This is the essential Anglo-Indian dish and is an interesting example of white people becoming partways assimilated into a culture which it was their intention to dominate (cf. Br’er Rabbit’s origin as a West African trickster-demigod or the tamarind in Worcestershire sauce; cultural appropriation has winners and losers but it still cuts both ways.)
Metaphysical Aspects of the Soup
Indian cuisine, like most aspects of that country’s culture, is part of a cosmos. This means that the cuisine’s preparation, its ingredients and crucially for us, its presentation each have religious overtones. These overtones enmesh food in an all-encompassing theological explanation of the world and of life in it.
The source of these overtones is the Bhagavad-Gita. The skeleton which provides theoretical support for much (but not all) of India’s cuisine is outlined in this book’s 17th verse:
- Foods which promote life, vitality, strength, health, happiness and satisfaction; foods which are succulent, juicy, nourishing and pleasing to the heart are dear to one in goodness.
- Foods which are very bitter, very salty, very sour, very hot, very pungent, very dry and fiery; foods which cause unhappiness, misery and disease are palatable to one in passion.
- Those foods which are stale, tasteless, putrid, decomposed, foul or impure as well as the leftovers of others, these foods are dear to one in ignorance.
Ok. A brief commentary on this verse runs like this: There are three modes of dwelling in being:
- Dwelling in goodness (sattva): this is the mode which produces wisdom, health, vigor, tranquility. Those who dwell in goodness are attracted to balance, satisfaction and the congenial interest in spiritual activities and are also drawn to the particular types of food listed in 17.1. The consumption of these foods, in turn, generate and strengthen the positive traits that lead one dwelling in goodness to select them. You get the idea: like begets like.
- Dwelling in passion (rajas): this is the mode which produces extreme emotions. It is a self-amplifying imbalance of desires which leads to the eventual destruction of the person under their influence. Again, like begets like, and so a person dwelling in passion seeks food which is excessively hot or sour or bitter etc. This they do as a means of satisfying their craving for greater and greater intensities of experience. These foods, in turn, cause the person to become even more passionate and hence stray even farther from the true path.
- Dwelling in ignorance (tamas): this is the mode which produces ill health, stupidity, acedia, darkness of mind and eventually death. A person dwelling in ignorance cares so little about the absolute necessity for each aspect of one’s life to be aimed at sattva that they’ll eat anything. A person laboring under this terminal ignorance will eat food that is rotten, food that has no indication of nutrition (traits like deliciousness etc.) and, crucially for us, food that is stale.
The word yama is translated as ‘stale’ or ‘leftover.’ This word is actually a colloquial use of the name of the Hindu god of death and indicates a length of time of about three hours. The idea here is that time = Death, and if food is not eaten within a yama, it will, whatever its initial wholesomeness, degenerate into something that pollutes the body rather than ennobling it.
This religious proscription against stale food is the reason that meals in India tend always to involve many dishes, served simultaneously. Serving all dishes hot and at the same time is a kind of guarantee that each has been prepared within a yama.
Ok, now soups in particular. Soup in Indian cuisine tends to be very thin, often no more than water simmered with spices and served over rice. There is a theological reason for this, as there is for everything bounded by the cosmos outlined in the Bhagavad-Gita: Soup was meant to distill the essence, the soul, of the ingredients used in its preparation and to then present these to the person eating it in as immediate a way as possible. (In this, consommé comes quite close, however naïvely, to the philosophical underpinnings of Indian soup.) Knowing this, it’s not surprising to find that the Sanskrit word for ‘essence’ (saar) names a South Indian soup. Nor that the ras in rasam (a tamarind-based soup) is the Tamil word for the same concept.
Political Aspects of the Soup
By this point it should be obvious that the cuisine the British brought with them could not be more fundamentally opposed to that which Indians practice. To put it mildly, British food does not partake of a religious cosmos, adherence to which organizes human life into a mode that produces wisdom, happiness, energy and spiritual zeal. Worse, the British insisted on serial courses, a type of service that ennobles the of space of time separating the consumption of dishes (i.e., ‘time = Life’ rather than ‘time = Death.’) Any Indian cook hired to feed a British colonist could see, therefore, that this was all fucked up. But the masters insisted on a more substantial soup, served by itself as a single course.
Mulligatawny soup is the hybrid that emerged from this conflict. In the way of many hybrids (e.g., phở, banh mi, jazz, mongrel dogs, children of interracial marriages, people who speak more than one language with fluency) it is more interesting and vigorous than examples found in the parent cultures which combine to produce them.
