Chennai’s Gift to the World – # 3: “Talk” about history …”

“In vain our hard fate we repine;
In vain on our fortune we rail;
On Mullaghee-tawny we dine,
Or Congee, in Bangalore Jail.”

– Song by a Gentleman of the Navy (one of Hyder’s Prisoners), in Seton-Karr, i. 18.

Speech, they said once, was possibly the swiftest form of communication. Although the chances that an Indian cook, when causally mentioning “milagu-thanneer” to his British superior, anticipating that his weird sounding concoction would take cooks of the world by storm – is probably a fate he/she didn’t even contemplate.


What exactly the Mulligatawny Soup actually is, depends on who cooks it. What it actually is, is pretty simple – it’s “Pepper-Water.” A stew that supposedly contained Pepper and Water, (and translates roughly to our own rasam), but the Brits took it back home with them and added so many things that it hardly resembles the rather weak, watery soup it must have been when they first tasted it. Which is what the British did to a lot of our stuff – and now it’s firmly etched not just in cookbooks but history books as well.

“As soup, it has no history in India before the British raj. Supposedly it was simply an invention to satisfy British army officers who demanded a soup course at dinner,” says Betty Thompson, in the Northcoast Journal. But its success is undeniable. One of today’s cooks calls it a Love Medicine, adds peeled apples, coriander, chicken broth, leeks, carrots and potatoes, and declares that she could eat it “all week long.” Such is its efficiency in filling stomachs. And hearts.

Why, even the Ignatian Guild, part of the Saint Ignatius College Preparatory Jesuit School, prepared a cookbook that had Mulligatawny recipes as an important part of it.

And it’s mentioned in dinner table conversation in “Dinner for One” (1963), directed by Heinz Dunkhase – a 17 minute cult classic. [“Little drop of soup, Miss Sophie?” “I am particularly fond of mulligatawny soup, James…I think we’ll have sherry with the soup.”]

To come to how actually Mulligatawny Soup was cooked, here’s a recipe that’s come down from 1818:

“Take two quarts of water, and boil a nice fowl or chicken, then put in the following ingredients, a large white onion, a large chilly*, two teaspoonsful of ginger pounded, the same of currystuff, one teaspoonful of turmeric, and half a teaspoonful of black pepper: boil all these for half an hour, and then fry some small onions, and put them in. Season it with salt, and serve it up in a tureen. Obs. – It will be a great improvement, when the fowl is about half boiled, to take it up and cut it into pieces, and fry them and put them into the soup the last thing.”

“* The pod of which Cayenne pepper is made.”

– Dr. William Kitchiner, The Cook’s Oracle, (London: John Hatchard, Picadilly, 2nd edition, 1818) Ancient And Classic Recipes.

Even if The Hindoostane Coffee House, established by Sake Dean Mahomed in 1809, an Indian-born entrepreneur, as a purveyor of Oriental food of the “highest perfection” in Marylebone, London, didn’t fare all that well, Mulligatawny Soup was possibly an essential ingredient of the fare. And Jane Austen’s William Darcy probably ate (as strange as it sounds) several elegant mouthfuls at dinner, in some curry house.

If that ain’t a potpourri of cultures, what else is?

3 Comments so far

  1. Nancy (unregistered) on December 1st, 2006 @ 8:01 pm

    Excellent post. The Madras Club claims to have invented mulligatawny soup — and it’s still pretty good there, whether their claim is true or not.

  2. annoynomas (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2006 @ 3:28 am

    I contest your assertion that
    ‘Milagu Thanner’ is a Chennai gift.
    More like ‘Madras Presidency’s gift’.

    Actually, in the early 50’s a wise man
    from Pallakadu told me that
    ‘Mulligatawny soup’ is really
    ‘Patchai Millagu thanniru’ and its an
    age old practice of grandma’s to
    mash up fresh milagu from the backyard tree
    mix it with water,thinly sliced ginger
    add sea-salt boil it and give them to
    the sick to sweat it out. Also, along
    with this soup castor-oil soaked green
    plantain to clean-up ths system is given.

  3. Vivek (unregistered) on December 11th, 2006 @ 2:40 pm

    Excellent post! I frequently remind my American friends that Mulligatawney soup is one of the best contributions of Indian cusine to Western palates. BTW, I am quite intrigued by your love of history. What, may I ask, led you to investigate cultural history, esp. culinary history?

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