Indian “curry” dates back to 4,500 years ago

Curries have come a long way from the proto-curry of the Indus Valley civilization and I am sure our tastes have also evolved. And chillies probably came much later and only in the 16th century.

But I can attest to the fact that curry withdrawal syndrome is a real thing and hits hard if I go more than 3 or 4 days without a fix.


The Mystery of Curry

By |Posted Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013,

Indian chicken jalfrezi curry.

Indian chicken jalfrezi. Photograph by Joe Gough/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

What is curry? Today, the word describes a bewildering number of spicy vegetable and meat stews from places as far-flung as the Indian subcontinent, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean Islands. There is little agreement about what actually constitutes a curry. And, until recently, how and when curry first appeared was a culinary mystery as well.

The term likely derives from kari, the word for sauce in Tamil, a South-Indian language. Perplexed by that region’s wide variety of savory dishes, 17th-century British traders lumped them all under the term curry.  A curry, as the Brits defined it, might be a mélange of onion, ginger, turmeric, garlic, pepper, chilies, coriander, cumin, and other spices cooked with shellfish, meat, or vegetables.

Those curries, like the curries we know today, were the byproduct of more than a millennium of trade between the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia, which provided new ingredients to spice up traditional Indian stews. After the year 1000, Muslims brought their own cooking traditions from the west, including heavy use of meat, while Indian traders carried home new and exotic spices like cloves from Southeast Asia. And when the Portuguese built up their trading centers on the west coast of India in the 16th century, they threw chilies from the New World into the pot. (Your spicy vindaloo may sound like Hindi, but actually the word derives from the Portuguese terms for its original central ingredients: wine and garlic.) 

But the original curry predates Europeans’ presence in India by about 4,000 years. Villagers living at the height of the Indus civilization used three key curry ingredients—ginger, garlic, and turmeric—in their cooking. This proto-curry, in fact, was eaten long before Arab, Chinese, Indian, and European traders plied the oceans in the past thousand years.

….. The Indus society began to flourish around the same time that the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids and Mesopotamians constructed the first great cities in today’s Iraq. Though less well known than its more famous cousins to the West, the Indus civilization boasted a half-dozen large and carefully planned urban centers with sophisticated water and sewage systems unmatched until Roman times. During its peak, between 2500 B.C. and 1800 B.C., the Indus dominated a land area larger than either ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, covering much of today’s Pakistan and most of western India, as far west as the Iranian coast, as far north as Afghanistan, and as far east as the suburbs of New Delhi. But unlike the hieroglyphic and cuneiform writing of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian scribes, the strange symbols left behind by their Indus counterparts has not yet been deciphered by today’s scholars. Deciphering their food traditions has, until recently, been equally challenging.

Archaeologists have long known how to spot some ancient leftovers. The biggest breakthrough came in the 1960s, when excavators began to drop soil from their sites—particularly from places where food likely was prepared—onto mesh screens. The scientists then washed the earth away with water, leaving behind little bits of stone, animal bones, and tiny seeds of wheat, barley, millets, and beans. This flotation method allowed scientists to piece together a rough picture of an ancient diet. “But spices are absent in macro-botanical record,” says archaeologist Arunima Kashyap at Washington State University Vancouver, who, along with Steve Weber, made the recent proto-curry discovery.*

Working with other Indian and American archaeologists, the two applied new methods for pinpointing the elusive remains of spices that don’t show up in flotation tanks. Instead of analyzing dirt from Indus kitchens, they collected cooking pots from the ancient town of Farmana, a modest settlement that prospered in the late third millennium B.C. (Today, it’s a two-hour drive west of Delhi.) They also obtained human teeth from the nearby cemetery from the same era. …… 

…… 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. This marked the first time researchers had found unmistakable traces of the spices in the Indus civilization. Wanting to be sure, she and Weber took to their kitchens in Vancouver, Washington. “We got traditional recipes, cooked dishes, then examined the residues to see how the structures broke down,” Weber recalls. The results matched what they had unearthed in the field. “Then we knew we had the oldest record of ginger and turmeric.” Dated to between 2500 and 2200 B.C., the finds are the first time either spice has been identified in the Indus. They also found a carbonized clove of garlic, a plant that was used in this era by cooks from Egypt to China.

They found additional supporting evidence of ginger and turmeric use on ancient cow teeth unearthed in Harappa, one of the largest Indus cities, located in Pakistan west of the border with India. Why would cattle be eating curry-style dishes? Weber notes that in the region today, people often place leftovers outside their homes for wandering cows to munch on. There are numerous ancient Indus images of cattle on terra-cotta seals, suggesting that during Indus times, people may have regarded cows as sacred, as Hindus do today. The Harappan ruins also contain evidence of domesticated chickens, which were likely cooked in those tandoori-style ovens and eaten. …….


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One Response to “Indian “curry” dates back to 4,500 years ago”

  1. simonhamer Says:

    Reblogged this on Simon Hamer and commented:
    History of curry – summarized

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