Mulligatawny Soup: An Exposé
Ahhh colonialism. Just when you think you’ve escaped the grasp of imperialists and empire-ists you discover that your soup is a colonialist relic. You see, Mulligatawny soup, a Tamil dish, was, in its original form, actually more of a chunky stew packed with meats and vegetables. And this is how it was served, as a main dinner course, over a hundred years ago to the British occupiers of India by their Tamil servants. But the Brits were used to a soup course prior to their main meal and thus requested that the stew be amended to their preferences and made thinner and less filling. Because obviously the Brits know everything about cooking and food and thus were helping their subjugated peoples by asking them to thin their stew into little more than a spiced broth – hence its current name, Mulligatawny, which means ‘pepper water’ in Tamil.
And alas, to this day Mulligatawny soup is still served as a thin, spiced broth in most Indian restaurants located outside of India. So, honestly, I was a bit surprised at the result of this recipe having expected the type of Mulligatawny soup I’m normally served at Indian restaurants. Instead, this recipe yielded a thick, silky soup packed with vegetables and lentils – still spicy, but a far cry from pepper water in its consistency and ability to fill the belly. I have a feeling that if you refrain from pureeing your soup you’ll end up with a stew similar in consistency to Mulligatawny’s inspiration.
Regardless of its somewhat spotty past, we loved this version of Mulligatawny soup because it allowed us to make a recipe from far away with mostly local, seasonal ingredients. Because while I love winter comfort food (yes I know it’s the first day of spring but we’re not really seeing any local spring veggies yet), it’s all too easy to fall into the same flavor patterns during this season especially. And there’s only so many root vegetable gratins one can take before the stomach revolts in favor of something a little more interesting. And interesting is certainly a good word for this soup…
Mulligatawny Soup (Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian)
Serves 6 as a main course
Spice Mixture 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 Tbs whole coriander seeds
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp whole fennel seeds
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 Tbs chickpea flour
5 cups vegetable stock
2 medium carrots, peeled and coined
2 turnips, peeled and chopped
12 fresh curry leaves or 8 fresh basil leaves if you cannot find curry leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 Tbs minced fresh ginger
1 can coconut milk
1 cup red lentils
lime wedges for garnish
Heat a dry (non oiled or buttered) cast iron skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add your peppercorns, coriander, cumin and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds, stirring occasionally, until they emit a roasted aroma – a minute or two. Remove from the heat and grind the spices finely, then mix in the turmeric and cayenne to your spice mix. (I ground them in an old, clean coffee grinder)
Next, put the chickpea flour into a large bowl and combine with 2 tablespoons of your stock, mixing vigorously as you go. Once the mixture is combined and homogenous (no lumps) add the rest of your stock and mix to combine.
Add a splash of olive oil to a large pot set over medium high heat. Add your onion and saute for a few minutes, stirring often, until the onion begins to brown at the edges. Add your garlic and ginger and cook for a minute, then add the rest of your vegetables, curry leaves, lentils, spice mixture and stock mixture. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for 50 minutes or until all the vegetables are quite tender.
Using a blender or food processor, puree the soup in batches until smooth. If you can’t get it smooth enough in the blender press it through a fine sieve. Return the soup to your pot and stir in the coconut milk, then simmer for 2-3 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.
Serve hot garnished with lime wedges.