My Hunt For The Perfect Mulligatawny Soup

My Hunt For The Perfect Mulligatawny Soup
What is it that makes us nostalgic about the past – even though in its time it may have been not been the best of times?

This summer, I watched Bridgerton’s second season in which India and the empire features prominently through its two lead Indian actresses.  These period dramas have broken streaming records worldwide, which means I am clearly not alone. It reminded me of hot summer afternoons during my childhood when we would watch long meandering versions of the Far Pavilions (or Dur Khaima), or the Jewel in the Crown. It was exciting to see our world represented on screen, rather like modern-day Pakistani girls may feel as they see Disney’s Miss Marvel on screen.

What was it about those sprawling period pieces? For one, they were based on characters in novels with sweeping romances, hidden affairs, loyalty and betrayal all mixed up with the heat, dust and jewelled colours of the Subcontinent.

The other legacy of the Raj has to be the clubs and foods that we continue to eat that are relics of a time gone by. My grandmother would routinely interview new cooks about whether they knew how to make Queen’s Pudding or crème caramel even until the 1980s – her own dedication to the Raj.

Whether in the Sindh Club or its less colonially designed equivalent Punjab Club in Lahore, there is so much Raj ritual observed: men's smoking rooms, tomb-silent reading rooms full of old newspapers, and appointed bars (even though those bars serve up a more Muslim friendly nimbu-pani and soda rather than the earlier gimlets).

My own summer memories as a child was to swim in the Sindh Club pool with friends – we spent hours just jumping in and out and then to eat those wonderful club sandwiches or cutlets.

And in the winter, we would indulge on the club’s inimitable mulligatawny soup which perpetuated the best culinary flavours of the Raj: a soup made from dals simmered in yakhni, served with tangy lemon and crispy croutons. Somehow these memories have remained with me in the US – the Anglo-Indian fare of these clubs, the tea-time delicacies of chicken patties and lemon tart that are a feature of a proper tea.

The Raj may have ended, but like the elitism it left behind in society, so did its culinary residue. These clubs did not allow locals or women until the late 1950s.

Anglo-Indian cuisine was the culinary equivalent of these TV serials– with recipes popularised by what the British could digest and their Indian chefs produce. It spawned an entire slew of recipes that we still eat – rissoles and cutlets, fruit and vegetable chutneys and desi Shepherd’s pie.

The first Indian restaurant in England was reputedly the Hindoostane Coffee House which opened in 1809 in London. In  The Epicure's Almanack in 1815, "All the dishes were dressed with curry powder, rice, Cayenne, and the best spices of Arabia. A room was set apart for smoking hookahs with oriental herbs.”

As chicken tikka masala has now become one of the most popular dishes in the UK, clearly this oriental foray has almost become mainstream on high streets across the country.
Some use besan or chickpea flour, others use lentils or coconut milk. Like marriages, no two are alike. As long as it is spicy and sweet and satisfies you, there is no wrong way

I was gifted Anglo Indian housewife recipes made popular in the 1940s and ‘50s. That was a culture in itself – culinary fusion at its best though more of a crossover of leftovers, nursery comfort food and spices like kedgeree (our khichari) and chutneys which lent flavour while also making advantage of pickling and jamming – components of each culture. Unfortunately, Anglo-Indians have migrated and so have many of these recipes, though the chutney still has popularity in both cultures.

Over many winters, I crave soups and have been keen to recreate the Mulligatawny experience. Though the combination of vegetable, rice, spices and chicken or other meat, the Mulligatawny was first made by Indian cooks working in the homes and clubs of the East India Company officials in the 18th century, its origins are more humble. The name originates from the Tamil words miḷagu (மிளகு – black pepper), and taṇṇi (தண்ணி – water); literally, "pepper-water.” It is thicker than rasam – the South Indian clear broth, and more. I remember the Punjab Club cook reminding me that the secret lies in never washing the pot. In my younger days, that made me gag. I would never have raised my nose up at that in a chef’s kitchen in Paris or now that one regularly uses cast iron pans – but back then, the concept seemed so 'unhygienic' in a desi context.

And this is where it becomes interesting. Like Burmese khow suey, there is no standard mulligatawny recipe. Some use besan or chickpea flour, others use lentils or coconut milk. Like marriages, no two are alike. As long as it is spicy and sweet and satisfies you, there is no wrong way. I have tasted versions which contain rice and some coconut milk, others are vegetarian while some include meat – traditionally chicken. I draw the line at the Heinz version which has a tinned version of beef, curry spices and a dash of mango chutney. That canned pretender should be banned.

Mulligatawny recipe from Charles Dickens's weekly magazine All The Year Round, 22 August 1868 (page 249)

My research into the perfect mulligatawny sent me down several culinary rabbit holes. Whoever would have thought that one of the earliest recipes was in Charles Dickens' weekly journal All the Year Round in August 1868? I loved this paragraph for it combined class culture, culinary talent and empire all within 300 words. Another recipe of the time called it Multani Soup – though mulligatawny originated in Madras – a complete ignorance of geography.

So, my quest continues.

I have tried several but always go back to the comfort food provided by the age-old recipe of the clubs – for one they make it consistently without me having to slave in the kitchen and it always tastes authentic in the halcyon settings of a club. So go ahead, make some for yourself. If Dickens could feature it as a culinary highlight, hazard a try! Like Oliver Twist, everyone at your table will want more…