Thanks to new research methods and a pile of (very old) dirty dishes, archaeologists have discovered the very ancient origins of a globally popular cuisine. Though the combination of flavors recognized as curry today is the result of centuries of cross-cultural trade between India, Southeast Asia and Europe, the dish’s origins reach back farther than was previously thought.
According to Andrew Lawler, at Slate, “the original curry predates Europeans’ presence in India by about 4,000 years.” The three basic ingredients of the spicy stew were ginger, garlic and turmeric, and, using a method called “starch grain analysis,” archaeologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber at the University of Washington at Vancouver were able to identify the residue of these ancient spices in both skeletons and pottery shards from excavations in India:
Starch is the main way that plants store energy, and tiny amounts of it can remain long after the plant itself has deteriorated. If a plant was heated—cooked in one of the tandoori-style ovens often found at Indus sites, for example—then its tiny microscopic remains can be identified, since each plant species leaves its own specific molecular signature. To a layperson peering through a microscope, those remains look like random blobs. But to a careful researcher, they tell the story of what a cook dropped into the dinner pot 4,500 years ago.
Examining the human teeth and the residue from the cooking pots, Kashyap spotted the telltale signs of turmeric and ginger, two key ingredients, even today, of a typical curry.
The two researchers dated the remains of these spices to between 2500 and 2200 B.C. That, and the discovery of a “carbonized clove of garlic,” Lawler writes, supports the theory that “curry is not only among the world’s most popular dishes; it also may be the oldest continuously prepared cuisine on the planet.”
So the next time you order a spicy vindaloo, korma or masala, know that you’re not only having a sinus-clearing, delicious experience—you’re tasting a bit of ancient history.
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