Mulligatawny: A family recipe, of sorts

In my mind, a family recipe is a specific sort of thing. It’s passed down to you by a family member, someone older than you by at least one generation (and preferably two). It’s ungoogleable in its uniqueness, either of ingredients or the way in which they’re combined. Most importantly, it has sentimental significance beyond the fact that it belongs to your family. It’s the stuff of holidays, or regular days that become significant in their own right. 

A curry recipe adapted from a cookbook published in 2002 – Madhur Jaffrey’s Foolproof Indian Cooking – doesn’t seem like it would fit the bill, especially for a caucasian kid with no known ties to India. But for me, almost everything about this soup reminds me of family. 


When my Dad brought the cookbook home – the purchase inspired by a few particularly tasty lunch outings in our city’s “Little India” with his coworkers – it was my family’s first introduction to Indian-style cooking. Taken by the brightly coloured photos and what were, at the time, ingredients foreign to me, it was the first cookbook I read cover-to-cover. But it was my sister, who was just venturing outside her cooking comfort zone of instant noodles and rice, who first tested it out. She made the recipe for this soup, adapting the original chicken-heavy version so that I, a new vegetarian, could eat it too. 

The salty spiciness of that first batch was addictive. I remember we finished the whole pot in one sitting. Over the decade that’s followed that first batch, the soup has featured as a starting course for an overly ambitious Indian birthday dinner for my dad, and as a potluck contribution many times. It’s been scaled up and never down, enjoyed on lazy days and frozen for busy nights ahead. It was the first things my sister attempted to make after giving birth – a recipe so well known to her that it was certain to turn out, despite the baby on her hip. It was one of the first thing I made after her baby arrived too, after her batch ended up burning to the bottom of the pan (she encourages you to stir the soup while it simmers, especially if you’ve quadrupled the recipe).  


The soup has evolved over time to include more ginger and garlic and, when we’re so inclined, twice the spices called for. Oddly, neither of us have memorized the recipe, but it’s been made so many times that the instructions are jotted on pieces of paper and stored in inboxes. Which is fortunate for both of us, since the recipe really is ungoogleable. 

I’m not sure why I haven’t shared the recipe before. It entirely fits the FoodHappy requirements of being simple, healthy and super tasty. But in a sentimental way (since I’m well down that road by now), it’s nice to be sharing it here, from Prince Edward Island, where my sister and I are visiting my parents. It may take another generation for the soup to qualify as a proper family recipe. But when we all sat down to dinner earlier this week, to familiar soup and the usual family antics (an extra dash of salt from my dad, a sigh of exasperation from me), it sure felt like home. 

Vegetarian Mulligatawny (Lentil Soup)
Adapted liberally from Madhur Jaffrey’s Foolproof Indian Cooking, and sourced from an email from my sister
Serves 6-8 

2 tbsp oil (canola or olive)
5 tsp ginger, grated
5 tsp garlic, minced
3 tsp curry powder
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp cayenne or two dried, hot chiles
2 cups of red lentils, rinsed until the rinsing water runs clear
8 cups of water or low-sodium vegetable stock
1.5-2 tsp salt 
Fresh cilantro (optional)
Fresh lemon (optional)


Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the ginger and garlic and fry for 15 seconds. Add the curry powder, cumin, coriander and cayenne/chile and fry for an additional 30 seconds.

Add in the lentils, water and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the lentils are super-tender, 30-40 minutes (they should no longer be recognizeable as lentils). Season with the juice of half a lemon and a big handful of chopped cilantro, if you so please!


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