2,000-year-old utensils show signs of Southeast Asia’s earliest curry

Remnants of what is believed to be the earliest spice blend found in Southeast Asia have been found at a site in Vietnam.

Micro-remains recovered from stone grinding tools contain a range of spices including turmeric, ginger, fingerrote, sand ginger, galangal, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. Dating back 2,000 years, the spice blend was found at the Óc Eo archaeological site in southern Vietnam.

The analyses are published in the journal Science Advances.

Piles of ground spices on white surface
Ground spices. Credit: John White Photos / Moment / Getty.

First author Weiwei Wang is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. She says the find sheds new light on the trade networks at the time, as well as the role of spices in people’s lives.

“Our study suggests that curries were most likely introduced to Southeast Asia by migrants during the period of early trade contact via the Indian Ocean,” Wang says. “Given these spices originated from various different locations, it’s clear people were undertaking long-distance journeys for trade purposes.”

Spices were coveted commodities in ancient civilisations.

“The global spice trade has linked cultures and economies in Asia, Africa and Europe since classical times,” Wang adds. “Now we know the port city of Óc Eo played an important role in this trade as a cultural and trading crossroads.”

Along with the ancient curry ingredients, the researchers excavated a significant number of well-preserved seeds.

“The preservation of plant remains in Óc Eo is exceptional – the seeds were so fresh it was hard to believe they were 2,000 years old,” comments Dr Hsiao-chun Hung, also from ANU. “We believe further analysis could identify more spices and possibly even uncover unique plant species, adding to our understanding of the history of the region.”

And it seems that the curry recipe hasn’t changed much in the intervening millennia.

“The spices used today have not deviated significantly from the Óc Eo period,” says Dr Khanh Trung Kien Nguyen from the Southern Institute for Social Sciences in Vietnam. “The key components are all still there, such as turmeric, cloves and cinnamon.”

What constitutes a “curry” has been muddied by 17th century European traders who, perplexed by the spicy, savoury dishes of the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia, lumped them all under the one term.

The word likely originates from the Tamil word “kari,” meaning sauce.

In 2010, archaeologists used starch analysis to recreate the world’s oldest curry – a dish of eggplant, ginger and turmeric. The molecular analysis examined pots and other utensils found in the archaeological site at Farmana, near New Delhi in northern India, which date back 4,500 years.

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