If there ever was a dish, which exemplified the heydays of the British Empire, it would be the ‘Mulligatawny Soup’. Inspired by India’s very own hot and spicy rasam, Mulligatawny was once so popular that it went with British officers, bureaucrats and even adventurers across the world and into every home in England, by the 19th century CE. Interestingly, it also fell off the dinner table as the sun set on the British Empire.
Mulligatawny soup is inspired by India’s hot and spicy rasam
A soup made of a combination of vegetable, rice, spices and chicken or other meat, the Mulligatawny was first made by Indian cooks working in the homes and clubs of the East India Company officials in the 18th century CE. A corruption of the Tamil word millagu or pepper and thanni or water, the Mulligatawny can well be called one of the earliest ‘Anglo-Indian’ dishes, quite like the kedgeree, another contemporary kitchen innovation.
It is believed that the Mulligatawny was concocted by Indian cooks to serve the British need to have a soup before a meal. Given that there was no concept of a soup in traditional South Indian cuisine, ingenious cooks are said to have adapted one dish- closest to a soup- the rasam.
While we don’t know exactly when or where this soup was invented, the earliest known reference to it is in an English (military) song from 1784 CE. Composed by an anonymous British soldier during the second Anglo-Mysore war fought against Tipu Sultan, the first reference to the Mulligatawny wasn’t very complimentary. As the soldier laments about his bad rations and uncertain fate he says -
“In vain our hard fate we repine;
In vain on our fortune we rail;
On Mullaghee-tawny we dine,
Or Congee in Bangalore Jail.”
This verse iterates that the Mulligatawny was commonly served in the British army barracks in the late 18th century CE. Interestingly, though it seems that it wasn’t a delicacy, the Mulligatawny seems to have been popular enough to travel far, to England and the distant corners of the British Empire.
As the Empire expanded, Indian food was gaining popularity in Britain. In 1810, an Indian immigrant to Britain, Dean Mahomed had opened the first Indian restaurant, ‘The Hindostanee Coffee-House’ in London. Aimed at 'the Nobility and Gentry', the Coffee House served Indian dishes adapted to English tastes. This included the Mulligatawny soup.
In the book ‘The Cook’s Oracle’ first published in 1817 and compiled by Dr. William Kitchner, an English gourmand (this was considered to be the most comprehensive work on English cuisine at the time) there is a special reference to this soup. The book mentions the growing popularity of this ‘newly invented’ soup in England but claims it
‘may not yet charm enough to seduce a restaurant goer. It is a fashionable soup and great favourite with our East Indian friends’.
Dr. Modhumita Roy from Tufts University, in her award-winning research paper ‘Some like it hot: Gender, Class and Empire in making of the Mulligatawny Soup’ writes that so popular was this soup with the British civil servants from Madras Presidency that ‘Mull’ – short for Mulligatawny– ‘was applied as a distinctive sobriquet to members of the Service’. Roy points out that it was only later, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the arrival of the British memsahibs, that the curries prepared by Indian cooks began to be looked down upon. The Mulligatawny soup fell from favour only to be replaced by the regular English roasts and pies.
Ironically, while the soup was no longer popular on the tables of the British Raj, it became a popular household dish in Britain. By the 1850s, tins of Mulligatawny soup began to appear in shops and you could even buy a soup mix for just 4 dimes. Such was its demand, that the American company Heinz began selling tins in Britain and even in the United States. Contemporary cookbooks began giving their own recipes for the soup, often adding exotic ingredients such as rabbit, pheasant and wildfowl.
The Britons loved this soup so much that they carried tin cans of it with them to remote corners of the world. The noted British explorer Dr. David Livingstone, for instance, took tins of Mulligatawny with him on his expedition into the deep interiors of Africa. He writes in his travelogue -
‘After the gruelling 40-day trek (in Africa), on 6th October 1859, I arrived back to the ship. We made soup from the Mulligatawny paste which we carried in pouches.’
Amazingly, the popularity of the Mulligatawny soup that was so intrinsically linked with the British Empire, also ended with the Empire. Once considered exotic by Britons, it became simply ‘old fashioned’. The younger generation of Britons had moved on. Salman Rushdie, in his book Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 dismisses Mulligatawny soup as something that
‘tries to taste Indian, but ends up being ultra-parochially British, only with too much pepper’.
Though it held a place on formal dining menus once, today, you will find it hard to find the Mulligatawny soup served in popular restaurants in India or UK. The Chicken Tikka Masala has become the flag bearer of Indian restaurants and cuisines. Though, US based Heinz still sells some Mulligatawny soup tins in Britain today, the 150 year old recipe is mostly confined to old British cookbooks.
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