1. Culinary contretemps.
Mulligatawny is the gumbo of the Raj, always called a soup, sometimes similar to stew and stamped by the personality of every different cook. Others have noted the similarity, if only by implication. In 1903, Adolphe Meyer placed his five mulligatawny recipes immediately after his six gumbos in the Post-Graduate Cookery Book “addressed primarily to those who have graduated in their culinary studies” rather than to novices.
Controversy accompanies much of Raj cuisine; misplaced questions of origin, authenticity, even legitimacy, dog Anglo-Indian foods including curry and even the term ‘curry’ itself. In 1974, for example, David Burton quoted Madhur Jaffrey’s opinion that the word was an insult to Indians because it lumped the vast constellation of their cuisines into a single false foreign construct.
Mulligatawny courts controversy too, but not in any political sense. Before the arrival of the British, soup was a concept alien to the Subcontinent, so determining the parentage of mulligatawny requires no test of DNA. It would have been unthinkable to omit the soup course from a burra khana, or big dinner, and it was the centerpiece of social display in the Raj. The British therefore described what made a soup to their cooks and asked for some.
Is it soup yet?
2. The Indian precursor of a British dish.
Enter mulligatawny, the “most celebrated of Anglo-Indian dishes.” (Burton 94) Perhaps the first fusion of British and Indian technique that became the hallmark of an emergent cuisine, the soup probably was initially formulated sometime in the eighteenth century and possibly earlier. (see, e.g., Hobson-Jobson 595)
Lizzie Collingham ascribes the origin of the term but not the soup itself to an ayurvedic medicine called ‘mollo tunny;’ the Tamil for ‘pepper water.’ According to Hobson-Jobson, however, the Tamil for pepper water transcribes to ‘milagu-tannir,’ which does sound closer to mulligatawny. Madhur Jaffrey uses ‘millagu-thannir,’ which approaches Hobson-Jobson, while Julie Sahni chooses ‘Mullaga Rasam’ or ‘Mulligatanni,’ however, David Burton refers to ‘milagu tunni.’ For her part Camellia Panjabi writes ‘muloga tani.’
Daniel Santiagoe had been a servant in India before emigrating to England. In 1889 he published The Curry Cook’s Assistant: Or Curries, how to Make Them in England in Their Original Style. There he insists that “mollagoo tanney” or “molagoo tannir” are the proper renditions of pepper water. (Santiagoe 51)
By any name it was a watery infusion of either black pepper or chilies and tamarind; nothing more. Used in an effort to treat a rangy spectrum of maladies from fever and cholera to dyspepsia and hemorrhoids, mollo tunny was a bit more (or less) than medicine, sometimes added to rice as an aid to digestion. Burton maintains that the British themselves also drank pepper water “at the beginning or end of the meal as a digestive.” (Collingham 120; Burton 93)
The preparation was hardly a stock, but at least was something edible and wet that Indian cooks could consider a medium for soup. It seems they simply dumped small amounts of chopped meat, vegetable or both with rice into the medicine to make a primitive soup. The British went wild.
Its origin myth sets the birthplace of mulligatawny in Madras, then as now the capital of Tamil culture in India. The city’s inhabitants liked their new soup so much that, according to historians of the Raj, they became known as “mulls” in the way Liverpudlians are Scousers. Hobson-Jobson, however, limits the “distinctive sobriquet to members of the Service of the Madras Presidency.” (Hobson-Jobson 595)
3. Evolution across time and space.
During the eighteenth century the soup quickly spread to become a fixture of burra khanas, balls, barracks and club dining rooms across the breadth of the Raj. It even became standard fare in railway dining cars across the Subcontinent. Then, early in the nineteenth century, “retired East India Company merchants sparked off a fashion for mulligatawny back in England.” (Burton 96)
Mulligatawny evolved in the manner of stone soup. Add some onions to improve the flavor of rock and water; some carrots make it better, then maybe some meat, a tomato perhaps, herbs and spice….
