If there is truly a cosmopolitan dish that has been adapted into multiple cuisines all over the world, it’s the Indian curry or, as the Vietnamese like to call it, cà ri gà.
The origins of curry are complicated and ambiguous. Curry is actually the name of a leaf and not a dish that has been invented by Indians. So, where did the word originate from?
Lizzie Collingham, a well-known historian and the author of Curry: A Tale of Cook and Conquerors, says that the word curry was first described by the Portuguese in the mid 17th century.
“The Portuguese seemed to pick it up as a word, and it’s the generic term that Europeans used when they tend to describe the food that they saw Indians eating and later themselves began to eat,” says Collingham.
Curry eludes any concrete definition. It is a leaf, a dish, a process, a gravy of mixed ingredients that are used to conjure up meat or a vegetable dish. It is a fairy tale invented by colonists to describe the plethora of food they found in India and which defied being put into a neat little box of culinary expertise.
In her book, Collingham describes how the East Indian Company in India in the 18th century enjoyed having feasts to their name, which was called the Burra khana or big feasts. The Indian cooks were meant to adapt to the European dishes to suit their tastes.
But replicating British dishes proved to be a difficult affair, and that’s how Indian dishes appeared on the table before the Europeans. The Europeans relished the local, native cuisine and they lumped all the dishes under the name of curry.
“While I was doing research where the term curry came from and which Indian language it might have been. Whether it was the Malayalam and Kannadan word kari or the Tamil word karil, nobody seemed to know. So, the British, when they were asked what they were eating, they answered curry,” says Collingham.
The British picked up the word and they applied it to everything they saw Indians eating, especially food with gravy in it. “Curry is a concept, a generic term for Indian food and it doesn’t exist,” says Collingham.
Later, the French adopted the word and the cuisine when they established colonies in India in the 18th century. When the French began their colonial project in Vietnam, Indians who were mostly Tamils, from the French colonies of Pondicherry and Karikal settled in Saigon, Cho Lon, and the Mekong Delta for trade and job opportunities.
Due to differences in political and economic power and competing conceptions of social order, the Indian migrants and native Vietnamese had an uneasy relationship. Despite this tension, Chinese and Vietnamese people did marry into Indian families.
“Food is one of the easiest things to incorporate into a different culture. Easier to adopt the food than the people,” says Collingham.
Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen describes the time she went to Vietnam searching for a Vietnamese spice and was overwhelmed by all the Indian spices she came across in stores.
“When you look at what is curry powder in Vietnam now, it’s quite fascinating because it has more of a blending of the Chinese five-spice. So, there’s star anise in the blend as well as black cardamom, which gives it a very strong fragrance. I’ve seen it be described or labeled as a meat curry, and it gives a very dark reddish color curry,” says Nguyen.
Curry powder is all the rage in Vietnam.
You can go to a spice vendor in Saigon and tell him of the meat or vegetable dish you’re going to make, and the vendor will give you a unique blend of curry powder, measured and tailored according to your spice tolerance and taste.
There was an increase in demand for curry and curry powder as Vietnam stepped into the modern period in the early 20th century. Embracing the food from different cultures was seen as a mark of true cosmopolitan and modernist sensibilities.
As a result, Indian spices became very popular and entered not just the domain of Vietnamese public life but also into the very homes of these native Vietnamese people.
In a way, the meaning of curry and curry powder shifted from the foreign palate of the French and the Tamils as a marker of difference to the native class towards a manifestation of the Vietnamese middle-class identity.
But there was always a distinction between the curry that Indians have and the curry powder that the Vietnamese preferred.
“My mother told me of this Indian woman back in the 1960s who had a selection of spices. She used a mortar and pestle to grind the spices into a paste. She would add a little bit of water to the paste so she could smell the release of the oils and the spices and that’s how she blended her spices for her particular curry,” says Nguyen.
So, some Indians were very particular about the spice blends they used for making their curry. But the Vietnamese enjoyed their curry powder which they found at spice shops.
And that’s how the Indian curry was adopted into the Vietnamese cuisine and became ca ri ga.
Nguyen believes that ca ri ga has become a comfort dish, both for people in Vietnam and the diaspora, which is why you don’t often come across it in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.
“Ca ri ga is not a super popular dish. There is no ca ri ga shops in America like there would be in Saigon. In Saigon, some places specialize in offering ca ri ga, but I cannot think of one Vietnamese restaurant in the United States that specializes in the dish,” says Nguyen.
A simple Google search will show you that curry powder is still pretty popular in America. The curry packets from Vietnam will travel all over the world to wherever there is a sizable Vietnamese population, such as Hong Kong, United States and Singapore.
Curry as a concept is ever-shifting. It has been embraced by multiple cuisines throughout the years and has taken on new forms and identities depending on the social and cultural climate of its new home.
From India to Vietnam, curry takes on a life of its own depending on who cooks it. Although curry powder is more popular in Vietnam and other parts of the world, the essence of curry remains the same — it has always been meant to be adaptable.