The remnants of what’s believed to be Southeast Asia’s earliest curry – dating back around 2,000 years – have been found at a site in Vietnam, according to a new study from The Australian National University (ANU).  

Analysis of micro-remains recovered from the surface of stone grinding tools at the Oc Eo archaeological site revealed a range of spices, including turmeric, ginger, fingerroot, sand ginger, galangal, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon.  

Sandstone grinding slab. Photo: Dr Khanh Trung Kien Nguyen

First author and ANU PhD candidate Weiwei Wang said it shines new light on the trade network of the time, as well as the role of spices in people’s daily lives. 

“Our study suggests that curries were most likely introduced to Southeast Asia by migrants during the period of early trade contact via the Indian Ocean,” she said.  

“Given these spices originated from various different locations, it’s clear people were undertaking long-distance journeys for trade purposes. 

“The global spice trade has linked cultures and economies in Asia, Africa and Europe since classical times. Now we know the port city of Oc Eo played an important role in this trade as a cultural and trading crossroads.” 

According to the study’s authors, it shows the significance of spices as coveted commodities in ancient civilisations.  

As well as the micro-remains and stone tools, the team also excavated a significant number of well-preserved seeds. 

“The preservation of plant remains in Oc Eo is exceptional – the seeds were so fresh it was hard to believe they were 2,000 years old,” Dr Hsiao-chun Hung from ANU said. 

“We believe further analysis could identify more spices and possibly even uncover unique plant species, adding to our understanding of the history of the region.”  

And while families in modern-day Vietnam might have the option of turning to store-bought curry powder, the researchers say otherwise the key ingredients have not changed much since ancient times. 

“The spices used today have not deviated significantly from the Oc Eo period,” Dr Khanh Trung Kien Nguyen from the Southern Institute for Social Sciences in Vietnam said. 

“The key components are all still there, such as turmeric, cloves and cinnamon.” 

The research has been published in Science Advances. 

Top image: Tumeric powder, fresh tumeric and black pepper. Photo: Stock.adobe.com/AIExplosion.

Contact the media team

Jess Fagan

Media Manager


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