A mulligatawny miscellany: Occasioned by discussion at a colonial dinner prepared by Charmaine O’brien

Paul van Reyk (Oct 2017)

K.T. Achaya, in his magisterial A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food cites begins his discussion of mulligatawny with this delightful quote from Hobson Jobson Vol 2, (1886):

‘A British prisoner of Hyder Ali in AD 1784 sang mournfully:

In vain our hard fate we repine,

In vain our fortunes we rail;

On Mullighu-tawny we dine,

Or Congee in Bangalore jail.’

Hyder Ali, the Chief Minister and so de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India from 1761, in fact died in 1782. But let’s let that go and sit with this soldier, captured perhaps in the second Mysore-British war, in his cell and look into this bowl of ‘mullighu-tawny’. What can it contain that it has come to symbolise his ‘hard fate’?

Achaya gives the derivation of the word mulligatawny as Tamilian milagu-thannīr, literally pepper-water. This is the first indication that what our soldier has in his bowl is an Anglicised product. Milagu-thannīr, pepper-water, is a British re-branding of rasam, the everyday South Indian thin  sour soup which can be part of a meal or taken after a meal as a digestive. Achaya says the word rasa in Sanskrit means extract and the following recipe from The Art of South Indian Cooking by Aroona Reejhsinghani (1973) shows why.


1 cup toovar dal (split pigeon pea)

1 lime-sized ball of tamarind

Handful of sliced coriander leaves

A pinch of asafoetida

3 red chillies

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tblsp. coriander seeds

6 peppercorns

2 flakes garlic

A few curry leaves

½ tsp each of mustard seeds and turmeric powder.

Salt to taste

Cover tamarind with 1 cup of water for 5 minutes, then squeeze out the pulp. Wash and soak dal for 15 minutes in 5 cups of water. Roast and powder 2 red chillies, asafoetida, coriander and cumin seeds and peppercorns. Put the dal to cook in water in which it was soaked along with turmeric till soft. Remove from fire, mash to a pulp and pass through a sieve. Reheat the dal and add the tamarind and powdered spices and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmering and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from fire and set aside. Heat 2 tblsps. Oil and toss in whole red chilli, curry leaves, garlic and mustard. When the mustard stops bursting and the garlic turns pink, pour into the rasam. Serve immediately.


Reejhsinghani omits what to do with the coriander leaves, but I assume they are chopped and sprinkled on the rasam when serving.

I think it’s the sieving that leads to using the word rasam, making an extract in this case by straining out the solid spice seeds.

Reejhsinghani also gives a recipe for tomato rasam where the fruit is added to the rasam after the dal is sieved, the soup then being boiled again till the tomatoes are softened and the rasam has a good orangey-red colour to it.

The transition from rasam to mulligatawny is also a transition from a vegetable to a meat soup, and presumably this is what our solitary soldier has as solace. Where and why did this happen?

Lizzie Collingham, in her excellent Curry. A biography (2005), writes:

‘One of the most popular Anglo-Indian dishes is said to have been invented in Madras.  The British are supposed to have asked their cooks to prepare soup as a starter, a concept unfamiliar to Indians who place all the dishes on the table at once and who pour liquid dishes over rice. [This is of course how rasam is often served, part of a range of dishes on a thali and poured over rice] The nearest thing to a soup that Madrassas cooks knew was a watery rasam (birth)…which in Tamil is called molo tunny or pepper water. The Madrassi cools inventively added a little rice, a few vegetables, some meat and transformed this broth in mulligatawny soup. Anglo-Indians in Madras were said to imbibe such large quantities of it that they were known as “Mulls”.

Here’s a simple version Collingham cites from Indian Cookery ‘Local’ for Young Housekeepers (2nd edition, 1887).

