Mulligatawny Soup – The Brits Know How To Shake It Up

Mulligatawny Soup

One finds mulligatawny soup on an Indian restaurant menu the same way one always finds buffalo wings or nachos on a bar menu. It just has to be there – if it wasn’t on the menu you just know there’s something wrong with the place. But how many of you have ever ordered it over the papadums or samosas to start your meal?  Like many dishes ordered at your local Indian, it can feel like a bit heavy.   This is a good thing if you make this your lunch or your dinner, which is why I absolutely love making batches of this incredibly hearty and extremely inexpensive soup that lasts for many meals.

The funny thing is, mulligatawny soup has a kind of shady past.  After doing research, I realized that there is no cut and dry history of the soup.  There are so many variations of mulligatawny, it almost makes sense that it was difficult to pin down its origins. One thing we do know, it’s not strictly an Indian dish.  It’s actually based on an Indian dish that was changed into soup to satiate (and placate) the fussy British soldiers during the British Raj (the period between 1858 and 1947 when Britain ruled parts of South Asia/India).

Mulligatawny means “pepper water” and is believed to be loosely based on a stew the Brits loved that their Tamil servants would often serve.  They “demanded” a soup course which, before this time in history, had never been a part of Indian food culture.  The result was a thinned out version of the stew base that they liked so much.  According to research, the British eventually brought the invented soup dish back home where it became a well-loved classic there, but because of its many, many variations, it is hard to know what the original recipe contained.

Mulligatawny Soup

Some mulligatawny soups contain rice or noodles, some are made vegetarian, but traditionally it should have a meat base (like chicken or mutton).  Some contain cream, others coconut milk or yogurt.  Some add apples for a sour/sweet flavor, others add tomato while some people just dump in some chutney.  Your head could spin with all the recipes out there!

So how did we come up with our recipe?  Well, we went to our main source – our local Indian.  We absolutely adore their mulligatawny soup and wanted to eat a version as close to theirs as possible. This homemade recipe is relatively close to one we found in a Madhur Jaffrey book, but with a bit of help from our local Indian restaurant.  It can most definitely be made vegetarian or even vegan (!) and the lentils provide a great heartiness. Pair with some naan (store-bought for us) and you’ve got an amazing lunch or dinner.  Regardless of it’s history, mulligatawny soup is going to remain a staple in my household.  It’s too easy to make and too delicious.

Mulligatawny Soup


  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped finely
  • 2 carrots, chopped finely
  • 1 15 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups of red lentils
  • 2 to 3 tablespoon of spice mix (see below – you’ll have extra)
    • 2 tbsp. ground coriander seed
    • 1 tbsp. ground cumin
    • 1 tbsp. ground black peppercorns
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped into a few chunks
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped into a few chunks
  • 6 to 8 cups of chicken stock (for veggie version use, ahem, vegetable stock)
  • 1 tbsp. tumeric
  • 3 tbsp. curry
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Juice of 1 lemon or lime
  • 2 chicken breasts, boiled (optional if you are keeping this veggie)
  • Toppings:  dollop of drained plain yogurt, some almond slices, chopped cilantro and sliced green onion)

What do to:

  1. Make a garlic/ginger paste by crushing the chunks in a mortar and pestle.  Use some kosher salt to help it grind better.  If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, chop the ginger and garlic finely with a knife then, using the side of the knife, crush repeatedly to try and squash it all together.
  2. In a big pot, fry your onion, carrot and celery in a bit of oil.  When it gets some color, add your ginger/garlic paste and fry for 30 seconds or so.
  3. Add all your spices (spice blend, tumeric, curry) including the cinnamon stick. Allow to cook for a few moments, constantly stirring.
  4. Add the tomatoes and stir.
  5. Add lentils and six cups of stock.  Stir and lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 40 to 50 minutes, checking to make sure the liquid level isn’t too low.
  6. While the lentils are cooking, boil some water and add your chicken.  Boil the chicken pieces for about 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.  Smaller, less time to be cooked. Bigger, more time needed.  When they are done, remove from water and allow to cool. After it cools, remove chicken from bone and either chop up or shred with fingers.
  7. Taste the lentils – when they are not too hard to the tooth, the soup is ready to be blended.  FIRST REMOVE THE CINNAMON STICK!! Using a stick blender (or, if you prefer, a regular blender), puree the soup until completely smooth.  You may want to add more warm chicken stock or water to thin it out.  Sometimes the consistency is too thick so make it to your liking by adding a bit of liquid.
  8. Stir in the lemon or lime juice and some chopped cilantro if you choose.  Add the chicken and stir.
  9. Pour into bowls and top with some chopped almonds, green onion and a dollop of yogurt.  Enjoy with some naan bread warmed in the oven.

43 thoughts on “Mulligatawny Soup – The Brits Know How To Shake It Up

  1. The Brits certainly have influenced cuisine from our part of the world. You gave us a lovely historical view on this soup. I absolutely adore it, my favourite version of this is served at a luxury hotel in Lahore called the Avari Towers, no one can make it the way they do- not even anyone in our home, nor any of the cooks. With just a little bit of lemon, it’s a dream. Lovely photos with the bread. best wishes, shayma

    1. LOL – really? bastardized, how? i don’t think you of all people can ruin this dish – i’m sure it’ll be delish! let me know how it went.

