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 is said by some to derive from kari, the
word for sauce in Tamil, a South-Indian language and by others to be
an old English word from the French as in the book The Forme of Cury
in the 1390s. 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 by-product 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 centres on the west coast of India in the 16th century,
they introduced chilies from the New World. (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.
Thanks to technological advances, scientists can
now identify minute quantities of plant remains left behind by meals
cooked thousands of years ago. It is no easy task; researchers must
gather crumbling skeletons and find ancient dirty dishes before using
powerful laboratory microscopes to pinpoint the ingredients of
ancient meals. But the effort is paying off, in the form of evidence
that curry may be far, far older than previously thought.
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 centres 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.
Back in their lab, Kashyap used what is known as
starch grain analysis. 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. 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.
And about rice? Many archaeologists once thought
that Indus peoples were restricted to a few grains like wheat and
barley. But Cambridge University archaeologist Jennifer Bates, part
of a joint Indian-U.K. team, has been examining the relative
abundance of various crops at two village sites near today's
Masudpur, also west of Delhi. She found that villagers cultivated a
wide array of crops, including rice, lentils, and mung beans. Finding
significant quantities of rice was a particular surprise, since the
grain was long thought to have arrived only at the end of the Indus
civilization. In fact, inhabitants of one village appear to have
preferred rice to wheat and barley (though millet was their favourite crop).
What does this mean for how we think about South
Asian cuisine today? Thanks to Kashyap and Weber, we know that curry
is not only among the world's most popular dishes; it also may be the
oldest continuously prepared cuisine on the planet. Vasant Shinde, an
archaeologist at Pune University in India who directs the dig at
Farmana, is delighted with the discovery. He says the find
demonstrates that the Indus civilization pioneered not just good
plumbing and well-planned cities, but one of the world's most loved cuisines.
These discoveries support the comments made by
Peter & Colleen Grove in their book 'The Flavours of History'
noting a cuneiform tablet dating to 1700 BC which could have been the
earliest know basic recipe for curry dedicated to the god Marduk.