Archaeologists in Southeast Asia have uncovered the region’s oldest evidence of processing spices used in a dish that Westerners often call “curry.” The remains, which are at least 1,800 years old, reveal new details about ancient trade and travel.
“Before this study, we had only limited clues from ancient documents in India, China and Rome about the early spice trades,” Australian National University archaeologist Hsiao-chun Hung tells Scientific American’s Timmy Broderick. “However, this research is the first to confirm that these spices were indeed traded commodities that existed within the global maritime trading networks nearly 2,000 years ago.”
The word “curry” originated with European colonists, who used it to refer to any sauce-based, spiced dish from South Asia. The name likely came from the Tamil word “kari,” which can translate to “sauce.”
“‘Curry’ is, in many ways, a meaningless term,” wrote Alex Delany for Bon Appétit in 2017. “In so many countries, it was a word popularized by colonizers to simplify what they saw as foreign cuisines.”
In the new study, Hung and her colleagues examined microscopic spice remains on 40 grinding and pounding tools excavated from the Óc Eo archaeological complex in southern Vietnam. Originally, the team was looking to find more information on the function of grinding tools called “pesani.” But their analysis revealed traces of eight spices on 12 of the stone tools: turmeric, ginger, fingerroot, sand ginger, galangal, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon.
For one, this confirmed the tools were used for processing food. But it also revealed an ancient spice trade—some of these spices are native to regions thousands of kilometers away from the site, suggesting people transported them via the Indian or Pacific Ocean. The findings were published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“They mentioned spices like cloves, and cloves come from one specific group of islands in eastern Indonesia,” Tom Hoogervorst, a linguist and archaeologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies who was not involved with the new research, tells Scientific American. “The moment you find them in a different context, then you know that people were doing long-term sailing—basically a maritime network.”
Previous excavations of Óc Eo—which is located among ancient canals on the southwestern side of the Mekong Delta—suggest the city was once at a crossroads for major trade routes stretching as far as the Mediterranean Sea, writes Phie Jacobs for Science. Most of the tools analyzed were excavated by the research team from 2017 to 2019, while some had been collected previously by the local museum.
The team also found traces of coconut, remnants of rice and some exceptionally well-preserved seeds. One nutmeg seed recovered during the recent Óc Eo excavations dated to 120 to 248 C.E., making it the oldest known nutmeg specimen in mainland Southeast Asia. Despite its age, the seed retained its woody, sweet scent, per the paper.
The findings represent the oldest evidence of “curry” found outside India, the authors write in the Conversation, and they reveal the history of these spice-based recipes in Southeast Asia is hundreds of years longer than previously thought.
“Another fascinating finding is that the curry recipe used in Vietnam today has not deviated significantly from the ancient Óc Eo period,” write the scientists in the Conversation. “Key components such as turmeric, cloves, cinnamon and coconut milk have remained consistent in the recipe. It goes to show a good recipe will stand the test of time!”