Note: This article first appeared on my newsletter Southeast Asian Archaeology on August 6, 2023. Sign up! It’s free!
Last month, a new paper by Wang et al. reported on the evidence of spice processing from grinding tools found at Oc Eo, and archaeological site in the Mekong Delta in present-day An Giang province of Vietnam. The spices identified from the residues suggest that they were integral elements for making curry, and the authors suggest that this was a culinary tradition introduced by South Asian migrants or visitors when Indian Ocean trade began around 2,000 years ago. As soon as this paper came out, I knew that I wanted try making a curry based on the findings as a weekend project. I had originally intended to make this a members-only post, but I had too much fun making this curry that I had to share it with everyone!
Oc Eo is one of the more significant port cities of ancient Southeast Asia. Together with Angkor Borei, situated some 70 km north in present-day Takeo province of Cambodia, these two sites are considered to be part of the ancient kingdom of Funan, a name given by Chinese records to a polity that dominated the Mekong Delta from between the 1st – 7th centuries CE. The two sites were connected by an ancient canal, while other ancient canals traverse the area giving credence to Oc Eo as a major trading port in ancient times. Among the artefacts found in Oc Eo include religous statues of Indic deities like Vishnu, Persian lamps, Roman coins and Chinese mirrors, as well as household items like beads and kitchen tools.
Wang et al’s paper looks at residues from 12 samples of grinding slabs, pestles or fragments thereof. The spices identified were Turmeric, Ginger, Finger Root, Sand Ginger, Galangal, Clove, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg. Additionally, Rice, Banana and possibly Coconut were identified in some of the samples. Interestingly enough, one of the nutmeg samples still retained its nutmeg aroma, after nearly 2,000 years! The following curry recipe is derived from the samples found in mortar J, which contained all the spices mentioned above except for the banana, which also suggests they were processed at the same time for use in one dish.
All the spices mentioned in the paper were easily obtainable for me in Thailand – in fact, I had most of them in my pantry already, and it took me less than a few dollars to pick up the rest from the local markets. I took some creative liberties with three ingredients: coconut milk was the main liquid for the curry (coconut was identified as a potential ingredient found in the mortar J); the omission of rice in the curry paste and served on its own instead; and chicken as the main protein for this dish. I considered using eggplant in line with a 4,000-year-old curry recipe from India, but eggplant was never suggested in the paper and chicken is a food source that originated from Southeast Asia itself so I thought it would be more appropriate to this dish. Of course, if you want to replicate this dish on your own you are free to switch this out for something else! Lastly, I originally intended to use an onion to add volume to the curry paste, but I didn’t use it in the end and I don’t think this recipe needed an onion.
- 2 inches of galangal, peeled (in the video I used one inch)
- 3 stalks of finger root, washed and whole (in the video I used five)
- 2 inches of ginger, peeled
- 2 inches of sand ginger, peeled (I only had the dried version so I used 2 tablespoons)
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon nutmeg
- 5 cloves
- 1 stalk cinnamon
- 250 ml coconut milk
- 2 chicken legs, bone in
- Using a mortar, pound the galangal, finger root, ginger, sand ginger, turmeric and nutmeg with a pinch of salt into a fine paste. You could use a food processor, but the texture won’t quite be the same.
- Marinade the chicken with a third of the paste. Continue pounding because you realised that the paste is not pastey enough.
- Heat your pan with a little oil and brown the chicken skin side down. The aim is to render some fat from the chicken.
- Once the chicken skin has been browned, remove the chicken from the pan and fry the remaining spice paste in the rendered fat. Add oil if necessary.
- When the spice paste has changed colour, add the coconut milk, cinnamon and cloves. Season to taste with salt and sugar, or with fish sauce and palm sugar.
- Return the chicken to the pan, skin side up. Cover and braise for 20 minutes.
- Serve with rice! Sativa strains of rice were found in the residues, so a basmati or a Thai jasmine would be appropriate.
How does it taste?
My overall impression is that this curry tastes very much like a Southeast Asian curry, similar to something you would find in Cambodia or Thailand, and not at all like any Indian curry I’ve had. But of course, I am using a Southeast Asian technique of using a pounded spice paste (now backed by archaeological data!) and simmering in coconut milk. The flavours are quite earthy and complex but most importantly, the curry is not burn-your-tongue spicy due to the lack of the sharper spices like chilli, peppers and even onion and garlic. Also, the chicken released a lot of liquid into the sauce and gave the curry body, which is something that would be lacking if this dish was vegetarian.
The aroma is familiar, something that I have smelled in many a restaurant in this region. The chicken is tender from the braising, covered with the vibrant, aromatic curry and is great with rice. Without the intense heat of chilli, you can taste each spice more distinctly. In the written recipe you’ll see I’ve reduced the finger root and increased the galangal for a better balance of flavour, but really, part of this culinary tradition is going by personal preference and taste.
Another interesting thing from Wang et al.’s paper is the central position of Oc Eo in the spice-production world. Even if the stone tools and the knowledge of curry was brought from South Asia, the curry was definitely supercharged in Southeast Asia!
The one thing about recreating this 2000-year-old Funan curry was how easy it was to source the ingredients here in Thailand. It’s a testament to the fascinating culinary traditions that have been passed down through generations and continue to define our food culture today. Hopefully, I did the people of ancient Oc Eo justice, and they would approve of my culinary decisions. I’d also be interested to hear what a professional like Pailin Chongchitnant would make of this ancient recipe.
If you want to experience this exciting culinary adventure for yourself, gather up the ingredients and give it a go. I’d be interested to hear about your experiences and compare recipe notes!
If you ever need to cite this post:
Tan, Noel Hidalgo. (2023). Recreating a 2000-Year-Old Curry: A Gastronomic Adventure into Oc Eo’s Ancient Culinary Heritage. Available at: https://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/2023/09/09/recreating-a-2000-year-old-curry-a-gastronomic-adventure-into-oc-eos-ancient-culinary-heritage/