This Famous Staple of Indian Food Is Loved around the World
Indian food is as varied as its culture, history, language, and people—and sometimes, even more so! The story of mulligatawny is one of cultural exchange, in this case, between the Tamil people of southern India, and the British who resided in the area beginning in the 17th century. The name of this dish, which is most commonly prepared as a soup, comes from the Tamil words mullaga thanni—which translates literally to “pepper water,” and refers to the original recipe producing a very watery soup, the predominant flavour of which was peppers. Today, this Anglo-Indian dish is served around the world, and is prepared in more ways than can be counted. Almost all versions include chicken or lamb broth, curry, nutmeg, and vegetables, though some variations include yogurt, nuts, apples, port wine, or in the case of Australia, even bacon.
East Meets West
The history of the British occupation of India is a long and complicated one—but mulligatawny’s story revolves around the city of Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, which in centuries past was known as Madras. On August 22nd, 1639, the East India Company bought three miles of land along the coast of the Indian Ocean in Madras, building a fort from which to oversee trade operations. Eventually, a city rose up around the fort, becoming the center of modern-day Chennai.
So the story goes, during the 18th century, British trade workers requested a soup dinner course, but the Tamil people had never produced a soup before. They prepared a dish similar to their own rasam, and the original “pepper water” was born. Before long, the British began to modify the recipe, which began to make its way back to the United Kingdom. Over the following centuries, it spread throughout the British Commonwealth and the world, and every culture that it came into contact with has added their own twist to this classic Anglo-Indian food.
A Pop Culture Connection
Mulligatawny had a moment in the pop culture spotlight 20 years ago that has never been forgotten—the classic episode of a classic sitcom has been continuously referenced since it originally aired in 1995. Do you know what show it was?
The show was Seinfeld, and the episode was the now-infamous “The Soup Nazi.” For the unfamiliar, the episode revolves a chef who is unreasonably strict about how his customers’ ordering procedure, and who clashes with Elaine, one of the main characters. The dish at the heart of the ruckus that pop culture never forgot? You guessed it—mulligatawny! And apparently, it was so good that people lined up around the block to enjoy it, despite the chef’s poor attitude.
If you want to experience the delicious cross-cultural flavour of mulligatawny for yourself, you can find it wherever quality Indian food is served.