Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Four centuries ago, the English East India Company was formed by royal charter. Originally it was conceived as nothing more than a monopolistic company for the spice trade. Ultimately it became the genesis of British imperialism in India. The British Raj (1858 to 1947) was a 90-year period in the history of India during which the land and its people were under the rule of the English Crown. This will not be a discussion of the political or socioeconomic changes that occurred, but one example of how the ways of England were interjected into the cuisine of the people of India.
Adapt or Reinvent?
British colonists and soldiers did not readily adapt to the foods and customs of their newly acquired holdings. In fact, it was the other way around. Regional dishes were altered to fit the whims and sensibilities of English dining. Chai tea and kedgeree are two examples, and then there was “pepper water.”
The air above the pan shimmered with the rising heat. Peppercorns and cumin seeds popped and sputtered in the dry pan. Chili peppers were added and the dance began. The spices quivered, their essential oils perfuming the air. Next came the mustard seeds, a dash of coriander, a pinch of turmeric, a spoonful of tamarind paste. The master demanded not the brothy rasam, but a “sturdy soup,” and so some diced chicken was added to the pot along with the boiling water and lentils. As the meal simmered, the broth took on a dark red hue and the lentils broke down into a creamy mash that thickened the stew-like soup.
In Tamil the word “milagu” means pepper or chili and “tanni” is water, thus pepper water (so called for the spiciness of the broth) was Anglicized and became mulligatawny.
When British colonists returned home, they took with them a desire for this modernized version of the southern Indian rasam. Since that time there have been countless modifications to the original dish but there are basic ingredients that must always be present in the perfect mulligatawny.
Of course, pepper water must be flavored with pepper. If you don’t like the black specks in your soup, use white pepper instead of black. Believe it or not, both are from the same plant (piper nigrum); the difference is in how the peppercorns are processed. Black pepper comes from peppercorns that are dried in the sun. Like us, they tan. To obtain white pepper, that outer layer is removed so that only the light inner seed remains. So, is there a difference in flavor? White pepper seems hotter, spicier, but connoisseurs will tell you that black pepper has more complexity.
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Many recipes will tell you to use lentils in your mulligatawny, but few of them warn that there is more than one type of lentil and that they are not interchangeable. Here’s what you need to know (and which one you need to use for this soup):
- Brown (or green) lentils: These are the every-day-type of lentils you find at the grocery store along with dried kidney beans and sacks of white rice. They are large(r) than other lentils, flat, and cook quickly. They fall apart when cooked so are good for a thickened soup (though not this one) or in a dip.
- French (or lentils du Puy) lentils: These cute little orbs retain their shape when cooked. That must be why the French use them in salads.
- Black (beluga) lentils: More difficult to find, but worth the hunt if you want lentils with big flavor. As for texture, they are a cross between the brown and French—if cooked the minimum amount of time they will retain their shape; cook them longer and they will submit and turn into creamy mushiness.
- Red (or orange) lentils: These also cook to a creamy consistency and their skins do as well. These are the lentils of daal, and Indian sauces, and mulligatawny.
Mulligatawny can be a vegetarian dish, but many people desire the inclusion of meat (years ago the diners in Britain certainly did) so I have included chicken. Please, please, please don't but beef in this soup. Those of the Hindu faith consider the cow to be sacred. Need I say more?
Many recipes for mulligatawny soup will include "curry powder," but what exactly is that? The truth is that no two curry powders are the same—every manufacturer has their own blend of seasonings. The same is true of the mix known as garam masala. No two are alike. I'm fussy about what flavors go into my soup, so rather than take a shortcut, my recipe will specify each herb or spice and the amounts of each.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons coriander
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons fresh ginger root
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3 cups finely diced onion
- 5 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 cups red lentils
- 8 cups chicken stock
- 1 stalk celery, finely diced
- 1 large carrot, finely diced
- 1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and diced
- 2 cups diced cooked chicken (I prefer chicken thighs) (This is the perfect place to use up leftover rotisserie chicken)
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (canned, not coconut-based milk in the dairy case and not cream of coconut from the liquor store)
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add all of the spices listed (bay leaf through nutmeg). Stir constantly and allow to heat and "bloom" for about 30 seconds or until the mixture becomes very fragrant.
- Add the onions and garlic and continue to cook and stir until the onions soften, about 3 minutes more. Turn down the heat if the spices seem to be toasting too much. You don't want them to burn.
- Add the lentils, stock, celery, and carrot. Stir well to combine. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring all to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes.
- Add the diced apple and continue to simmer until the lentils are falling-apart creamy, and the apple, carrot, and celery are tender, about 10 or 15 minutes more.
- Stir in the chicken and coconut milk and simmer until heated through.
- Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
- Be sure to remove the bay leaves before serving.
© 2020 Linda Lum