Mulligatawny, like many Indian dishes that made the migration to the wider Commonwealth through colonial rule, is probably better known in its British guise, as a thickened soup, often fortified with lentils and festooned with elaborations as far-ranging and peculiar as port and apples.The original mulligatawny was probably a much simpler affair, though. The name comes from two Tamil words—mullaga (meaning pepper) and thanni (water). The first mulligatawny was likely a British adaptation of a South Indian rasam, with meat added to it to make it more like a meal, and with coconut milk added to temper the heat of the spices.
Being a sort of invented dish anyway, it makes sense that mulligatawny has inspired so many whimsical variations. However, the dish in its more or less original state is still a mainstay in the kitchens of many Anglo-Indian cooks around India, where it is referred to both as mulligatawny and often simply as “breast pepper water,” for the veal or lamb breast meat that is traditionally used in it.
Growing up in India, mulligatawny was one of my mother’s specialties. She inherited her recipe from my grandmother and her sisters, though she in turn adjusted the recipe to suit her own tastes. This version packs a fair amount of heat but it’s moderated by the richness of the coconut milk. The final flourish of chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of lime juice, though, are really what make the dish so special, so don’t leave them out!
Mulligatawny is particularly delicious as a one-dish weekend brunch for a group, but it makes a fine dinner, too. Make a large batch and enjoy it with heaping bowls of white rice—and don’t forget the chopped cilantro and lime!
Serves 4-5 as a light lunch.
2 lb bone-in veal from the shoulder or breastplate 20 whole fenugreek seeds 12 whole black peppercorns 1 small onion, cleaned, trimmed, and sliced thinly through the root ¼ cup canola oil or vegetable oil 3 tsp chilli powder ½ tsp turmeric 4 tsp coriander powder 2 tsp cumin powder Salt to taste
To be ground together: 2 medium tomatoes 2 medium onions 1-inch peeled ginger 4 cloves peeled garlic
To finish: 2 14 oz cans light coconut milk 1 lime 1 small bunch cilantro, finely chopped
Using as little additional water as possible, purée the tomatoes, onions, ginger, and garlic together in a blender. Set aside.
Cut the meat into ½ –inch chunks and place in a deep saucepan with just enough to water to cover. Add 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 15 minutes till the meat has cooked through. Turn off heat and set the meat aside along with the cooking liquid. These first two steps can be done up to a day ahead if needed.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the black peppercorns and fenugreek seeds and let sputter for a few seconds before adding the sliced onions. Fry the onions till limp and translucent.
Add the ground spices and ¼ cup of water. Turn the heat up to high and continue to cook, stirring often, until the oil begins to pool on top of the spice mixture.
Add the pureed tomato and onion mixture, stirring well to incorporate. Continue to cook over high heat, stirring often so that the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. When the oil begins to separate from the mixture once again, add the meat to the pan, turn the heat down to medium and cook, covered, for 20 minutes until the veal is tender.
When you can pierce the meat easily with a fork, add the reserved cooking liquid, and one can of coconut milk. The amount of coconut milk you add will depend on the heat and colour of the chili powder you use. Ideally, the top of the curry will form a slick, brick-red layer of oil and the gravy beneath will be a pale mustard colour. So keep an eye on it and adjust the amount of coconut milk accordingly. Taste frequently to make sure you’ve added the right amount of chili powder.
Let the mixture simmer for just a few minutes and then turn off the heat.
Season with salt and lime juice and garnish liberally with finely chopped cilantro before serving piping hot over
warm white rice with wedges of lime and more cilantro to pass at the table.