Alimentary, My Dear
Make Mine Mulligatawny
By Tamia Nelson
March 19, 2013
Early in my college career, my purse was as light as my schedule was heavy. Which meant I relied mostly on coffee, canned ravioli, and popcorn to keep body and soul together. It wasn't exactly a balanced diet, but every now and then I enjoyed a real sit‑down meal, courtesy of my housemate, a teacher of English who also liked spending time in the kitchen.
Happily, she was as good a cook as she was a teacher. She was a good writer, too, and for several years she sold feature articles to women's magazines. But the roller‑coaster life of a freelance didn't suit her, and she eventually chucked it in for a job with a salary and a pension scheme. She was still writing for the magazines when we shared a house, however, and she sometimes planned articles around whatever she was cooking. I was a frequent beneficiary. I'd come through the front door after a long day, tired and cold from my 18‑mile bicycle commute — I averaged one flat a week, winter and summer — only to be greeted by a mouth‑watering aroma wafting from the dining room.
Usually, the meal was fairly standard American comfort food — we'd both grown up in dairy country, and the house we shared was on a working farm — but occasionally something out of the ordinary was on the table. This was the case on one particular day, when I sat down before a large bowl from whose dusky orange surface fragrant tendrils of steam constantly spiraled. I dipped my spoon into the liquid and brought up a cube of carrot, a crescent of celery, a half‑moon of mushroom, and a bit of shredded chicken. No surprises here. These were commonplace country fare. But there was also a raisin and a small cube of something white. And the aroma was anything but commonplace. It was, in a word, exotic. Yet it was also, somehow, familiar. Then I lifted the spoon to my lips, and …
All was revealed. But not immediately. The "something white" was a piece of apple. Of that I was certain. The rest, however, eluded me. It was delicious, to be sure, but what was it? My initial enquires were met with enigmatic smiles. After a while, however, my housemate yielded to my repeated entreaties and vouchsafed the name of the dish. It was called "mulligatawny." And the recipe? It had been brought to the States by her English grandmother, though it was only English by adoption. The dish had its roots in India. So it seemed I had been dining — at several removes, admittedly — at the table of the Raj.
Now that I was on the scent, so to speak, I lost no time in unraveling the hearty meal's remaining secrets. I concluded it was little more than chicken and vegetable soup, to which fruit had been added. But there was something else, …
Something More Than Fruit
And this continued to puzzle me. Not for long, though. I was sure I'd never had mulligatawny until my housemate put the bowl down in front of me, yet the savour seemed oddly familiar. Then I remembered… Several years before I started college, I'd gone climbing in the North Cascades. The job of camp cook had rotated with each new day, and on one occasion the duty chef had attempted to "liven up" a pot of beef stew with a generous lashing of curry powder. As things turned out, it proved rather too generous for some in the group. But not for me. I was pleasantly surprised by the symphony of sweet and spicy notes that the curry imparted to an otherwise bland beef stew.
This olfactory memory was the Rosetta stone I'd needed to unlock the final mystery of mulligatawny. The secret of the dish was curry. Not that curry is a fixed star in the culinary firmament, however — the powder is a variable compound of several spices, in which coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and red pepper predominate. With the exception of red pepper, these aren't household names, but they are nonetheless familiar spices. The turmeric that gives curry powder its characteristic orange color is often used as a coloring agent in other dishes. Coriander and cumin flavor chilies, while fenugreek seeds are used to season pickles.
In any case, curry powder's variability has important consequences. Depending on a curry's exact composition — make no mistake, curries do exhibit a wonderful variety — it will fall somewhere on a range from mild to maddeningly hot. Aficionados see this as an opportunity, compounding their own mixtures to precise caloric standards. My housemate contented herself with store‑bought, however, and her mulligatawny was on the mild side. That suited me just fine. It still does.
But why, you may be asking yourself, have I gone on at such length about a dish I was introduced to while still a student? The answer isn't hard to guess, of course. Because …
Mulligatawny Is a Natural for Camp
Despite its exotic antecedents, mulligatawny is a soup, and soups make regular appearances in my camping menus. There are good reasons for this. Soup warms, rehydrates, and nourishes. It's also easy to prepare, and soups — unlike some stews — don't demand extraordinary cleanup efforts after the meal, either. Even the high salt content of many commercial soups can be welcome at the end of a sweaty day. (Paddlers with a history of hypertension will need to think twice before loading up on salt, though.) So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that mulligatawny has become a favorite.