The British happily appropriated and combined regional ingredients as well as seasonings that traditional Indian kitchens considered incompatible. Mulligatawny represents the paradigm of the practice. Curry spices or powder (which, a bit of a surprise, Jaffrey considers essential to the “true East-West flavour” of the soup), fruit, thickeners; each and all might or might not claim a place in the pot along with a sliding scale of other ingredients. (Jaffrey 241)
As with all things Anglo-Indian, mulligatawny evolved over time and space. “Inevitably, the soup began to take on the stamp of the English kitchen” following its arrival in the metropolis;
“apple was substituted for the mango juice of Indian recipes, and the freshly ground spice mixtures replaced by curry powder. Indeed the recipe itself was originally dubbed, ‘curry soup,’ as the inimitable Dr. Kitchiner indicates in The Cook’s Oracle in 1817.” (Burton 96)
4. Through thick and thin.
Some mulligatawnys are thin, others thick; some clear, either an infusion like consommé or laced with dice of vegetables with or without meat. Cooks have used all manner of thickeners to bulk out the heartier offshoots; wheat flour of course, at least in the western world, but other things too. Richard Terry used potato flour at the Oriental Club in London during 1861, although Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert, who wrote as ‘Wyvern,’ abhorred its addition to any soup. He uses the classic western roux of flour and butter or some ground almonds when he chooses to thicken the soup, which is not all the time. Madhur Jaffrey selects chickpea flour in one version but wheat flour in another. (Jaffrey 240, 242; compare Saveur)
Other authors call for lentils, cornstarch or, as ‘P.O.P.’ did in 1870 with his rabbit mulligatawny laced with a most British dose of Madeira from The Nabob’s Cookery Book, “pounded almonds.” Not so, however, for his chicken based version; that one gets “a piece of butter mixed with a little flour” while his vegetable variant gets nothing at all. (P.O.P. recipes no. 1, 2 & 5)
Santiagoe specifies a rice powder that he made by dry frying the rice until brown before pounding it fine. (Santiagoe 60) In the concisely entitled Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book: Comprising Numerous Directions for Plain Wholesome Cookery, Both Oriental and English, With Much Miscellaneous Matter, answering All general purposes of reference Connected With Household Affairs Likely to be Immediately Required by Families, Messes, and Private Individuals, Residing at the Presidencies or Out-Stations, however, Dr. Robert Riddell prefers arrowroot to thicken his mulligatawny. The kitchen at Raffles Hotel in Singapore uses oatmeal as it has done since the dawn of the twentieth century.
5. Yet more variations.
A number of mulligatawnys start with chicken, others with lamb or beef and sometimes, but seldom, fish, while some have no meat at all. Almost anything could form the base of the soup. According to David Burton, “old Indian [meaning Anglo-Indian] recipes call for venison, rabbit [as we just have seen], and even antelope or peacock.” (Burton 95) Richard Burton (no relation), writing in 1851, added “Neilgherry Sambur, a kind of elk, to the list. (Leong-Salobir 17) Our own Dave Kay boosts the flavor of his mulligatawny with bacon.
One of the more curious additives, at least to the modern eye, is redcurrant jelly. Oddly enough, the ingredient did not emerge from an English kitchen but rather was a favorite flavoring of Kenney-Herbert. Meyer must have been familiar with his work. In four of Meyer’s versions, but not his vegetable one “for Lent,” the “mulligatawny may be flavored with chutney, currant jelly and lemon, according to taste.” (Meyer 30)
Santiagoe, a minority apparently of one, did not consider his own recognizably post pepper water mulligatawny based on a stock of beef, chicken or mutton mulligatawny at all. He calls it “Mollagoo Tanney and Not Mulligatawny” in protest, asking the rhetorical question: “Why English people [sic] always spell this word wrong? Everybody knows this--Molagoo, pepper; tanney, water.” (Santiagoe 51, 51n) A song from 1784 cited in Hobson-Jobson also eschews the familiar spelling; it opts for ‘mullaghee-tawny’ instead. (Hobson-Jobson 595)
6. But is it mulligatawny?
From all this Burton concludes that the “trouble with mulligatawny is that it has sprouted so many variations that it is impossible to lay down a definitive list of ingredients.” (Burton 95) Soup from the left end of the mulligatawny spectrum may scarcely resemble one from the right. Even so, we do not share Burton’s difficulty of definition because each of them will be recognizably mulligatawny. All of them share the unmistakable and essential spicing of India or, to be precise, the historical British kitchen there.
Are they curries too, as Dr. Kitchiner thought? That depends on the choice of definition. If ‘curry’ refers to all of Subcontinental cuisine, of course; if to the foodways developed by the British in India, obviously so. These definitions, while widespread, are too broad to avoid confusion and, if Jaffrey is our guide, maybe even insult. As with the term Anglo-Indian, britishfoodinamerica aspires to take the word mulligatawny as it historically appeared in print.
