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The enduring warmth of a mulligatawny

Never in history have our diets been so varied and changeable

Eliza Acton’s Mulligatawny Soup. Photo: Pamela Timms
Eliza Acton’s Mulligatawny Soup. Photo: Pamela Timms

According to BBC Good Food, 2018 is going to be all about “gut-friendly food", “competitive dining", “booze-free beverages", Hawaiian food, “Timut pepper", “hyper-local food" and “plant-based protein". If Buzzfeed’s list is to be believed, we will usher in a year of discovering the joys of an air-fryer, Korean condiments and…wait for it, ghee.

If that makes you snort with derision and has you craving parathe, it’s no wonder. Never in history have our diets been so varied and changeable. One minute we’re being urged to eat clean, the next we can’t move for dirty burgers, with every new trend being reported as breathlessly as the next autumn/winter prêt collection. But just as a wise fashionista will work her wardrobe classics from season to season, so intelligent cooks stick to what suits them and borrow judiciously from the past. And while I’m not averse to the occasional culinary equivalent of a novelty jumper or interesting hemline, I generally try to cook with some continuity and context.

I was flicking through a book by the great Italian food writer Marcella Hazan the other day and was struck by the way she introduced a recipe for bean soup: “When you are having a dish whose main ingredients are stale bread, water, onion, tomato, and olive oil, you are nourishing yourself as the once indigent Tuscan peasants did.... If, in the same dish, find eggs, Parmesan cheese and the aroma of lemons, then you know you have moved out of the farmyard and into the squire’s great house."

How could you not want to make that soup? Just think of the daydreams you would have while making and eating it. I think it’s a safe bet to say you are never going find yourself lost in a reverie over “plant-based protein" or “gut-friendly food". In the kitchen, I’m always channelling something or someone, from my mother to Tuscan peasants. Sadly, Hazan’s recipe was a bit too long to reproduce here so instead I’ve chosen a lentil soup (lentils are often eaten at New Year in Italy because of their resemblance to coins). I decided, however, that most readers would think my family recipe a bit underwhelming—like dal but more boring—so I’ve chosen an Anglo-Indian favourite.

Mulligatawny should satisfy both soup lovers and dal devotees and those who, like me, prefer their food to come with a story. According to Lizzie Collingham in Curry: A Tale Of Cooks And Conquerors, mulligatawny soup was “one of the earliest dishes to emerge from the new hybrid cuisine which the British developed in India, combining British concepts of how food should be presented...and Indian recipes". “Anglo-Indians in Madras," she goes on, “were said to imbibe such large quantities of it that they were known as ‘Mulls’." The name comes from the Tamil words millagai and thanni, meaning pepper water.

This is Eliza Acton’s vegetable version of Mulligatawny Soup (it was originally, and still is often, made with lamb and chicken), published in her 1845 book Modern Cookery For Private Families, which is, incidentally, a book often credited with being the first to lay recipes out in the format that we use today, with exact ingredients and instructions. As most of her recipes came from friends, I imagine this one came from someone who had regaled her with stories of her life in India.

Mulligatawny is unlikely to make it to a hot new food trends list, or even Instagram, but while culinary thrill seekers are binning all their avocados (so 2017!) and rushing around trying to source unpronounceable Korean condiments, I’ll be dining on something that simultaneously reminds me of my mother’s comforting soup and the delicious dal our Indian housekeeper used to make. I’m pretty sure gochujang can’t do that.

Eliza Action’s Mulligatawny Soup

Serves 6


100g butter

2 onions, chopped

500g courgettes, unpeeled, cut into 2cm cubes

500g pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 2cm cubes

225g tomatoes (in the words of Ms Acton: “divided, and freed from their seeds")

150g ‘masoor dal’

3 tbsp curry powder (or a mixture of ground cardamom, cumin, fennel and coriander)

1.5 litres vegetable stock

Salt and pepper

To serve

Plenty of cooked rice (“send boiled rice to the table with it")

Mango pickle

Wedges of lime


First, melt the butter in a large saucepan, then add the onions and cook until they are golden brown in colour. Add the courgettes, pumpkin and tomatoes and stir well. Stir in the ‘dal’, then add the curry powder, stock and salt and pepper. Stir well. Let the vegetables and lentils cook gently, covered, until soft—about 20 minutes.

Let the vegetables cool, then put them into a blender to purée. Then pour the soup back into the saucepan and reheat gently. Cook for about 5 minutes more. Put a little cooked rice and mango pickle in everyone’s bowl, then ladle the soup. Serve with wedges of lime.

The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.

The writer write at @eatanddust

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