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A Labour of Love: A South Indian Dish That Ties Me to My Ancestry

By: Nievana Judisthir


If there’s one thing to know about the West Indies, it’s that we damn well know how to cook — and eat. What's beautiful about Caribbean cuisine is that it is influenced by many different cultures coming together in a beautiful pot of flavours and history. Having every race in the world come together into this harmonious community of cultures and people creates a space of exploration. Especially for your taste buds. 


Throughout diasporic communities, the month of May is known as Indian Arrival Month, recently coined as Indian Survival Month. This is the time of year when Indo-Caribbeans and other Indian diaspora groups reflect on the brutal history of Indian forced labour throughout the world, particularly in the West Indies, Fiji, and parts of Africa. One of the ways I like to connect to my ancestral roots during this time is to discuss and indulge in the food that has travelled with my ancestors to the Caribbean from India.


Food has become an integral part of connecting one to their culture, as well as allowing other people to experience different cultures. Food has become a huge love language amongst people, myself included. Food is connection. Food is love. Food is history.


India is known for a plethora of different flavours and spices. Everything from meat curries to vegetable dishes, charred barbeque to hearty dhals, Indian cuisine is a labour of love that takes methodic preparation and patience. But what people tend to forget about India is that it is composed of many different states that contribute differently to the overall cuisine of the country. With that in mind, we can understand that different states in India give us different foods in our diaspora communities. For example, Goa is a state in India known for its abundance of fish. Fish curry is popularized in this state, especially because it is made with coconut milk. We find this cooking technique in the Caribbean when we make fish curries like hassa/cascadu. Furthermore, Goan fish curries, much like Caribbean fish curries, also contain raw green mangoes that, combined with coconut milk, lessen the fishy taste. Another example is dhokla from the state of Gujarat. Dhokla is a dish that is made of gram flour or chickpea flour. The dhokla is then steamed or fried to make a quick little snack and is then served with chutneys or pepper. This dish resembles bara and phoulori in the West Indies — a common street food that a lot of us have grown up with. Even the smallest of influences from India have made their way into cooking techniques and recipes in the West Indies.


But there’s one dish in particular that fascinated me in the last few years because of its cooking techniques, ingredients, and dispute whether or not the dish is actually from India. 

If there’s one thing about me, I love a hearty soup. I love something that makes me feel warm and cozy (and also allows me to connect to my culture as a bonus). Regardless if it is -5°C or 30°C, I will always enjoy a bowl of liquid comfort.


Have you guessed it? Metemgee? Sauws? Corn soup? Fish tea? Dhal?


Mulligatawny. 


Mulligatawny, also known as Morgatani or Multanni, made its way over to the Caribbean from Tamil Nadu in South India. There’s also speculation that this is a Bengali dish, but there’s no substantial evidence to support that claim. Especially since the word “mulligatawny” roughly translates from Tamil to “pepper water” in English. What’s so fascinating about this dish is that it started as a simple lentil and meat soup. Just like curries, you would eat this soup with rice or roti or naan, the way you would also do with dhal. It was a relatively simple dish, containing simple spices like chillies and onions, but then became more elevated by introducing several other spices and other cuts of meat. A lot of these new ingredients were also due to British influence during the 19th century.


The West Indian take on this dish from what I’ve seen includes numerous spices alongside the head and feet of animals and many inclusions of tamarind. From what I’ve been told by my family, tamarind is a distinct flavour that needs to be present in this dish. The tamarind helps offset some of the pepper in the dish, but also the oiliness of the brain in the head of the animal. The cooking time takes several hours, inclusive of the steaming and boiling of the meat used for the dish. This is far from your average dhal or Caribbean soup, but this labour of love that has been passed down from different villages in Tamil Nadu, with key British influences, has made its way to the West Indies and has popularized itself into the hearts and wedding houses of many Caribbean people. I commonly refer to this dish as kangan soup: the soup that is made on the kangan day of Hindu weddings where we get to eat meat after all the rituals of the wedding festivities are over.


Now, does everybody like this dish? No, perhaps not. I will admit that the first time that I saw this dish, it didn’t look appealing to me. This is probably because I had a goat head staring right back at me when I looked into the pot. But, after much persuasion from my family, I did give it a try. The harmony of all of the flavours coming together in this one spoonful of broth made me marvel at how much time and love goes into making these dishes that allow us to hold onto a culture our people almost had taken from them. This dish allowed me to appreciate my roots a lot more because of how the recipes have been rewritten, personalized and modernized to fit the changing pallets of the generations. 


Most importantly, this dish also allowed me to be grateful that, in the Caribbean, we can share our different ancestral roots and find a sense of community together through food. 

Cheers to us, the children of Indian indentured labourers, who continue to preserve and pass down our culture and traditions — one pot at a time. 

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