Perfect Mulligatawny Soup


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.

Black Pepper

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.


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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Stir in the chicken and coconut milk and simmer until heated through.
  6. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
  7. Be sure to remove the bay leaves before serving.


© 2020 Linda Lum


Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 20, 2020:

Denise, I'm glad you recognize that this can be a vegetarian meal. It's very cozy, warm, and comforting. We need that now, right?

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on March 20, 2020:

Okay, wow. Suddenly I'm very hungry. I've got to give this a try.



Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 17, 2020:

If I can't find any locally, I may need to resort to that. Hopefully, they're not sold out too!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Shauna, have you tried Amazon for the TP? Seriously, we are not going to the grocery stores. We are buying from Wal-Mart online. It works quite well.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Flourish, we are doing our best to stay safe. As you know, Washington State is the epicenter for the outbreak in the US. It should come as no surprise that the Carb Diva family has a ton of food in the pantry and freezer. We'll be fine.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Manatita, I was thinking of a thick Santa-like tummy. No, you're not thick (in the head). You're one of the smartest people I know. You amaze me.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Mary I hope you find this recipe to your liking. I don't know that I've ever found it in cans here.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 17, 2020:

Linda, I've never heard of this soup. It sounds pretty good, though, judging by the ingredients.

Sorry to hear you're stuck at home. Here, all of the theme parks have closed and many of the touristy restaurants. Schools are all closed until the end of March. The company I work for is still operating from the main office and our jobsites, but extra precautions are being taken to lower the chance of exposure to COVID-19. I still go to the grocery store, but stay away from crowded places. BTW, if there's any toilet paper in your neck of the woods, please send me some. I'm down to three rolls between two people and the stores are empty!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 17, 2020:

I liked your description of various types of lentils lest one select the wrong type. Your specific instructions on coconut milk and no beef should also prove helpful to readers and cooks of this soup. Stay safe in this outbreak. There’s only one Carbdiva!

manatita44 from london on March 17, 2020:

Not thick, but cuddly and tender and now you have sent my mind in a place where it was not ... still isn't. I'm speaking of my persona or character, so you know. Ha ha.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on March 17, 2020:

We were just talking about this soup a couple of weeks ago. I used to buy it in a can but should give it a try. We don't get canned soups here.

Thanks for your recipe.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Manatita, first I need to tell you I came perilously close to injuring myself when I read your last remark. A fall out of the chair would not be wise for this old gal with osteoporosis. Thick, soft, cuddly and tender you are?

I had to look up "swede." We call them rutabaga in the USA. Your meal sounds wonderful. I was raised in a household wherein soup was not a brothy appetizer. Soup was a meal so thick you could almost eat it with a fork. Sounds like you're getting all those amazing antioxidant foods in there. Good on you!!

manatita44 from london on March 17, 2020:

I had the puy lentils only in the last five minutes or so. I made a soup dinner. I boiled the lentils by itself, simmered for about 15 mins and added it into the almost cooked concoction: sweet potatoes, parsnips, swede, mushrooms, sprouts, carrots, onions, garlic, pepper, thyme, broccoli, squash etc.

I added a variety of spices to include clove, coriander, thyme, mint, oregano, black pepper, parsley, etc. I added a veg stock and some Himalayan salt. Delicioso!

I should try the bay leaves sometime. Your Mulligatawny looks awesome! My soups are thick, soft, cuddly and tender, like me.

Rinita Sen on March 17, 2020:

Sad times indeed, Linda. We're stuck at home as well. Well, as long as we're all safe. Hope this ends soon.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Rinita, thank you. My family and I live at the epicenter of the initial outbreak of Corvid-19 in the United States, so we are sheltering in place. That means that we do not attend church, my daughter is not going to work, and we are not leaving our house to purchase groceries. We have a large freezer of food, ample supply in our pantry, and several months of prescription medications on hand.

Rinita Sen on March 17, 2020:

I didn't know there was an English version of the rasam. I live in South India (though I'm not originally from here) and rasam is of course a daily in these parts. Nice to see this version and hope all is well with you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Bill, what am I going to do with you? I'll just keep loving you my friend. My love to you and Bev in these trying times. Stay safe.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Hello again Umesh. I was hoping that you would see this one. Thank you for stopping by.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 17, 2020:

Pamela, I'm glad that you enjoyed the history lesson. As for the lentils, they are very different from one another, just as no all beans are alike (think of navy, kidney, and pinto beans). I hope you have a good week. Stay safe my friend.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 17, 2020:

Never heard of it. I must live in a cooking vacuum. You would think I would have heard of it, though, even if there was no chance of me eating it. Sigh! What are you going to do with me, Linda?

Stay safe...be happy...and love always

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 17, 2020:

This is a very nutritious soup. Worth trying.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 17, 2020:

The history of food for the U.S.is very interesting. This soup is new to me and I didn't know there were different types of lentils either. The soup looks delicious. Thanks for sharing this recipe and I enjoyed reading this article.

Related Articles