Mulligatawny soup

Mulligatawny soup combines chicken, curry, vegetables, and cream for an Indian-inspired dish.

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Mulligatawny soup is actually based on an Indian stew that was changed into soup to placate the fussy British soldiers during the British Raj (1858-1947).

One finds mulligatawny soup on an Indian restaurant menu the same way one always finds buffalo wings or nachos on a bar menu. It just has to be there – if it wasn’t on the menu you just know there’s something wrong with the place. But how many of you have ever ordered it over the papadums or samosas to start your meal?  Like many dishes ordered at your local Indian, it can feel like a bit heavy. This is a good thing if you make this your lunch or your dinner, which is why I absolutely love making batches of this incredibly hearty and extremely inexpensive soup that lasts for many meals.  

The funny thing is, mulligatawny soup has a kind of shady past.  After doing research, I realized that there is no cut and dry history of the soup. There are so many variations of mulligatawny, it almost makes sense that it was difficult to pin down its origins. One thing we do know, it’s not strictly an Indian dish. It’s actually based on an Indian dish that was changed into soup to satiate (and placate) the fussy British soldiers during the British Raj  ((the period between 1858 and 1947 when Britain ruled parts of South Asia/India).

Mulligatawny means “pepper water” and is believed to be loosely based on a stew the Brits loved that their Tamil servants would often serve.  They “demanded” a soup course which, before this time in history, had never been a part of Indian food culture.  The result was a thinned out version of the stew base that they liked so much. According to research, the British eventually brought the invented soup dish back home where it became a well-loved classic there, but because of its many, many variations, it is hard to know what the original recipe contained.

Some mulligatawny soups contain rice or noodles, some are made vegetarian, but traditionally it should have a meat base (like chicken or mutton).  Some contain cream, others coconut milk or yogurt.  Some add apples for a sour/sweet flavor, others add tomato while some people just dump in some chutney.  Your head could spin with all the recipes out there!

So how did we come up with our recipe?  Well, we went to our main source – our local Indian restaurant.  We absolutely adore their mulligatawny soup and wanted to eat a version as close to theirs as possible. This homemade recipe is relatively close to one we found in a Madhur Jaffrey book, but with a bit of help from our local Indian restaurant. It can most definitely be made vegetarian or even vegan (!) and the lentils provide a great heartiness. Pair with some naan (store-bought for us) and you’ve got an amazing lunch or dinner. Regardless of it’s history, mulligatawny soup is going to remain a staple in my household.  It’s too easy to make and too delicious.

(see next page for recipe)

Serves 4 to 6

2 onions, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped finely
2 carrots, chopped finely
1 15-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1-1/2 cups of red lentils

2 to 3 tablespoon of spice mix (see below – you’ll have extra)

  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander seed
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground black peppercorns

1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped into a few chunks
4 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped into a few chunks
6 to 8 cups of chicken stock (for veggie version use, ahem, vegetable stock)
1 tablespoon tumeric
3 tablespoons curry
1 cinnamon stick
Juice of 1 lemon or lime
2 chicken breasts, boiled (optional if you are keeping this veggie)

Toppings:  dollop of drained plain yogurt, some almond slices, chopped cilantro and sliced green onion)

Make a garlic/ginger paste by crushing the chunks in a mortar and pestle.  Use some kosher salt to help it grind better.  If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, chop the ginger and garlic finely with a knife then, using the side of the knife, crush repeatedly to try and squash it all together.

In a big pot, fry your onion, carrot and celery in a bit of oil.  When it gets some color, add your ginger/garlic paste and fry for 30 seconds or so.

Add all your spices (spice blend, tumeric, curry) including the cinnamon stick. Allow to cook for a few moments, constantly stirring.

Add the tomatoes and stir.

Add lentils and six cups of stock.  Stir and lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 40 to 50 minutes, checking to make sure the liquid level isn’t too low.

While the lentils are cooking, boil some water and add your chicken.  Boil the chicken pieces for about 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Smaller, less time to be cooked. Bigger, more time needed.  When they are done, remove from water and allow to cool. After it cools, remove chicken from bone and either chop up or shred with fingers.

Taste the lentils – when they are not too hard to the tooth, the soup is ready to be blended.  FIRST REMOVE THE CINNAMON STICK!! Using a stick blender (or, if you prefer, a regular blender), puree the soup until completely smooth.  You may want to add more warm chicken stock or water to thin it out.  Sometimes the consistency is too thick so make it to your liking by adding a bit of liquid.

Stir in the lemon or lime juice and some chopped cilantro if you choose.  Add the chicken and stir.

Pour into bowls and top with some chopped almonds, green onion and a dollop of yogurt.  Enjoy with some naan bread warmed in the oven.

Related post: Cheese & Pea Curry

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