The first time I ate mulligatawny, I was being watched by a man called Rudolph who was wearing stockings. In fairness to him, he was meant to be waiting the whole dining room at the hotel Windamere in Darjeeling, but I happened to be the only diner in it and the stockings were part of his “heritage British Raj” outfit.
So that we didn’t both feel awkward, I commented on the soup he’d brought in – “Tastes like it’s 200 years old” – and he smiled, probably out of courtesy. But I meant it. This heirloom of a recipe, which outdates any written records I have for my own family, tasted as if it could have only originated from some homesick Brit wanting a taste of home, but cooked for by Indian chefs. Not quite as soul-soothing, brave and committedly Indian as a dal, say, but still warming and elegant enough to sup with a silver spoon.
Although there are a thousand variations of the mythological mulligatawny, there are some things that most agree on: that it is made using a base of India’s finest trio – onions, ginger and garlic – with vegetables, spices (usually coriander and cumin) and red lentils, to thicken.
I have stayed true to that base here, but I’ve adapted it slightly to make it more homely. I’ve left it unblended, so the end result is more dal than soup, added some autumnal British roots for heft, and thrown on some parsnip crisps, which can be made while the mulligatawny cooks to make the overall experience more “busy kitchen” than “empty dining room”.
Parsnip and carrot mulligatawny
This hits the spot that a lot of soups fail to, in that it will fill you up, but if you’re sceptical, you could eat it (as many used to) with boiled rice spooned in for good measure. If you’re happy to multitask, make the crisps while the soup simmers. And do check that your vegetable stock is vegan-friendly: some contain lactose. Serves four.
3 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 large brown onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3cm ginger, peeled and grated
1 green finger chilli, very finely chopped
2 carrots (250g), peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
2 parsnips (250g), peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
1 tsp ground cumin
1 ½ tsp ground coriander
150g red lentils, washed and drained
1¼ litres vegetable stock
For the parsnip crisps
1 ½ tbsp rapeseed oil
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Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Heat the oil in a deep-sided pan over a medium flame, then fry the onion for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, ginger and green chilli, stir-fry for a couple of minutes, then add the carrots and parsnips, and cook for six to eight minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are sticky. Add a little water if the mixture is too dry, then add the cumin and coriander, stir for a minute, then add the drained lentils, stock and a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Stir, bring the mixture up to a boil, then turn down the heat to a whisper and simmer for 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. (If you’re blending the soup, now is the time to blend it, adding more water if you prefer a thinner consistency.) Season to taste.
For the parsnip crisps, top, tail and peel the parsnip, then use a vegetable peeler to shave off the flesh in long, thin strips. Lay these on an oven tray and coat with the oil (use your hands), then season, arrange the strips side by side on the tray and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until pale gold and crisp.
To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top each portion with a generous handful of the parsnip crisps.