Recipe for Chicken Mulligatawny

Cut a chicken into 12 or 16 pieces, and boil it in two teacups of water. Take five or six corns of black pepper, 1/8 of an ounce each of turmeric, and fresh ginger, five or six slices of garlic and a dessert-spoon of raw coriander, with one red chilly, and grind them all together to make a fine paste. Mix the ground paste with the chicken broth and let it boil. After boiling, strain the gravy through a piece of muslin; warm a heaped tea-spoon of ghee in a stewpan, and fry a sliced onion, put in the meat and gravy together, stir and allow the curry to boil. Put no acid in the curry, serve it with a sour Lime cut in slices in a separate plate.


The lime here replaces the tamarind, unavailable, or scarce, in Britain in the nineteenth century but it’s not incorporated into the broth. Several curry recipes of the time call for quartered limes to be either served on the side or placed on top of the accompanying rice, so diners can sour up their dish to their taste. The dal has been completely done away with. We’ve stepped quite far away from rasam and this is now definitely a stand-alone soup, going so far as to do without rice altogether.


collingham mulligatawny oct 2017


If this was what our pining prisoner was served in Mysore prison, I can’t sympathise. While the spices are much reduced, ginger has been added, the quantity of garlic upped as has the quantity of coriander, and the resulting flavour is quite satisfying . Frying the onions in ghee brings a satisfying buttery oiliness and browning them as I have done gives that sweet caramel-ness. The recipe doesn’t call for salt, but it would be a tad insipid without.

Mulligatawny accompanied the British to Australia and features in virtually every domestic targeted cookbook published in the late nineteenth and early – mid twentieth centuries. This is Harriet Wicken’s recipe from her Kingswood Cookery Book (1888)

Mulligatawny Soup

2 qts. stock

1 rabbit or wild duck

1 rasher of bacon

1 oz. flour

1 tablespoonful Mulligatawny Paste

1 onion

1 apple

1 carrot

20 peppercorns

1 oz. butter

½ oz. curry powder


Lemon juice

Put the butter into a saucepan; cut the bacon, apple, and vegetables into small pieces, and when the butter is melted put them into a saucepan with the peppercorns, and fry a pale brown; then stir in the curry powder, mulligatawny paste, and flour, and cook for a few minutes; pour in the hot stock; cut the rabbit or duck into joints, and add them to the soup, and simmer very gently for 1 ½ hours. Take out the rabbit or duck, cut the meat from the bones into neat pieces, about half an inch square, and put them into a warm tureen; rub the soup through a hair sieve; put in the salt and lemon juice; return to a clean saucepan, and make hot; pour it boiling on to the meat in the tureen, and serve with a dish of well-boiled rice. This soup can be made without the mulligatawny paste.


Here, apple is used as it often was at the time as a substitute for green mango as a souring agent, though here it is paired with lemon juice in that role. I love that this one suggests either rabbit or wild duck, both of which would give the dish that stronger gamey flavour I think – and would have been a delicious way to dispense with rabbits that by this time were a pest in Australia post being imported for sport. I also like the use of bacon to add a fatty saltiness to the broth. Unusually, the stock here is not made from the meat that is used for the prepared dish. The cook may well have used Keen’s Curry Powder, created in Australia by Joseph Keen at his manufactory in Kingston, Tasmania, in 1844. Still used in many an Australian kitchen today it contains turmeric, coriander, salt, fenugreek, black pepper, chili, rice flour, allspice and celery. I have yet to find details of what was in Mulligatawny Paste and who produced it. Happily, we are back to having this with rice.

Mulligatawny became a feature of the Burgher table in Sri Lanka also. The Burghers are the descendants of the inter-marrying of Dutch, French and Portuguese with Singhalese and Tamils, a term applied to them by the British when they colonised the country, and adopted by them as were British dishes and meal practices. Here the complex spicing returns, now including cinnamon, the indigenous spice that flavours most Sri Lankan dishes, and, in the absence of dal, coconut milk is added to the stock as a thickener, the way it often used in Sri Lankan curries. Here’s Hilda Deutrom’s recipe from her Daily News Cookery Book (1929):

