One way to attract attention to a dish is to give it a compelling name — something intriguing that makes you wonder why it was given that handle and makes you want to try it, simply out of curiosity.
One dish that has met those criteria for more than two centuries is mulligatawny soup. For English-only speakers, its name certainly doesn’t offer any clues as to what it contains.
But “mulligatawny” does sound exotic. And when people who have never heard of it see it on a menu, it becomes a conversation starter: “What the heck is mulligatawny soup?”
According to An A-Z of Food and Drink, this South Indian creation first entered British cuisine at the end of the 18th century, thanks to employees of the East India Company.
When folks working for that company returned home to Britain, they brought with them techniques for making dishes they enjoyed in India. One of those Anglo-Indian dishes was mulligatawny soup.
Mulligatawny is derived from the Tamil word “milakutanni,” a compound of milaku, which means pepper, and tanni, which means water.
If you call something “pepper water,” it’s a good indication it’s going to be spicy hot.
However, when the soup made its way to Britain, as with other Anglo-Indian dishes, it was made with ingredients available there, such as commercial curry powder, and had little resemblance to the South Indian original.
It must have been delicious, though, because people in many parts of the world are still enjoying pots of mulligatawny soup and it continues to appear on restaurant menus.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, mulligatawny soup started off as a pretty basic preparation made with ingredients such as chicken or mutton, fried onion, curry powder and stock or water.
But over the years, the book notes, the simple concept of pepper water has been greatly elaborated in some recipes, with many now using dozens of ingredients. That explains why it’s hard to find two mulligatawny soup recipes that are the same.
For example, some recipes are spicy hot, while others are milder. Some versions of the soup are chunky, while others are blended until smooth. Some only call for onion; others use myriad vegetables. And most contain rice, but others also mix in lentils.
The style of mulligatawny soup I make is an adapted version of a flavourful one I learned at culinary school decades ago. It’s rich with bits of simmered chicken, curry powder, vegetables, diced apple, ginger and coconut milk.
It’s also hearty, filling and comforting and perfect to enjoy on a cool November day.
My recipe yields six servings. If that’s too many for you, any that’s left over will freeze well.
Eric’s Mulligatawny Soup
This hearty version of the classic soup is filling enough to be lunch or dinner, especially when served with papadams or naan bread.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: About 90 minutes
Makes: Six (about 1 1/2 cups each) servings
4 cups chicken broth (see Note 1)
3 bone-in chicken thighs (about 500 grams)
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced onion (about 1/2 medium onion, see Note 2)
1/2 cup diced carrot (about 1 small carrot)
1/2 cup diced celery rib (about 1 medium stalk)
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper (about 1/2 medium pepper)
1 to 2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp finely grated, peeled fresh ginger
1 Tbsp medium curry powder (see Note 3)
1 (14 oz./398 mL) can coconut milk
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp honey
1 medium, unpeeled green apple, cored and diced
2 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water
1 cup cold, cooked white or brown basmati rice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or thinly sliced green onion
• salt to taste
Place the broth in a tall, narrow pot. Add the chicken thighs, then set over medium-high heat. Bring broth to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Lower heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer.
Simmer, uncovered, 50 to 60 minutes, or until the chicken thighs are cooked through and the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone.
Remove pot from the heat. Use a slotted spoon to lift the thighs out of the pot and onto a plate. Cool thighs to room temperature.
Now remove and discard the skin and bones from the thighs. Dice the meat, set back on the plate, cover and refrigerate until needed for the soup.
Measure the broth in the pot. You should have at least three cups. If not, top it up with water until you do.
To make the soup, place the oil in a medium-to-large pot set over medium to medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add onion, carrot, celery and bell pepper and cook until tender, about five minutes. Add the garlic, ginger and curry powder and cook and stir two minutes more.
Pour the chicken thigh cooking broth into the pot. Add the coconut milk, juice, honey, apples, cornstarch/water mixture and diced, cooked chicken. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, reducing the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer.
Simmer soup 15 to 20 minutes. Mix in the rice and let it heat through a few minutes. Mix in the cilantro (or sliced green onion), taste and season soup with salt, and it’s ready to serve.
Note 1: If using store-bought broth, because one cup equals about 237 millilitres, one 900-millilitre container will yield the four cups.
Note 2: Diced in this recipe means to cut into 1/4-inch cubes.
Note 3: Medium curry powder is sold in jars at most supermarkets. It gave the soup a mild to medium spice level. If you prefer a very mild-tasting soup, use regular curry powder. If you like things spicy, use hot curry powder.
Eric’s options: For added texture and taste, serve the soup with bowls of toasted, unsweetened coconut flakes, and/or sliced, toasted almonds. Sprinkle the toppings on the soup, to taste, at the dinner table.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.