Mulligatawny is a dish I’d heard of growing up. My mum spoke of it – it was a soup her mum made for her when she was sick. As far as I was concerned, it was Sri Lankan and a mythical cure-all soup with an excellent name. Somewhere in my memory Nan did cook it for me once. I’m not sure when or where, but I remember a brothy number that was stock based, with pieces of meat on the bone, perhaps some onion and what I thought were lentils but, according to my mum, were probably black peppercorns. In my memory, there was no tomato, but in hers, there was.
Imagine my surprise then, when I finally went hunting, to find the dish of my recollections bears little to no resemblance to reality. It turns out it’s basically a bastardised British raj version of a curry soup whose origins are southern Indian and which travelled to Sri Lanka with the Tamils. Based on a thin, spicy Madrassi broth, molo tunny or mulegoothani, which translates to pepper water, it morphed to suit the palates of the ruling class. Because the British wanted to start their meal with soup, and required premium ingredients, this sometimes-vegetarian dish turned into a thicker, creamier version made with meat.
Various recipes contain all sorts of ingredients: chicken; ground almonds and/or almond milk; rice or egg yolk, as a thickener; double cream or coconut cream; parsnip and apple, probably to tame the spice and add sweetness; frozen peas; “Indian” curry paste; dried thyme; and even prawn shells, although, granted, that was from a modern take.
Weirdly, it seems the soup of my memory (which after talking to my mum may have been an oxtail soup that Nan also used to make) more closely resembles an original dish that I never even knew about. What started as a decision to explore a recipe I thought was one thing has now become much less simple.
With that in mind, what I am giving you is something else again, yet another version of which there are many already. A combination of a faint memory of Nan cooking for me, a conversation with my mother and ingredients plucked from recipes of people who may know what it should be better than I do. Whatever the case, it is a warming soup to cure you – brothy and fiery with pepper and, in my mind, very proper for the circumstances.
Time: 3 hours preparation for stock and broth (can be done in advance) + 30 minutes for the soup
- 1kg lamb neck on the bone, cut into 3cm slices
- good splash of neutral oil
- 1 large brown onion, thickly sliced along the grain
- 3 sprigs of curry leaves, picked
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp salt flakes
- 6 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
- 3 cloves
- 130g puy lentils
- 3 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp salt flakes
- ½ stick of cinnamon
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tbsp ghee
- 1 tbsp mustard seeds
- 5 sprigs curry leaves, picked
- 3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 30g ginger, finely chopped
- 1 small brown onion, finely diced
- 1 medium carrot, medium dice
- 2-3 celery stalks, medium dice (so you have equal amounts of carrot and celery)
- 2 roma tomatoes, medium dice
- 200ml coconut cream
- lime juice and salt flakes to season
- 1 bunch of coriander washed and finely chopped, stalks and all (optional)
- Rinse the lamb pieces and place in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover them generously. Bring to the boil over a medium heat (35-40 minutes). As the water starts to simmer, strain the meat and rinse in cold water. Clean your saucepan for the next step.
- Place the saucepan back onto a medium heat, allow to warm and then add a generous splash of oil. Once hot, add the onions and curry leaves and fry, stirring for two minutes. Add the spices and salt and cook for another two minutes.
- To this, add the lamb back in and cover with 2.4 litres of water – the liquid should be sitting a few centimetres over the meat. Bring this back to the boil over a high heat and then turn it down and let it simmer gently for two hours. By this stage, the meat should be tender and the broth flavoursome. If you can, let everything sit in the liquid until cool and then leave in the fridge overnight before you move on to the next stage.
- Once ready to make the soup, pick out the pieces of meat and strain the broth.
- Place the lentils in a saucepan, generously cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then strain and cool. Set aside.
- Combine the peppercorns, coriander seeds, salt and cinnamon and finely grind. Stir in the turmeric.
- In a large saucepan over a medium heat, add in the ghee and allow it to heat. Add the mustard seeds and curry leaves and stir, frying until the leaves crisp (about 10 seconds or so).
- Add in the garlic, ginger and onion and gently fry, stirring so as not to colour, for another three minutes before adding in the spice mix for another minute of cooking. Make sure to stir as it will stick to the base. Add the carrot and celery and give this another two minutes before adding the lentils. At this stage, give everything a good stir to combine before adding the reserved broth and the meat.
- Bring this to a gentle simmer and let it cook for about 15 minutes. By this stage the lentils should be fully cooked and the meat warm and unctuous. Add in the tomato and the coconut cream and cook for a final 10-15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and maybe add a little more salt and a squeeze of lime. The flavour should be heavy with pepper and just a touch of sourness.
- Stir through the coriander just before serving in individual bowls.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Cure magic".
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