There is, however, no single, "ideal" mulligatawny. It can be made with any kind of soup stock or meat — though most recipes that I've seen call for chicken — and the only unifying ingredient is curry powder, which, as we've already noted, is equally protean. But we have to start somewhere, so I'll begin with this basic recipe:
Simple and Good Camp Mulligatawny
Yield: Two Servings
- Olive oil (any will do, but extra virgin is best)
- 1 teaspoon mild curry powder
- ½ cup dried apple pieces, or 1 small apple, cored and chopped small
- 3 cups water
- 1 packet vegetable soup mix, approximately 1.8 ounces dry weight
- ¼ cup raisins
- 1 small can (or retort pack) of chicken, about 5 ounces in all
Assemble your ingredients (Step A in the photo below). Drizzle olive oil over the bottom of a medium‑sized pot (minimum capacity: 1½ quarts). Sprinkle the curry powder over the oil. Now light your stove or place the pot on a hot fire. Add the apple pieces and stir to coat them with curry and oil (Step B).
Keep stirring for about half a minute. Then add the water — slowly. When the water boils, add the contents of the soup packet and the raisins. (Step C above). Now cover the pot (leave the lid slightly ajar) and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken and its juice a minute or two before you take the pot off the flame. Serve.
What did I tell you? It's simple. It's good, too. Very good. And it's versatile. Are there more than two of you? Just double the ingredients. Eating vegetarian? Omit the chicken.
OK. Quick and easy is good, both in camp and at home. But maybe you're looking for something a little special for a lazy day. If so, here's one possibility:
Very Veggie Mulligatawny With Rice
Yield: Three to Four Servings
- Olive oil (extra virgin is best)
- 2 teaspoons mild curry powder
- 1 small, fresh onion, chopped (optional)
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- ¼ cup dry rice
- ½ cup dried apple pieces, or 1 small apple, cored and chopped
- 1 small potato, diced fine, or ¼ cup dehydrated diced potatoes
- 5 to 6 cups water
- 1 packet vegetable soup mix, approximately 1.8 ounces dry weight, OR enough soup powder or bouillon cubes to make 5 cups of liquid
- ¼ cup dehydrated or freeze‑dried vegetables of your choice OR ½ cup fresh veggies cut small
- ¼ cup raisins
- 1 small can (or retort pack) of chicken, yielding about 5 ounces
Drizzle olive oil into a large pot (minimum size: 2 quarts). Add the onion (if you're using it) and garlic. Place the pot over a medium‑high flame or moderately hot fire. Sauté the onion and garlic for about a minute, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Sprinkle the curry powder over the onion and garlic. Add the rice and the apple pieces. Mix well. Add the potatoes. Then add water (carefully!) and stir.
Once the water is boiling, add the contents of the soup packet (or whatever you're using in lieu), along with the supernumerary vegetables and the raisins. Cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and reduce the heat. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water if needed to keep the soup from becoming stew. When the rice is almost done, add the chicken and its juice and simmer for a few more minutes, till the chicken is thoroughly heated and the rice is soft. Serve.
Hungry? Me, too. But before I go to lunch — you can guess what's on the menu — I'll leave you with a few suggestions to help you ring the changes:
- Reduce (or increase) the amount of curry powder.
- Serve with rice noodles instead of rice.
- Substitute another dried fruit for the raisins.
- Add peanuts, cashews, or other nuts.
- Substitute another dried soup mix for the vegetable soup.
- Substitute chicken, vegetable, or beef stock for the powdered soup, or use ramen, instead.
- Add coconut milk (or a dash of evaporated milk) just before serving.
- Substitute shelf‑stable precooked rice like Uncle Ben's Ready Rice for the dry rice.
- Substitute tofu for the chicken.
- Serve with flatbread to make it easy to soak up the last drop.
I'm sure you'll have plenty of other ideas. One further word of advice, though: If you're new to mulligatawny, try it at home before you add it to your backcountry menu. The spices can have an explosive effect on some folks' digestions, and an outbreak of the trots in camp is no way to curry favor with your paddling buddies.
There's nothing like hot soup on a cold day. (Or a hot day, come to that.) And there's more than one way for soup to warm you up, too. Curry powder has the power to lift meals out of the ordinary, while fortifying you to meet any challenge that wind and wave can throw in your path. So the next time you're looking to spice up your camp fare, just say, "Make mine mulligatawny." You won't be sorry you did.