Researchers Uncover 2000-Year-Old Curry Recipe in Vietnam

Archaeologists in Vietnam have unearthed an exciting find - a sandstone slab dating back to the 15th century, containing ancient evidence of a curry recipe with eight spices.

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Traces of spices have been discovered on a grinding slab and other stone tools in Vietnam, indicating that curry was consumed in the region at least 2,000 years ago, according to a report by CNN citing the journal Science Advances.


The grinding slab, unearthed in 2018 at the Oc Eo archaeological complex in southern Vietnam, was found buried 2 meters (6.5 feet) below the surface. The site was once a trading hub of the ancient Southeast Asian kingdom Funan, as revealed by a new study on the substances found on the slab.


“Preparing curry involves not only a diverse range of spices but also the use of grinding tools, considerable time, and human effort,” said Dr. Hsiao-chun Hung, a senior research fellow in the department of archaeology and natural history at Australian National University in Canberra and author of the study.

Scientists Decode 2,000-year-old Curry Recipe in Vietnam
The grinding slab was found two meters below the surface. Photo: Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien/Southern Institute of Social Sciences


“Remarkably, even individuals residing outside of India nearly 2,000 years ago expressed a strong desire to savor the flavors of curry, as evidenced by their diligent preparations,” added Hung.


An analysis of the tools yielded 717 grains of starch, which revealed the presence of eight types of spices including turmeric, ginger, galangal, sand ginger, fingerroot, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Many of the grains also showed signs of grinding damage, resembling the starch granules found in modern curry powder.


These findings provide insights into the migration and culinary practices of curry in Southeast Asia.


“This finding strongly suggests that the ancient inhabitants of Oc Eo utilized turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg as essential ingredients in their culinary practices, most likely in the preparation of curry,” stated Hung.

Scientists Decode 2,000-year-old Curry Recipe in Vietnam
Curry spice processing tools unearthed in Vietnam found in 2018. Photo: Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien/Southern Institute of Social Sciences
Scientists Decode 2,000-year-old Curry Recipe in Vietnam
A grinding slab found in Vietnam revealed traces of spices that give insight into how curry was made at least 2,000 years ago. Photo: Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien/Southern Institute of Social Sciences
Scientists Decode 2,000-year-old Curry Recipe in Vietnam
This photograph shows a woman crushing spices with a stone roller on a grinding slab similar to those found in Oc Eo. The woman is grinding ragi (finger millet) between two round millstones. Photo taken in Madras (Chennai) in Tamil Nadu by Nicholas and Curths in c. 1870, from the Archaeological Survey of India. Image credit: British Library Board.


The identified ingredients resemble those found in modern curries consumed in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries today.


“Nowadays, preparing curry in Vietnam has become much simpler for most families due to the widespread availability of curry powder in supermarkets. However, it is interesting to note that the curry recipe used today has not deviated significantly from the ancient Oc Eo period,” noted Dr. Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien, an archaeologist at the Center for Archaeology, Southern Institute of Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City and co-author of the study.


Kien added that the team plans to recreate the 2,000-year-old curry based on the ingredients found at the site.


The study suggests that people in India were likely enjoying curry about 4,000 years ago, as indicated by traces of turmeric, ginger, eggplant, and mango found in artifacts and dental plaque. However, this recent discovery reveals the long and fascinating history of curry production beyond India, according to Hung.

Scientists Decode 2,000-year-old Curry Recipe in Vietnam
The monuments in Go Sau Thuan seen from the air – Photo: Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien/Southern Institute of Social Sciences


Some of the ingredients recovered from Oc Eo, such as turmeric, are similar to those used in Indian curries, while others like coconut milk and galangal are more commonly found in Southeast Asian cuisine. This suggests the existence of maritime trading routes between Southeast Asia and South Asia over 3,000 years ago, with spices like nutmeg and clove coming from Indonesia and others like turmeric and cinnamon originating from South Asia.


The exact origins of curry production at the site are unclear, but it is likely that the preparations were made by migrants from India or local inhabitants in Vietnam influenced by South Asian culture. The large grinding stone discovered alongside the remains of stilt houses, which would have stood near water, provides further evidence of ancient curry production.


Most surprisingly, some of the nutmeg seeds unearthed during the excavation still emitted a unique aroma.


“Food culture is significant in human history,” added Hung. “When we enjoy delicious food, we often wonder about how its flavors were formed, the origins of the recipes, and when these culinary methods were first practiced.”

Hannah Nguyen