Colonialism, creativity and curry: mulligatawny soup and the British Raj

A tasty picture of mulligatawny soup simmering on the stove. This particular chef has scattered fresh cilantro on top. The hot cream, added just at the last minute, thickens the texture./ Courtesy of Flickr user anjuli_ayer

A few months ago, my mother was preparing dinner for my sister and me. She finished cooking and set the table up to display the delicacies she had just made. “Some mulligatawny soup with steamed rice and a side of sautéed vegetables,” she said with a fake British accent as she tried to make us excited for the meal.

My sister snorted back: “That is just milagu rasam, rice and kai (vegetable side in my mother tongue), Amma!”

“What even is mulligatawny soup?” I asked her.

“Wait. You girls don’t know what mulligatawny soup is?!” my mother exclaimed, and we spent the rest of night listening to the history of mulligatawny soup, a culinary symbol of British-Indian cultural hybridity.

Rasam is a quintessential Tamilian food that I have grown up eating. It is a very thin, watery “soup” that is eaten along with rice. It is comfort food for many people and has cured more than ten colds for me! Milagu rasam is a type of rasam. Milagu in Tamil is pepper, which is the main ingredient for this dish.

During the British Raj in India, the soldiers in Madras (now Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, the birthplace of both these dishes) would have Milagu rasam at the end of their meals for digestive purposes.

Then the cooks decided to use this as a sort of stock. They added some meat, tomatoes, rice and other ingredients to make a soup for the British in Madras, who loved this new adaptation.

What the cooks did was take an unfamiliar Indian dish and add a few ingredients to make it more suitable to the British palate, to make it into the familiar “soup” that the British were so used to eating.

Mulligatawny soup is now one of the most famous Indian dishes served in the U.K. In this article I will give you a rough guide on how to make it. However, the dish can be adapted and changed to suit your personal tastes. The recipe I am giving here is just one of several variations. Don’t be afraid to taste the soup whilst it is simmering; you may need to add some more spices, and it is easier to add than to take away.

The recipe serves six people.


  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons curry powder
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • ½ apple, cored and chopped
  • ¼ cup white rice
  • 1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into cubes
  • Salt to taste
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 pinch dried thyme
  • ½ cup heavy cream, heated


  1. Sauté onions, celery, carrot and butter in a large soup pot. Do not overcook the onions because they will give the soup a burnt taste.
  2. Add flour and curry, and cook for five more minutes.
  3. Add chicken stock, mix well, and bring to a boil. Simmer for about half an hour. You may want to cover the pan when doing this.
  4. Add apple, rice, chicken, salt, pepper and thyme. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until rice is done.
  5. When serving, add hot cream.

Since turmeric is harder to obtain, it is substituted with curry powder, which is extremely popular in the U.K. Some variations of mulligatawny soup use ingredients like flour and half-and-half. These additions help thicken the original recipe to cater to the texture the British are familiar with.

I’ve included one of the most basic recipes here, so you can modify it as desired. Here are some ideas for things to add to the soup and experiment with. If you choose to add the lentils or potato, you will need to adjust the cooking time accordingly.

  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 green chili peppers, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander seed
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 4 pods cardamom, bruised
  • 1 large potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup Masoor dhal (red lentils), rinsed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

You can also experiment with side dishes. My mother served the soup with rice and vegetables, but you may prefer flatbread. Naan is very popular in Britain!

Mulligatawny soup is an example of how two cultures merged to form something new, a culturally hybrid cuisine. It illustrates how the colonials improvised on a local dish to find a balance between the two vastly different cultures.

The influence of Indian food on British cuisine is undisputed; the British invented chicken tikka masala, after all, and in 2001 their foreign secretary called it “a true British national dish.” However uncomfortable or problematic the exchange between two cultures can be, I can see the lasting impact of colonialism in the food that is consumed in modern-day Britain.

Alongside toad-in-the-hole, spotted dick and bangers and mash, Indian-inspired dishes are cooked up in kitchens across Britain. If anything, it shows that the British aren’t as averse to flavor as I used to think!

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