Curry's Enduring Allure: A Culinary Journey through Millennia
Compelling evidence of spices like turmeric and cloves in ancient Vietnam points to the possibility that South Asians exchanged their culinary traditions through an age-old maritime trade route.
The allure of richly flavored and aromatic dishes, known as curries in the West, has been an integral part of South and Southeast Asian cuisines for centuries. These culinary delights owe their unique taste to a blend of spices, such as earthy turmeric, warm cloves, and sharp ginger, that have traveled far and wide, defying borders and cultural boundaries. The ancient spice trade, an intricate web of maritime connections, played a pivotal role in shaping these culinary traditions, but until recently, its extent and antiquity have remained elusive to researchers.
New evidence1 has emerged from an archaeological excavation in southern Vietnam, shedding light on the historical spice trade and its impact on Southeast Asia. The findings, published in Science Advances, unveil microscopic remnants of spices like cinnamon from Sri Lanka and nutmeg from the Banda Islands in eastern Indonesia embedded in sandstone tools at the Óc Eo excavation site, located southwest of present-day Ho Chi Minh City.
Historians have long known about the existence of a maritime trade route that thrived alongside the renowned Silk Road. This southern maritime route connected cultures in Iran, India, and Southeast Asia, facilitating the exchange of not only valuable goods but also culinary knowledge and practices. While historical records hinted at the spice trade's existence, this research marks the first concrete confirmation of its existence almost 2,000 years ago.
The study at Óc Eo uncovered traces of eight spices, including turmeric, ginger, clove, cinnamon, and more. The presence of these non-native spices points to the elaborate trading activities that took place, involving long voyages spanning thousands of kilometers by sea. Additionally, the stone tools used in food preparation were likely imported, suggesting the adoption of culinary practices from other ancient cultures.
Óc Eo has been a treasure trove for archaeologists, offering a glimpse into the region's enigmatic past. Records from Chinese historical documents mention an empire that once thrived in southern Vietnam but faded away by the seventh century C.E. However, tangible evidence of this kingdom remains scarce due to the challenging preservation conditions in the humid, tropical climate.
While the evidence from Óc Eo highlights South Asia's influence on Southeast Asian culinary practices, experts debate the direction and complexity of this cultural exchange. Some contend that the involvement of spices originating from across the Asian continent implies a more reciprocal interchange of culinary traditions rather than a unidirectional flow.
The significance of this groundbreaking study goes beyond mere historical curiosity. It underscores the importance of Southeast Asia as a historical crossroads, where migrants, merchants, and travelers from diverse regions converged, leaving a lasting impact on the region's culinary landscape. As researchers continue to unlock the mysteries of the ancient maritime spice trade, we gain a deeper appreciation for the intricate web of connections that have shaped our global history.
Wang, W., Nguyen, K. T. K., Zhao, C., & Hung, H.-C. (2023). Earliest curry in Southeast Asia and the global spice trade 2000 years ago. Science Advances, 9(29). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.adh5517