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Did the Thais get their curries from south India?

Who invented curry? If you answered, India, of course, then you may well be right.

Except that people in other countries may disagree with you. After all, curry is an Asian dish found in many countries east of the sub-continent: Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan

and Thailand.


   The Japanese freely admit that their curry was inspired by ours. The Malaysians and the Indonesians are slightly more circumspect but it is hard to deny that their curries originated on our shores. Only the Thais present a problem. They claim curry as their own and argue that their curries - as globally famous as Indian curries, these days - have nothing to do with ours. They developed independently, they say, and only the English word 'curry' suggests a bogus kinship with our cuisine.


   The Thais point to two key differences between their curries and ours. The first is that they rely on fresh herbs while our curries depend on dry spices. The second is that an essential ingredient of their curries is coconut milk. Indian curries, on the other hand, do not usually use coconut milk but depend on dairy products: ghee, dahi, etc.


   I asked Ananda Solomon, the only chef I know who is at much at ease with both Thai and regional Indian food, what he made of the distinction. Ananda conceded the general point about spices vs herbs but argued that the Thais also used spices (ground coriander seeds, etc.) and that Indians used fresh leaves like dhaniya, kadi pata. So, the differences were not as clear-cut as the Thais suggested.


   But it was the use of coconut milk that intrigued me. When the Thais say that Indian curries do not use coconut milk, they refer to north Indian food. And certainly, it would be bizarre to use coconut milk in a rogan josh or a korma. But there's much more to Indian cuisine than the food of the north. And once you go south of the Vindhyas, the Thai claim seems shaky.


   The coconut is one of the mainstays of south Indian cuisine. It is used in nearly every form (flesh, oil, etc.) all over the south and in Kerala and parts of Karnataka, coconut milk is an essential ingredient in many curries.


   In fact, once you compare the food of Kerala to the food of Thailand, the distinction between Thai curries and Indian curries is so slender as to be almost meaningless. The coconut milk curries of Kerala are fragrant, delicate and very different from the curries of north India.


   So, did the Thais get their curries from south India? It is hard to say but we do know that the coconut appears in ancient Indian literature long before it turns up anywhere else. According to Hindu mythology, it was the creation of the sage Vishwamitra and archaeologists have found fossils all over India (including land-locked Rajasthan) which suggests that there were coconuts in India long before there were human beings.


   The Thai coconut milk curries may be of more recent origin. They seem to have grown in popularity as recently as the 17th century and one theory (admittedly, not universally accepted) suggests that it was the Portuguese who encouraged the Thais to put coconut milk in their curries.


   But why would the Portuguese, who use no coconut milk in their own cuisine, want the Thais to start using it? At this stage, the theory falters. Well, perhaps, they were missing the richness of dairy food, food historians suggest weakly.


   I have my own explanation. When the Portuguese came to Thailand, they did not take a direct flight from Lisbon to Bangkok's Swarnabhoomi airport. They got to Thailand only as part of their general exploration of the Indian Ocean, for which they used India as a base. Most Portuguese ships did not have conquistadors manning the stoves. Instead, they used Indian cooks who they had picked up in Goa and south India.


   Could this be the route through which the coconut milk curry travelled from south India to Thailand? Nobody knows for sure but it is a plausible enough theory.


   All cuisines develop and adapt after a while. So, while it is true that both south Indians and Thais use coconut milk, their attitudes to the ingredient are different. In Malayali cuisine, there are broadly three different strengths of coconut milk, depending on thickness. The curry is made in the usual Indian way with the masala being sautéed first and the thinner coconut milk being used rather as north Indians would use water in their curries. The thickest coconut milk goes in towards the end of the cooking process as a thickening agent.


   For the Thais, however, the coconut milk is the point of the curry. They begin the process by heating it till the fat begins to separate and floats to the top. Only then, do they add the curry paste. According to Ananda, the secret of a good Thai curry is to let the coconut milk cool down a little before adding the curry paste/masala.


   As much as I love Malayali food, when I do cook a curry at home, it tends to be the Thai version. It's not because Thai curries are necessarily better but because they are so easy to make as to be virtually idiot-proof. All you need to do is to follow the instructions on the back of the packet of curry paste.


