Mulligatawny: It has come to be understood, that this word refers to anything that is soup – with vegetables, often chicken, sometimes lentils of differing varieties, occasionally rice, noodles and once with a chickpea base. Lemon/no lemon, cream/no cream (or coconut milk) – it is, whatever goes, and has rarely been had similarly.
The expectation that has framed the love affair and continues one of many culinary crusades, was born – as are so many travails – from the experiences of childhood, when the proximity and ease of travel to Windsor, led a small and curious section of a domicile, called the Himalaya, to serve as introduction and standard to Indian cuisine. Clouded memories recall the building as unexceptional, if elegant, a worn Victorian home re-used in part as a restaurant, standing relatively apart and somewhat removed from the center of the city. Though the visions are likely deceitful, they fantasize the entrance rising atop a flight of stairs, the door opening to a dimly lit and ornate – small and quiet dining area. The room was steeped in the culture and aromas of the food that was prepared within – a strange and uncomfortable setting for an anxious, twitchy and impatient child.
One memory that is a certainty, is that this was no drive-by, quick feasting affair, but rather one that exercised patience and demanded a significant dedication to the evening, and, by high school, certainly, forethought and planning as the reputation outsold the seating and “The” chef, was only on hand select nights – Thursday and Saturday, if recall is robust, though, that could be a neurological novelty.
Though the wait was sometimes trying, each carefully and personally crafted dish was une affaire de Coeur, the craft of a maestro dedicated to perfection, un-beholdened to material concerns, to bottom lines or shareholders – the curator of magnificent, palatable masterworks. His works were no pop-culture, creampuff cast offs, but Mahler seventh’s – brooding, complex and sometimes confusing – in need of consideration and interpretation, resulting, always, brilliantly, to exuberant conclusion.
This is all a dream of course – none of it is real. But from there came the ideal that was born and carried, an un-meetable measure to which everything is compared. A few times – the old chef would have been proud: The methi malai at Michigan Masala – the leaves hand ground each time, care to transcendent perfection – it brought insatiable craving. They did the slop-shop buffet, as well – just fine, too. But there were a select few dishes where a delay was expected, personal prizes that required a higher dedication to the craft. Withal, the family sold Michigan Masala and with it went the craft. The recipes remained, the magic left – from the kitchen, additionally his wife’s ability to make the less-than-ideal dining room a wonderful experience, their cute kid playing his Gameboy on the couch in the front; bouncing around out back… The old chef would have shaken his head and sighed.
The rarity of such places is understandable – one is not going to become wealthy, or perhaps even make a living, these days, putting that much effort into every meal. Like Michigan Masala, though, there are a few that have a selection or two that reflect a higher degree of care, like the mujadara at Steve’s, or, many of the options at Seva’s, Inn Season and we had no problem waiting for the food at Detroit Vegan Soul – even the mac and cheese is worth the wait.
In the case of the Mujadara, the effort made is reflected by the preparation of the onions and the balance of the spices. It is a dish that can conveniently be prepared in advance, and not suffer, significantly. Meals that require more exacting attention, need understanding that diners should be prepared to eat when the food is ready, rather than on call at their convenience.
Even with that understanding and great appreciation for incredible meals at the Himalaya, visits were rare for as mentioned before, and, also, because of the amount of time needed – we went with the understanding the evening would be dedicated to the experience. If you expected otherwise, the wait could be trying – as such, part of our strategy became, to order an appetizer or soup to help stave off the starving angst, and this was how mulligatawny was first met.
There are not enough superlatives for the imagined standard at the Himalaya; it is remembered as a – likely – green lentil based, thick, lemony, curried stew, with a little bit of rice and shredded chicken. Once it was ordered, it was ordered every time.
Through the years, mulligatawny was found to be a rare offering. There was a review, long time ago, in one of the local papers of a restaurant nearly an hour away. The reviewer gave the restaurant a 5 star rating – very rare – and described a wonderful sample platter, with numerous curries, tandoori, chutneys and sauces to accompany. The kicker was the mention of a mulligatawny, and a dinner was planned.
It is rare that we would make such an out of the way place a point of destination, make the meal the sole object of our travel, because of years of disappointments. This was one of those.
The restaurant was described as nondescript on the outside, but on entering, one was purportedly taken by the elegance, if quaintness of the dining area, and it was recommended that patrons dress appropriately. Fond memories of the dimly lit and elegant dining room were evoked and we paired ourselves, disguised as classy folks, in three piece suit and elegant evening gown.
We drove our little green pickup with the cb antenna perking out the roof and parked in front of an – indeed – nondescript building, blue painted, wood paneling, on a dirt lot. We entered into a dingy foyer where we were instructed to, “Hang on a minute…” before being led under and through a draped black cloth, into a wood paneled dining area with vinyl flooring and bright, fluorescent lights. We were seated on steel backed vinyl cushioned chairs that complimented the stainless-steel trimmed, faded laminate tables very nicely.
The little pickup felt right at home, and if we had been in jeans and sweat shirts – it would have been cool. Despite that, we still looked forward to the meal, and when the waiter arrived, we told him no menus were needed, we just wanted the sample platter – and a mulligatawny soup!
There was considerable confusion as the waiter tried to understand what the oddly over-dressed couple was trying to impart. He claimed complete ignorance to any platter or even thali type thing, until the review was mentioned and his face showed sudden comprehension as the lightbulb illuminated the room even more brightly – or, perhaps we just became even more awkward and self-aware as he laughed at our apparent ignorance. The “platter,” he explained, was something created just for the reviewer – as apparently was the atmosphere, dining room and service. He handed us the menu and again the soup, as well as something unremarkable was ordered.
The bowls of soup were delivered quickly, and what was set before us was flabbergasting – literally rendering speechlessness, as I tried to stare what I knew into the bowl. There was a brief conversation, trying to comprehend the affront that rested on table: A clear broth, with chopped onions, carrots, celery, chicken and noodles, all sprinkled with a bit of parsley! In disbelief, it was even sampled, but it remained chicken soup.
When the waiter was finally distracted from his other customer, he acted perplexed toward our reaction, at which point (at least in my mind), I raised up and loudly confronted him, “I have had mulligatawny! And this! Is not mulligatawny!”
He chuckled sympathetically and gave my shoulders a reassuring massage, turning me toward the large rectangular opening looking into the kitchen, then asked, “What do you see?”
There were two middle aged, fair skinned and dark haired ladies leaning against a counter in the kitchen. Fair skinned ladies… I said, “I think I see Sicily!”
The waiter laughed, and said, “You get what they know.”
The crux of that is all true – the details may be a little murky and somewhat fabricated. We’ve – never been back, but have tried numerous mulligatawnys, since. Some –very similar to the idealized standard of memory – others quite different, if fine in their own right. This particular variety falls into the latter category – as she states, you could eat it all week: It’s very delicious, but it is not the mulligatawny crafted by the chef at the Himalaya. No lemon, it’s red and no rice. Otherwise, marvelous. We enjoyed it twice, and the small amount that remained was mixed with some peas and chipotle pepper and called lunch. If it had been called a dal there would be 1500 fewer words in this world and no rambling explanation as to why a childhood archetype is somehow important when it comes to vegetable soup – funny things, the ideas, ideals, measures of the world that we make when we are young, and curious how they cling on, even when confronted by a non-conforming reality.