Occasionally, when I was at boarding school, I would venture down to the local Co-op to buy a tin of Heinz mulligatawny soup. I guess it was the exotic curry flavour that appealed to me, a touch of spice and heat that appeased my jaded teenage palate, bombarded as it was by scrambled eggs made with dried eggs, porridge of a similar consistency (only the colour distinguished one from the other) and limp, greasy chips. Forty years on, I still sometimes yearn for a tin of that soup.
I soon managed to make a mulligatawny of my own. In fact I fashioned a pretty decent one only a couple of years after leaving school, with the help of an Anglo-Indian cook, Mrs Iris Pringle. She used to make a very fine kofta curry too, but that is another story.
Mulligatawny comes from the Tamil milagu-tanni, meaning pepper-water; confusingly, Anglo-Indians often describe another soup—the vegetarian rasam—as pepper-water. Rasam is one of the most wonderful, reinvigorating broths it has ever been my pleasure to sup. Any Asian vegetarian restaurant or café worth its salt will almost always have a bowl of rasam on offer: sharpened with tamarind and sweetened by tomato, fragrant with red chilli, cumin, mustard seed, golden garlic and a showering of freshly chopped coriander, it is not for the faint-hearted.
Although the mulligatawny I make always uses chicken and its broth, I usually employ some vegetarian rasam ingredients. There is that golden fried garlic, with similar herbs and spices found in rasam, together with the all-important tamarind—although lemon or lime juice will do at a pinch—and a few curry leaves. In the past, I used to add a modicum of coconut milk, but I now prefer a clearer broth, rather than one made murky by the milk. Also, I believe a fine mulligatawny shouldn’t have too thick a consistency. It should be more of a limpid thing, with small shreds of cooked chicken, and either red lentils or a little rice lightly cooked in the broth.
To feed about four, a small boiling fowl or one or two poussins will be just fine; if you are happy to have meat left over, then use a small chicken. Put it in a pot, just cover with water, add a little salt and some chopped carrots, leeks, onions and plenty of celery, plus some fennel if available. Quietly simmer for about an hour (two if using a boiling fowl).
While the chicken is cooking, finely chop a large onion and fry it in a little vegetable oil and a slice of butter until golden. In a pestle and mortar, grind together a scant teaspoon each of cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, black peppercorns and the black seeds from two cardamom pods until coarsely crushed. Add to the onions and cook, stirring together, for a minute or two.
Now, skin and finely chop two large tomatoes, add to the spiced onions, allow to cook gently for ten minutes then set aside. The next task is to slice thinly four or five cloves of garlic and roughly break up two or three large dried red chillies. Remove the leaves from six or seven bushy sprigs of fresh coriander and have ready on a chopping board. Finally, measure out four scant tablespoons of red lentils.
Once the chicken is cooked, remove from the pot and put to one side to cool. Strain the broth through a sieve suspended over a deep bowl and discard the vegetables. Measure out about a litre of broth and whisk into it a little tamarind paste (or lemon juice), tasting carefully, as you don’t want the soup to be over-sharp. Add to your pan of tomato/spice mixture, then tip in the lentils, a teaspoon of ground turmeric and stir together. Simmer for about 15 minutes until the lentils are tender and almost breaking up. Now add some of the chicken, skin removed, in small shreds; not too much, as you don’t want it to be stew-like. Simmer for a further five minutes, or so, check for salt, and add a few curry leaves, if you have some.
To finish, carefully fry the garlic in a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil until lightly gilded, then toss in the chillies and cook for another minute or so. Chop the coriander, add to the soup, then decant into hot soup bowls. Spoon a little of the garlic-chilli-oil mixture onto each serving, and eat without delay.
Chicken Small boiling fowls are good both for their size, and for a tasty broth; I get mine from a halal butchers in Shepherd’s Bush market, west London.
Tamarind The easiest tamarind to use is in paste form. Most large supermarkets now stock it, but if not, Asian grocers are bound to have it.
Red lentils Why red and not green? Cooked green lentils keep their shape, whereas red lentils will dissolve into the necessary dhal-like slop.