"When I make a massaman curry, I Indianise the recipe and serve it Gujarati-style with papad and kachumber."

   Here, for instance, is what it says, in Thai-English, on the packet of massaman curry paste that I usually use:


   "Put coconut cream in a heated pan and add paste. Stir fry until oil appears on top. Add meat and continue stir fry until done. Fill the rest of the coconut milk. Boil to cook and simmer till tender. Put potato and cut onion. Add fish sauce, sugar, tamarind and seasoning as prefer. Leave it to boil until finish."


   Even in Thai-English, it is easy to follow. There is one obvious drawback in the method, though. Clearly, you are meant to add the coconut milk in two batches, one before the masala goes in and one after.


   I don't actually follow any Thai recipes myself even though I use their pastes. When I make a massaman curry, I Indianise the recipe and serve it Gujarati-style with papad and kachumber. My recipe is elsewhere on this page.


   Of course, it is completely inauthentic and they would probably cancel my Thai visa if I tried cooking it in Bangkok. But hey, what the hell! Curry is our dish, anyway...




Gujarati massaman curry


Sautee onions and garlic with one packet massaman curry paste as you would for an Indian curry. When the masala seems to be letting out its aroma, add two small tetrapaks of coconut milk. (I use the Ayam brand, widely available in India but there are many local versions.)


   Stir and cook over low heat till the curry thickens. Now add half a mug of good quality chicken stock. As the curry simmers, add chunks of boiled potato and a fistful of unsalted peanuts.


   Taste the curry to see when it is done (i.e. the thickness you want and no kachcha masala taste), adjust the seasoning. You may want to use Thai fish sauce, soya sauce, sugar, lemon or whatever. After you turn off the heat you can add aromatic leaves and cover. You can use kothmir/dhaniya, sweet basil, makroot leaves, etc. I usually don't have them handy so I don't bother but it does improve the flavour.


   Take a pork chop and cut into small pieces. Mix a paste of garlic, ground galangal (or ginger) and mashed lemongrass (you can use powder but fresh or bottled paste is better) and smear it over the pork pieces. Put aside for half an hour. In a very hot wok, add vegetable oil and wait till it is as hot as you can imagine. Throw in the pork and stir fry quickly for about two minutes or so, depending on how well done you want the meat to be. Remove from the pan, draining the oil. Taste. If it seems under-seasoned, drizzle with a little fish sauce or dark soya.


   Make brown rice as normal. Cut onions, tomatoes and cucumber to make a Gujarati-style kachumber, seasoned with nimbu. You can add chillies to the kachumber if you like the spice.


   In individual dinner plates, make a pile of pork on one side and a mound of brown rice on the other. Put the kachumber somewhere in the middle. The curry goes into individual bowls.


   To eat, you mix the pork, rice and kachumber and add as much of the curry as you need depending on how moist you want each mouthful to be. Roasted papad on the side helps with the texture. (This is a Gujarati dish, after all.)


   I make this to eat at home but as you can see, the presentation is suitable for dinner parties or fancy entertaining. Drink Coke or beer with it.




  • Gilbert 26 Feb 2023

    South Indians worked in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc in the 1800s as public servants and brought their food with them. Chinese don't have curry in our food at all. In the 1990s, curry became popular and was rebranded by Thais for profit. We are all Han Chinese across these countries and have the traditional meat'n noodles. Countries like Trinidad, Tobago, Fiji, and continent of Africa, Indian food is the same b/c Indians from UP and Kerela came in 1886 so no trade route.

  • Gil 22 Feb 2023

    During the British Raj, many south Indians worked in public service in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia etc. South Indian diaspora brought their food and the local adopted it. The same thing is seen with Indians from UP and Kerela brought to the Trinidad, Tobago, west Indies, Guyana, Fiji, and the continent of Africa. The food is exactly the same in these places and the locals have adopted it and many of these countries have have asserted it is their food when it is in fact not the case.

  • verma ruby 17 Jan 2019

    Mix a paste of garlic, ground galangal (or ginger) and mashed lemongrass (you can use powder but fresh or bottled paste is better) and smear it over the pork pieces. fireboy and watergirl game

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