Chicken Mulligatawny

1 large chicken

1 1/2 pints cold water

1/2 pint thick coconut milk

¼ oz. coriander seed and 1/2 oz. each sweet cumin seed (fennel) and white cumin seed ground together

1/8 oz. white cumin seed ground separately

a pinch of ground saffron

4 medium-sized ripe tomatoes (sliced)

1 tablespoonful sliced red onions

2 cloves of garlic (chopped)

2 slices green ginger (chopped)

2 inch piece cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon fenugreek

a small sprig curry leaves

1 dessertspoonful dripping

lime juice


Cut the chicken into joints and put it into a saucepan, add the water and let it simmer for half an hour, then add the coriander, sweet cumin and white cumin ground together, the saffron, fenugreek, half the onions, the garlic and ginger, cinnamon, curry-leaves, tomatoes and salt; boil until the chicken is tender. Strain off the stock and put back the best pieces of chicken into the stock. Mix the remaining white cumin with the coconut milk and add to the stock. Heat the dripping in a pan and fry the remainder of the onions. when browned, turn in the prepared stock and salt and lime juice to taste, and let it boil up once. Serve boiled rice with the mulligatawny.


Two hundred and more years down the track from its creation, Nestlé Lanka’s Mulligatawny soup uses the basic Sri Lankan recipe but does without the actual chicken, using instead a Maggi Magic chicken sachet. The recipe here also calls for cooked basmati rice and chopped coriander to be ‘sprinkled’ on top as the soup is served. I don’t recall coriander leaves ever being used in any dish in the 50’s kitchen of my Sri Lankan childhood. When I asked an aunt about this one time she said that Sri Lankan’s of her day didn’t use it because they thought it tasted like soap, which to be honest is sort of does – nice soap, but yes, soap. The coconut milk is made with Maggi Coconut Milk Powder, a product I confess to using also. Finding fresh coconuts until recently was difficult in Australia, and when I do buy them I take the risk that they will be so old that they have begun to ferment if not putrefy, so I inevitably by three-for-one. Then there is the palaver of cracking the coconut, grating it and squeezing out the milk, all very rustic and fun to do as a party trick but…

Campbell’s Modern [Chicken] Mulligatawny recipe uses CAMPBELL’S® 30% Less Sodium Ready to Use Chicken Broth, CAMPBELL’S® Condensed Low Fat Cream of Chicken Soup – both betraying modern health panics – a no-name curry powder, garlic, apples, onion, and, bizarrely, chick peas and spinach.

But at last, in the way of these Anglo-Indian dishes, mulligatawny returned to South India in its new form as a meat broth and with its new name albeit with another phonetic Anglicisation of its original Tamil descriptors. Here’s Aroona Reejhsinghani’s version:

Mutton molotoony

500 grams mutton, cut into serving portions

2 medium onions, minced

4 flakes garlic, sliced

1 inch piece ginger, minced

1 tsp garam masala

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced

A few curry leaves

4 red chillies without seeds

1 tsp. each of ground cumin and coriander powder

½ tsp. anise seeds

1 channa dal

1 cup thick coconut milk

½ tsp. each of pepper and turmeric

1 lime, cut into thin rings.

Salt to taste.

Boil mutton in salted water till tender, drain out the stock and keep aside. Roast the dal and grind to a paste. Heat 2 tblsps. ghee and fry onion, ginger and garlic lightly. Put in seasonings and fry briefly. Add tomatoes and curry leaves.  Mix well and then put in the mutton stock. When the tomatoes turn tender, put in the mutton and coconut milk after blending it with dal paste and simmer over a gently fire till the curry turns a little thick. Serve the curry in individual plates garnished with lime rings.


The quantity of dal has been vastly reduced and thick coconut milk has been paired with it to give the broth body. Garam masala is now a generic term for a common spice blend that usually includes black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, and turmeric. This, and the absence of asafoetida and tamarind and the use of lime as a garnish that diners may or may not add to the broth will soften the flavour of the dish away from the sourness of rasam.








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