on the side.
The origin story of the ever popular IPA (India Pale Ale) is equally interesting. The Brits, sweating and sweltering in the tropics, wanted nothing more than to get around a chilled beer at the end of the day. Alas, by the time the shipped beer got to India it was invariably spoilt. Up comes a new formula for beer, highly hopped up to prevent spoliation during the long shipping, and voila, we have the IPA!