I can’t remember the last time I ate Mulligatawny soup, but I’ve had this craving, like I’ve been craving a lot of nostalgic comfort foods lately. Maybe it’s anxiety around the pandemic and uncertainty about our collective economic future, but I find myself eating more and more like I did in college, building meals around inexpensive items like lentils.
Those days, Mulligatawny was a mainstay of my diet. On Thayer street, the main drag dividing the campuses of Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, there were three Indian restaurants on the same two blocks. They all offered variations of this South Indian soup of delicate curried lentils and spinach, dotted with bits of refreshing, barely cooked tomato I came to know as Mulligatawny. At the time, I was vegetarian, mostly by choice, but also because I didn’t truly know how to cook anything except instant ramen, spaghetti with sauce from a jar, and chocolate chip cookie recipe from the Nestle Toll House bag. So, I became a regular, especially at one takeout Indian restaurant. The owner would always greet me with a smile, and add some rice or naan to go with my Mulligatawny for a budget friendly, protein-rich meal.
I would never have attempted to make Mulligatawny back then. I was too intimidated by the array of ingredients and spices that went into making those fragrant and mysterious blends known as masalas and the only cookbook I owned was Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Dishes from Around the World. The first time I tried making her lentil soup my very French housemate said, “I think it needs garlic.” I held up a bulb and said, “It has garlic.” He shook his head disapprovingly. I could tell carmine red from vermillion pigments, but I couldn’t tell a shallot from a head of garlic.
Now, as I start researching recipes, I’m astonished by the sheer variety of Mulligatawny soups. None of them resemble the earthy lentil-spinach stew of my memory at all. Instead, they are all golden turmeric laden broths with garnishes that range from lightly caramelized onions to elaborate combinations of meat, vegetables and rice.
Update your Black Friday or Boxing Day turkey game with this Mulligatawny soup. Start with a good bone broth, seasoned with a masala of lightly caramelized onions, ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard, and Serrano pepper. Ditch the carrots and add sweet potatoes instead for the perfect complement to the leftover turkey in this soup.
In my copy of Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, I find a recipe filled with a variety of vegetables and rice. No lentils no spinach. The Joy of Cooking calls for a classic mirepoix, curry powder, chicken, and rice. Again, no lentils, no spinach. Clifford A. Wright in his book The Best Soups in the World, shares a recipe from the early 19th century that calls for poaching chicken with a variety other spices, then chopping the chicken and adding it back to the broth with nothing more than sauteed onions. Finally, I do find a recipe in Raghavan Iver’s 660 curries that features both lentils and chicken. I wonder if mine was a regional variation, so I ask DP, who lived and studied in nearby Boston. “Mulligatawny? It’s lentil soup,” he says, “and it was always brown.” Hmmm.
I try a few different recipes. Then early in the week I make bone broth from the turkey wings I froze at Thanksgiving. After 6 hours in the stockpot the meat itself doesn’t have much flavor left, but it turns out to be the perfect vehicle for Mulligatawny. A few days later I make my lentil Mulligatawny. When the lentils are tender, I’m standing over the pot with a bag of frozen kale in my hand. Like a painter working from memory, I add a handful at a time, and watch as it wilts. At last, the leaves give up their color, transforming the soup, and bringing those familiar earthy flavors to life.
Here’s a redub of the lentil-spinach Mulligatawny commonly found at Indian restaurants across southeastern New England. Made with everyday brown lentils, and chopped frozen kale, all you need are a few pantry staples to make this hearty vegetarian classic at home. Make sure to use fresh tomatoes though, adding them at the end to keep them fresh and juicy. Then complete your meal with some naan bread or basmati rice.
The common denominator here is a base of onions, ginger, garlic, hot pepper, and turmeric. Tamarind paste is traditional, but you can substitute an apple and vinegar, or a spoonful of apple butter to get the signature tartness and sweetness. What I realize is that starting with a good homemade vegetable or bone broth and a curry base made from a few common pantry items, you can make excellent Mulligatawny with whatever you happen to have on hand.