In the case of ‘Anglo-Indian,’ our most frequent usage at bfia denotes people of British ancestry who spent some or all of their lives in the Raj whether or not born there. That is what those people called themselves during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although the earliest of the East India Company merchants also referred to themselves simply as ‘Indian.’ Sometimes the term refers to people of mixed British and Asian ancestry but that meaning first appears only in 1911.
Like the heartier manifestations of the soup, the way people historically have considered the term mulligatawny is by no means clear. The anonymous author of the Indian Cookery ‘Local’ for Young Housekeepers refers to mulligatawny as ‘the curry’ in her 1887 recipe but most authors of nineteenth century Raj cookbooks distinguish the terms.
7. Yes it is.
Kenney-Herbert, whom the scholars David Burnett and Helen Saberi call “the Escoffier of the Raj” and whom they along with many others consider the most influential of all English writers on Anglo-Indian food, explicitly distinguishes mulligatawny, which he spells ‘mulligatunny,’ from his range of sophisticated curries. He considered it a “really excellent, and at times, most invigorating soup.” (‘Wyvern’ 320) As with curry, he mourned its fall from fashion by the end of the nineteenth century and campaigned for its revival.
Based on the recipes, Kenney-Herbert had good cause for distinguishing his mulligatunnys from curry. Both the spice mix and technique for the differing preparations diverge. The mulligatunny dispenses with the turmeric and ginger he includes in his basic curry (like a commercial curry paste they would cloud the stock, which should be clear), and adds curry leaf and garlic. Instead of grinding the spice to powder for the curry, Kenney-Herbert ties the whole spice, garlic clove and leaves in a muslin bag for extraction from the mulligatunny stock “as soon as the flavor is satisfactory.” (‘Wyvern’ 324)
Like Kenney-Herbert, Riddell implicitly distinguished mulligatawny from curry, in his case by placing it in one of the ‘English’ chapters instead of the one he called, in his inimitable style, “Oriental Cookery:--preliminary remarks on Curries, Brianes, Pullows, Ashes, Kubabs, Cakes and Chutneys; with various receipts for making the same.” There he also placed his three recipes for “Pepper Water Sour,” an indication that Riddell considered mulligatawny distinct from his enumerated ‘Oriental’ dishes and, unlike its pepper water precursor, rather British.
Some food historians consider mulligatawny not only distinct, but also second only to curry as the most important Raj culinary style. Cecilia Leong-Salobir is among them. “Although curry was the ubiquitous dish in the repertoire of colonial cuisine, mulligatawny soup was the next most important dish associated with the colonial table.” (Leong-Salobir 16) Collingham implicitly concurs in referring to the “pseudo-Indian curries, mulligatawny soup and kedgeree of the first half of the nineteenth century.” (Collingham 160)
The Editor knows of no other soup considered curry, except for curry soup, and it does seem fair to ask why this one should be singled out for assimilation. Besides, the very variety of versions itself reinforces the notion that mulligatawny deserves a home of its own. In the end the contest is not close. The Editor will not call mulligatawny curry.
Colonel Kenney-Herbert’s rendition of the Tamil for pepper water is ‘moleegoo tunnee.’
Recipes for mulligatawny appear in the practical.
Anon., “Mulligatawny,” www.saveur.com (4 September 2012; accessed 20 August 2013) [Madhur Jaffrey recipe]
David Burton, The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India (London 1993)
Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Biography (London 2005)
Cecilia Leong-Salobir, Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A Taste of Empire (Abington, Oxfordshire 2011)
Madhur Jaffrey, Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible (London 2003)
‘P. O. P.,’ The Nabob’s Cookery Book. A Manual of East and West Indian Recipes (London 1870)
Adolphe Meyer, The Post-Graduate Cookery Book (New York 1903)
Camellia Panjabi, 50 Great Curries of India (New York 2007)
Dr. Robert Riddell, Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book: Comprising Numerous Directions for Plain Wholesome Cookery, Both Oriental and English…. (Madras 1860)
Daniel Santiagoe, The Curry Cook’s Assistant: Or Curries, How to Make Them in England in Their Original Style (London 1889)
‘Wyvern,’ Culinary Jottings for Madras (Calcutta 1891)
Henry Yule & A. C. Burnell, Hobson Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary (London 1902)