Australian researchers find evidence of oldest curry outside India

Earlier studies in South Asia have reported archaeological presences of black pepper, mustard, clove, nutmeg, and cardamom. 

In a new research paper, Australian and Chinese researchers have found evidence of Southeast Asia’s oldest known curry.

The research shows the trading of spices for culinary use goes way back some 2,000 years through the global spice trade in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Image: Potential maritime trading networks, the realm of Funan, and the location of Oc Eo. (Source: Authors)

In fact, the research found the oldest evidence of curry ever found outside India.

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Research has shown that the history of curry began more than 4,000 years ago in India where starch grains of turmeric, ginger, eggplant, and mango were found in human teeth and in cooking pots during archaeological excavations.

Further, earlier studies in South Asia have reported archaeological presences of black pepper, mustard, clove, nutmeg, and cardamom. 

Representative image: Spices (Source: CANVA)

Weiwei Wang and Hsiao-chun Hung, researchers at the Australian National University, say:

“Before this study, we had limited evidence of ancient curry at archaeological sites – and the little evidence we did have mainly came from India. Most of our knowledge of the early spice trade has therefore come from clues in ancient documents from India, China and Rome.”

The researchers used a technique called starch grain analysis to analyze microscopic remains recovered from a range of grinding and pounding tools excavated from the Oc Eo site.

They add:

“We made the intriguing discovery at the Oc Eo archaeological complex in southern Vietnam. We found eight unique spices, originally from different sources, which were likely used for making curry. What’s even more fascinating is that some of these would have been transported over several thousand kilometres by sea.”

Oc Eo is located on the border between An Giang and Kien Giang provinces on the southwestern side of the Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. 

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Image: An aerial view of brick foundations at Go Sau Thuan in the Oc Eo complex (Source: Khanh Trung Kien Nguyen)

From 2017 to 2019, most of the stone grinding tools, “pesani”, were excavated by the research team and some were previously collected by the local museum.

At the Oc Eo site were also excavated Hindu and Buddhist religious monuments as it was considered an important centre for the processing of metals, glass for jewellery, and pottery.

Representative image: Ancient food preparation equipment reported in this research – (A to D and G) Footed grinding slabs. (E and F) Fragments thereof. (H, I, and L) Mullers/ pestles. (J) Complete mortar. (K) Mortar fragment (for details, see Supplementary Materials, table S2). Scale bar, 10 cm (Source: Authors)

Researchers note that the Indian stone grinding type tools were initially brought to Oc Eo by early migrants from the region and later locally manufactured.

The researchers add:

“Of the 40 tools we analysed, 12 produced a range of spices including turmeric, ginger, fingerroot, sand ginger, galangal, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. This means the occupants of the site had indeed used the tools for food processing, including to powder the rhizomes, seeds and stems of spice plants to release flavour.”

The researchers recovered a total of 717 starch grains from the surfaces of the 12 studied implements, of which 604 were identifiable to species.

The starch grain analysis on spices found at Oc Eo confirmed that these wouldn’t have all been available in the region naturally. These spices would have been transported either via the Indian or Pacific Ocean.

Representative image: starch grain analysis (Source: Wikipedia)

The artifacts analyzed in the research corresponded with traditional Indian spice grinding tools. Thus the researchers observe that it proved “curry has a fascinating history beyond India, and that curry spices were coveted far and wide.”

“So it’s interesting to note that nearly 2,000 years ago, individuals living outside India had a strong desire to savour the flavors of curry – as evidenced by their diligent preparations.”

This new study has contributed to the knowledge about how Indian culture influenced the formation of early Southeast Asian cuisines within the global spice trade and colonial networks.

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