  2. You’re right about my never ordering this in Indian restaurants because I worry that it would be too heavy. Having a home recipe is way better. I may not want a soup course, but let’s hear for having it as a nice lunch. Great spices here. I can smell it just reading this post.

  3. I’ve been dying for a good Mulligitawny soup, but I have always had it w/ apples… that my memory going?
    I just bought a huge bag of red lentils at the middle eastern market and had no idea what to make with it, thanks for solving the problem!

    1. Hey, Stace! There are many recipes that use apples as the “sour” agent. Feel free to cook with them if you want! we preferred not using them, but you’re not going crazy. let us know what you do!

  4. My mulligatawny is like the red headed step child of bastardized soups, but at least I learned how to make it in a British pub! I say this with shame, but the base is always leftover turkey and stock from the holidays and *occasionally* a half pint of cider falls into the mix.

    1. that’s what i find so interesting about this soup – all of it is bastardized b/c there’s not real recipe! it’s kind of crazy and i kind of like how random it is! i think adding the cider sounds interesting. makes sense to have that sour flavor – it’s gotta come from something! thanks, tina – great comment.

  5. I think the random/crazy nature of mulligatawny is really what I like about it so much. A bit of unpredictability there — and a great deal of room for error. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty awesome.

    1. Brandie – you could totally make this. It’s incredibly simple. With a little bread and a splash of natural yogurt, it quite easily be served as a whole meal.

  6. Can you believe, I’ve never had mulligatawny soup? Just had red lentils last week for the first time in a long time and I remembered how much I love them — will have to try this soup now.

  7. we are soup lovers – i try to make one every weekend during the cold months. i’m gonna see if i can find some lentils this afternoon. this sounds delicious!

  8. Mulligatawny soup is the most wonderful name, I can’t remember the last time I had it, years ago probably, my granny used to make it. Bar the chicken, I have all the ingredients in my cupboard right now and come to think of it I usually do. This is one to try.

  9. Hi,First time to your blog and the first thing that caught my attention was this soup.Looks delish!!!
    Read the history of the soup and isn’t that interesting!!I too read the same thing and here is an information that i would like to share.
    ‘Mulligatawny’ comes from the Tamil [A south Indian Language]word ‘Milagu’ [Pepper] & ‘Thanni’ [water].Yes,you have mentioned that in your post too.It is said that the Brits could not pronounce the Tamil name of the dish and started calling it -Mulligatawny.This milagu thanni soup used to be[and is] served with piping hot steamed rice with a dollop of clarified butter[ghee] and papadum!Tastes Heavenly!!!

    1. Hi, PJ! Excellent comment. Thank you so much for adding it. Isn’t it like the British to mispronounce something so simple (I kid! I kid!). I’ve gotta try it w/ some ghee next time. whoa…

  10. I’ve made many variations and now being a busy mom, I’ve settled for the version on – it calls for far less ingredients but the taste is still excellent in my opinion. I add green beans and spinach to make it a ‘meal’ and serve over jasmine brown rice (Trader Joe’s) or pita popped in the toaster. My mom used to make this when we lived in India and my version is completely different – she loves it though. Some versions don’t have lentils or veggies or meat. It’s stictly spiced water which us Anglo Indians used to call PepperWater. Anyway, if you like this soup, there are many other Anglo Indian recipes which you may like – they take European foods, stews or roasts for example but use Indian Spices like clove, cinnamon, ginger and red chillies (hot peppers) to season. Google Anglo Indian Recipes and you’ll see a host of them. Just another tiny blip in our ginormous world of fabulous international cuisine 🙂

    1. Thanks, Roger. There are alot of different recipes all over the web, but I like ours. I do love the idea of a bit of tamarind and, in actuality, i think it would completely add exactly what it needs to this. next time we make this, we’re adding it and i may just change the recipe here (and credit Roger Stowell!).

      thanks again!

  11. Interesting soup! I was given a recipe some 35 years ago, with a history. this soup was made by an Indian person for English officers during “the war”. The difference was the chef used a whole chicken (which created the broth) and called for chick pease instead of lentils.

  12. Love the background info on this — I had no idea! I tried a vegan version lately and enjoyed all the flavor, so will try the traditional version now for a comparison. Really like the sound of your recipe.

  13. I love this vegetarian version. It’s not too difficult, when you have the ingredients and is the right mix of sweet, spicy and filling. Almost makes a whole meal.

  14. Our local Bakery Lunch Place served it today, and I was looking up both it’s source and history — and the name. Wasn’t “Mulligatawny” in the “PoGo” comic-strip; or __???__?

  15. I love Mulligatawny and these seems like an interesting variation on the recipe I’ve been using from the Culinary Art Institute.

    It’s interesting how many see this as a British take on Indian food. If you actually read the history that the author has included, it’s an Indian twist added to British stew to satisfy the soldiers!

Like this post? Hate this post? Let us know!