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Mulling Over Mulligatawny

by Patrick on August 6th, 2010 · No Comments ·

The time has come for another in my (regrettably very) occasional series of posts about interesting and unusual soups. And this time, I’m featuring a soup that is not at all, and yet exactly what its name implies. And it’s another globe-trotter.

Until very recently, I had always believed that Mulligatawny was a soup of Irish derivation.  Something laden with potatoes and cheap cuts of lamb perhaps; a cousin to the Scotch broth or the Welsh cawl.  I even thought the soup was named for a particular town. After all, with that spelling, and how the sound of it rolls off one’s tongue, it does rather conjure the image of a sleepy Irish village nestled into green hills and populated by Maureen O’Hara lookalikes brandishing shillelaghs. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mulligatawny comes not from the verdant Irish shores, but rather from the steamier climes of Southeastern India. What sounded so Irish to me was really the typically Anglo bowdlerisation of a Tamil name; Millagu-meaning pepper, and Thanni- meaning water. So Pepper Water. In it’s original form, it was actually more of a sauce than a soup, soup not really figuring prominently amongst the Indian or Tamil cuisine.  This sauce would have been made from stock, coconut milk, spices and chiles, and served with rice over fish or chicken, or even lamb. It was during the period of the Raj, when cooks for the English had to meld cooking styles to satisfy their Colonial masters, that this “Pepper Water” sauce became a soup, as soup does figure prominently amongst the British cuisine. Then, like kedgeree, it found its way to Britain in its new form. Having made it to these shores- at least in the form of  recipes- Mulligatwany got its new Anglicised name, and lost even more of its original form.  Gone was the coconut milk (not usually available in the UK until the latter half of the last century), and the soup got thinner, becoming more of a spicy, currified broth. Rice was still added, although some even substituted pasta for the rice, which must have made for a rather odd combination. Mango chutney was still used as a garnish, and then was cooked into the soup, giving it a fruity sweetness. Most sacriligeous of all, it frequently used beef and beef stock as its base.  When I told a Tamil friend of mine that the Mulligatawny I had sampled was a beef version, he roared with laughter.  Beef is almost never eaten in India, as of course the cow is considered sacred among the largely Hindu population.

So the Mulligatawny I ate- and very much enjoyed even though it was of the commercially produced variety- bears really only a distant familial resemblance to its ancestor.  It does however, merit appreciation, as it speaks of two very important aspects of the British palate: the love of culinary adventure, and the love of spicy heat.  All too often I’ve heard complaints about the blandness of British food, and it’s a very unfair complaint indeed. It is not because of the large Indian and Asian population in the UK that Chicken Tikka Masala is the nation’s favourite food.  In fact, said dish is yet another Anglification of an Indian dish, and for the most part eaten only by us caucasians. In fact Indian food became hugely popular here before the great migration to the UK. Long before every high street had a “Good Curry House”, kedgeree was being served at midnight breakfasts after debutante balls. Returning Colonists had brought back these flavours and spices, and so they trickled down from the  British Upper Class.  Which is not to say that this was Britain’s first introduction to hot and spicy food.  Far from it.  The English have long had a great love of heat-laden condiments.  Consider the great tradition of “Deviling”. Chutney may be another name of Asian derivation, but the British have been pickling and spicing fruits and vegetables for centuries.  This would of course have been due to seasonal needs, but these preserved fruits would not only  have been a source of sweetness at the winter table.  Piccalili- the hot and yellow pickled cauliflower- has been around for centuries, and in fact the English mustard used to flavour it is perhaps only second to Japanese Wasabi in palate-searing heat. And as for spices, since the spice route opened up back even before the time of Marco Polo, spice had been currency, and a major status symbol for any English household. Like most of Northern Europe, the British have a great love of horseradish, that eye-watering root without which no roast beef dinner is complete.

So now I am most eager to try Mulligatawny in its original form with all the true coconut-sweet heat of the Subcontinent.  But I quite like our modern British version too.  Beef or no beef.

Tags: History and Holidays · Notes and Passing Fancies

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