India’s Curry Influence

Today we see many curries across the globe, from the Indonesian and Thai to the classic India, as well as other influences. Many ask how this came to be?

Curries originated in the Indus Valley civilisation, which began as early as 7,000BCE in Northern India, however, many spices came from India to the West, notably cinnamon, cardamom, pepper and condiments such as sugar. Aubergines and cucumbers were also natives to India.

Across SE Asia, from the Khmer people of Cambodia, to the people of Thailand, was a great influence from Hindu and Buddhist India – including why such people use adaptations of the ancient Indian (Brahmi) scripts, via Southern India, where Buddhist and Hindu Monks, as also kings spread their influence of these religions to Japan to SE Asia. Ancient universities at Nalanda (northern India) and Takshashila (ancient Gandhara) attracted students from Greece, Rome as well as the Arab world to Japan, SE Asia and beyond to learn Indian sciences such as Ayurveda (medicine – out surgery came from India, transmitted west by Arabs), mathematics (out decimal system, zero and numerals came from India, as also algebra, trigonometry etc.), Astronomy, Politics etc.

With the height of southern empires as the Chola Dynasty came more influence in the Austronesian world; Austronesians include the Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos, Vietnamese as well as Polynesians (Hawaiians, Maori etc.). These people originated from Taiwan and then to the Northern Philippines, where they dispersed. From early times, the influence of India, including culinary was strong – the use of banana leaves, South-Indian inspired cocnut-based curries with tamarind and black pepper (before tomatoes and chillies were introduced) and various preparations became the norm in these areas, as we see today.

The South Indian influences of various breads (parottas etc.) have worked their way into Malay cuisine, such as Roti Cenai etc., as well as numerous other dishes. In Thailand, red, green and yellow curries with their galangal and ginger, tamarind and coconut milk and creams are strong with south Indian influence to this day, as also their use of Sanskrit (Hindu) place names, names of their Kings, art, dress, writing and architecture, as across the Khmer and Austronesian world also.

In the ancient Indus-Valley culture around 3,000BCE, Indians consumed curries with garlic, ginger, turmeric and other spices and condiments. Aubergines, chickens and others were eaten, and the existence of tandoor ovens for making breads and the classical “tandoori-chicken” are thus the same today in northern India as they were some 5,000 years ago! Not much here has changed, nor in SE Asia.

The genius Piper longum or Indian Long Pepper (Pippali) is the hotter of peppers, originally used to give curries their pungent flavours and fiery tastes, prior to chillies. By contrast, Piper nigrum or Indian Black Pepper (Maricha) was imported by the Romans from India, who, it seems, confused the names (Piper from Pippali – Indian Long Pepper, as opposed to Black Pepper).

India’s influence in areas more traditional still stands, especially in Bali in Indonesia. The influence of Japan also, via Buddhism, martial arts and the Siddha script (derived via Devanagari), as also on China and SE Asia via Indian Vegetarianism has shaped many countries to this day. Here, it has influenced the numerous vegetarian options such as tofu and soy-based faux meats in curries and other dishes across China.

Likewise, India also received various “Manchurian” dishes via trade and influences with Chinese sailors, traders and monks visiting, as Indo-Chinese, blending both worlds.

From 600BCE onwards, Indian universities were homes to various cuisines. Nalanda around 500AD – 1200AD boasted over 10,000 students at a time from, as noted, as vast of Greece, Rome, Egypt to Persia, Central Asia and the Arab world to as east as Japan, and across SE Asia from Thailand to Indonesia, Malaysia etc. This is also how much came to cross-over.

Even the pilaf, which also spurned the Paella and other dishes, originated in the Indian world from the dish of Pilau, which was first seen the Indo-Bactrian and Sindhi world by Alexander the Great and his people, which was taken back to Europe. This rice-dish is mentioned in many Indian classics as well as other literatures.

Thus, let us savour some ancient Indian tastes and contemplate the variations of curries originating in India across the Asiatic world when we next sit down, or chow down on our Thai green curries!


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