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British, Indian traditions blend in Mulligatawny Soup

Although many aspects of British rule in India have been dramatized in the movie ``Passage to India'' and the PBS series ``Jewel in the Crown,'' little mention has been made of food, an area in which the two cultures were able to complement each other despite great differences. Whether British influence on Indian food was greater than the other way around is debatable. Nevertheless, the two opposites -- one a mild and conservative kind of food, the other spicy and aromatic -- have resulted in many interesting combinations.

Curries, chutneys, and kedgeree are examples of British dishes made more exciting with Indian spices while Mulligatawny and other soups introduced a whole new course to Indian meals.

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Years ago, soup was not a part of traditional Indian cuisine. British in concept and made with Indian ingredients, Mulligatawny was invented at a time when a separate soup course was completely unthinkable as part of an Indian meal, but intrinsic for the British.

Traditionally in the subcontinent, food was served all at once, with dishes placed in the center of the table. There was no soup course, nor an equivalent to the hors d'oeuvres course, in classic Indian cuisine.

With the rise of an affluent middle class, appetizers began to be served with beverages and for light lunches. Soup recipes appeared.

Today's Indian cookbooks contain no full chapters of soup recipes, and perhaps only half a dozen soup recipes at most. But there are dishes described as having a ``souplike consistency.'' And a few relatively new soups have also made an appearance -- some with a vegetable base, others adapted from lentil, chicken, or yogurt dishes.

A peppery combination of lamb or chicken with coconut, curry, and Indian seasonings, Mulligatawny Soup's name is believed to have come from a corruption of the Tamil words milagu-tannir, meaning ``peppery water.''

The soup probably started out as the South Indian soup known as rasam, but was changed so much in time that present versions bear little resemblance to the traditional rasam. It was no doubt created to cater to the officers of the British Raj, who insisted on soup to start the evening meal.

Mulligatawny Soup became very popular with Anglo-Indians scattered across India, and many variations are now served in countries around the world. Often the soup is a clear broth or pur'ee. Sometimes there are cubes or chunks of chicken, lamb, or vegetables. It is always spicy and very hot.

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The Larousse Gastronomique (1961), a culinary dictionary, describes a Mulligatawny Hotpot as a very highly spiced dish that contains curry powder and a special curry paste, served in soup plates, with creole rice served separately.

Many recipes insist on both curry powder and a curry paste as in the Larousse description, but Mulligatawny can also be made with commercial curry powder, which is more popular in England and the United States.

Indian cooking authority and teacher Julie Sahni says this is one occasion when she sets aside her spices and uses a good commercial curry powder.

``There are several good brands in the markets. All are suitable for Mulligatawny except those containing fennel seeds,'' she says. ``Fennel has a strong aroma and tends to stand out, or even overpower a dish, and therefore must be avoided in this soup.''

Bernard Clayton, author of ``Soups and Stews'' (Simon & Shuster, $17.95) says that although store-bought curry may be used, he prefers a combination of easily available spices, as in this adapted recipe from his book. Mulligatawny Soup 4 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil 2 onions, peeled, chopped 1/2 cup each carrot, celery, finely sliced 3 to 4 pound stewing chicken, cut up 1 cup yogurt 1 tablespoon curry seasoning, or more to taste 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste 4 cups boiled rice, optional 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut, toasted, for garnish (optional)

In 5- to 6-quart soup kettle melt butter and cook onions, carrots, and celery until soft, about 15 minutes. Add chicken and cook about 20 minutes, turning once or twice.

Combine yogurt, curry seasoning, and salt, stir into chicken, and cook until liquid becomes a brownish crust but does not burn, about 20 minutes more.

Add 2 quarts water, cover, and simmer 1 hour on medium-low heat, or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken, cool, then cube and return to pot.

Taste for seasoning. Reheat soup until simmering hot and pour into hot tureen. Sprinkle coconut over each serving.

Pass a separate bowl of rice for each person to add a spoonful to his individual serving. Pass coconut again. Homemade Curry Seasoning (Garam Masala) 1 teaspoon coriander seeds l/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds 8 cardamom pods 3 cloves 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns 1/2 teaspoon dried red hot chili flakes 4 teaspoons onion, finely chopped 1 garlic clove, minced 1 teaspoon turmeric

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. Spread all ingredients, except last 3 listed, in one layer in shallow pan and roast 30 minutes but do not brown. Stir several times.

Cool, break cardamom pods, remove tiny seeds, and mix with other spices. Grind in blender, or mortar and pestle, until pulverized.

Make paste of onion, garlic, and tumeric. Blend well with spice powder and add to soup as curry seasoning.

Kedgeree, originated for the British stationed in India to suit the Western palate, is listed in ``Hobson-Jobson, A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases.''

The book describes it as ``a mess of rice cooked with butter and dal, a little spice; a common dish all over India and often served at breakfast. In England often cooked fish is added. In India fish is sometimes eaten with kedgeree but is not part of it.''

Indian cooks say that kedgeree (or khichari ) must contain dal, the generic word for peas, beans, lentils, and other podded plants. The resulting dish of rice, fish, hard-boiled eggs, and spice has been popular in England and the United States for many years.

In ``Jane Grigson's British Cookery'' (Atheneum, $24.95), Mrs. Grigson gives a simple kedgeree recipe using only one spice, mace, which she got in blades from someone who had spent years in India. Kedgeree 6 ounces (175 grams) long-grain rice, boiled with 2 blades mace (or 2 pinches ground mace) 3 ounces (90 grams) butter 8 ounces (250 grams) cooked, smoked had- dock, boned 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped or mashed Salt and pepper to taste 1 raw egg, beaten 6 tablespoons single cream 1 tablespoon or more chopped parsley

Drain cooked rice well and discard mace. Heat 2 ounces (60 grams) butter in a saut'e pan and flake haddock into it, stirring and shaking it a few minutes.

Add rice, mix, and when hot add eggs. Season to taste.

Remove from heat and add egg and cream, then parsley, remaining butter, and more cream if desired.

Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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