I think that things which are born on the margins, things whose births are the forced reconciliation between opposed systems of thought, things that are despised as mixed-race; these are precisely the things which destroy prejudice and catalyze wisdom. (If you pressed me, I would say that that this is an example of sense.) Granted, this is just a soup, but nothing is just anything.
Practical Aspects of the Soup
- 1 large onion into medium discs
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 inches fresh ginger root
3. Chop up:
- 2-3 lbs. stewing chicken (i.e., an old hen) or regular chicken thighs and legs.
- Whichever your source of meat, remove all skins and trim fat.
4. Add these to a large pot containing enough water to cover, with:
- 1 whole cinnamon stick
- Several whole cloves
- Several fresh bay leaves
- Several green cardamom pods (crush these with your fingers to release the seeds)
5. Bring this to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and continue until the meat is cooked. If you’re using a tired and fucked-out stewing hen, the longer you simmer it the more collagen you’ll convert to gelatin and the better it’ll be. If you’re using legs and thighs, don’t cook them until they disintegrate: you’re just looking for the meat to get up to temperature (160-165°F.)
6. Once the meat is cooked through,
- Strain the solids from the broth you’ve made.
- Discard the whole spices.
- Reserve the broth in a bowl. If necessary, separate and discard any fat that accumulates.
- Strip the meat from the bones, taking care not to shred it. You’re looking for chunks not strands. Put this meat in a separate bowl, and cover.
6a. Optional: simmer the bones and cartilage to produce more stock, add this to the first batch.
7. If your stock is pallid and tasteless (taste it), consider reducing it until it’s something you’d eat by itself, salting if necessary. This is very important.
8. In a small pan, combine:
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2-3 oz. or c. 1 cup shredded, dry, unsweetened coconut
9. Bring this to a boil, reduce to a simmer and continue to cook it until the coconut milk is reduced by half.
10. In a large frying pan or dutch oven, heat over medium-high:
- 2 tbsp. ghee or a neutral cooking oil
11. Once the fat is up to temperature, add these ground spices simultaneously (some will scorch if added serially):
- 1 ½ tsp. turmeric
- ½ tsp. cloves
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tsp. coriander seeds
- 1 tsp. cumin
- ¼ tsp. cinnamon
- ½ tsp. red chili powder
- ¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 pinch asafetida powder
- (these are many of the spices that compose curry powder, but unless you have a brand that you trust implicitly, it’s better to uses spices in a ratio that you can control)
- This is what you call baghaar (’tempering’) and is the equivalent of blooming whole spices. The idea is to fry the powdered spices until quite fragrant.
- 1 large onion along its equator and slice these into fine half-moons
- 2 cloves garlic
- Add the onion and garlic to the hot fat and spices and fry them until they’ve just turned golden.
14. Clear a little space in the center of the pan and add:
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste to the sauté. Spread this paste out on the hot pan and allow it to cook for somewhat longer than you’d think. The surface of the paste will bubble and steam. The idea here is to get some caramelization on the paste, which will be the source of the soup’s heartiness and depth of flavor.
15. Seed and dice:
- 1 bird’s eye chile or red jalapeño pepper and add this to the sauté. Stir this in until it softens and you perhaps cough slightly at drawing breath in its steam.
17. Cook the sauté on medium heat until it is extremely well combined and paste-like, c. 10 minutes.
- 5 or 6 fresh, chopped curry leaves and stir them into the paste.
19. Add about a cup of the reserved stock and scrape the bottom of the pan as this steams to liberate the accumulated fond. Adding a small amount of stock also turns the thick paste into more of a syrup. This will dissolve when you add the rest of the stock instead of breaking up into clumps.
20. Add the rest of the stock and the pieces of chicken.
21. Bring this to a boil. This is the moment when the importance of a strong and tasty stock is revealed: if at this point you had to reduce your cooking liquid to make it savory, the chicken will have disintegrated into slimy threads by the time the soup was worth eating.
22. Add to this:
- the prepared coconut milk
- ¼ cup ground almonds
- ¼ cup ground cashews
- as much gram flour as you need to achieve your desired consistency. The recipe is pretty flexible in this regard and remains excellent anywhere on the line connecting soup to stew.
23. Bring this to a boil, remove from the heat, and then correct the seasoning with salt.
24. Serve over basmati rice with fresh lemon slices. It’s customary to squeeze the juice of a lemon wedge into a portion of soup and then to mix in another, thinner slice of lemon. The lemon juice brightens things up and the rind’s bitterness helps cut thru the richness of the nuts and coconut milk. Lemons are traditional in North India, limes in the South.