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Packaged Identities: How Curry Powder Made Its Way From India Into Vietnamese Homes

Step inside the kitchen of any household in Saigon and chances are that you will find one or two ready-made curry powder packets in a cupboard waiting for the family's next weekend treat of cà ri gà (chicken curry).

While one can easily find cà ri gà in food stalls around the city, unlike street dishes such as bún bò, cơm tấm or bánh cuốncà ri gà is more often eaten within the convenience of one's own home. Components of the dish sometimes vary between each household, but they always call for a curry powder mixture. Half of a typical serving of this mix goes into the chicken's marinade while the rest goes into the sauce, which is a combination of water, either milk or coconut milk, potatoes, taro, sweet potatoes and carrots. There are other variations of curry, butcà ri gà is the most common, and in some regions it is eaten with noodles or bánh mì.  

Ready-made curry powder in pre-mixed packets is sold at mom-and-pop grocery stores or supermarkets across the country, or straight from spice sellers in local markets. The easiest way to purchase is to simply tell the sellers how much meat or vegetable you're going to use, and they will do the rest. This highlights the varied nature of the dish.

In Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, a witty critique of the authenticity discourse in food writing and cultural identity, Naben Ruthnum eloquently captures the elusiveness and versatile character of curry:

Curry isn’t real. Its range of definitions, edible and otherwise, rob it of a stable existence. Curry is a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It’s an elevating crust baked around previously bland foodstuffs, but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers.

The same could be said of examining the history of how curry and curry powder became prevalent in Vietnam. The story is one of nuances and complexities that transcend binary perspectives of colonial legacies and anti-colonial movements, appropriations and reappropriations, authenticity and inauthenticity, the global and the local. 

The Colonial Invention of Curry

Historian Lizzie Collingham writes in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers about how the establishment of the British East India Company (EIC) in India gave rise to the invention of curry. Central to the experience of employees of the EIC was the burra khana, or big feast. In between different types of meat, the British were served Indian dishes to alleviate the otherwise bland meal of boiled and roasted protein. Replicating British dishes proved difficult for a variety of reasons, hence the need to incorporate local cuisine. While the Indian dishes served on the British colonial tables varied and have their own names, the British lumped everything under the name "curry," which was anglicized from the Portuguese terms "carree" and "caril," generalizing terms that refer to Indian broths. These words were themselves derived from the Kannadan and Malayalam word karil and the Tamil word kari, both of which meant spices and sauteed dishes.


Our Burra Khana, one of 40 lithographs from Captain George Francklin Atkinson's 1860 satirical book on the lives of British colonists in India. Photo via The Internet Archive.

Indians were expected to adjust dishes to the tastes of EIC employees as well. One example Collingham provides is the Lucknavi quarama, which was transformed into kormas by altering the traditional recipe and adding coriander, ginger and peppercorn, which laid the foundation for the basic ingredients of a British curry.

Collingham contends that this period started the transnational spread of curry, as the British brought it with them wherever they went. Wealthy EIC members returning to England brought a desire for the dish with them, however the curry they ate in London was a mere recreation of the dish they consumed in India. Victorian cookbooks further promoted curry's presence, advertising it as an Indian staple that was easy to prepare in the convenience of one's home, despite the concept of an "Indian curry" was nonexistent in India.

Curry was eventually brought to France through the British and French colonies in La Reunion and Pondicherry, according to food historian Erica J. Peters in Appetites and Aspirations In Vietnam. By the time France established its colonial project in Vietnam, curry was already familiar to French colonists, but it remained foreign to their Vietnamese and Chinese subjects. Antoine Beauvilliers' famous 1814 cookbook, L'art du cuisinier, mentions curry several times and provides a recipe for curry and curry sauce. Meanwhile, French chef Auguste Escoffier's 1907 book A Guide to Modern Cookery offers many recipes that call for curry powder. 

The French colonists in Vietnam maintained the diet they were familiar with in their home country, except that most of the cooks were Chinese. As French colonial administrator Charles Lemire writes in Cochinchine Francaise et royaume de Cambodge"There are Annamese [Vietnamese] cooks, Tagals, even Indians; but the Chinese seem to be born for this job."

When it came to actually eating the dish, Peters argues in her book that while the French generally stayed away from eating Vietnamese white rice, they would eat it with curry.

"As in all hot countries, the Indian curry is a dish that appears very frequently on the European tables [in the colony]. Spiced with stimulating condiments, cooled down with coconut milk, colored with turmeric or saffron, prepared with chicken or shrimp, it is an excellent dish, which one serves with Vietnamese steamed rice of dazzling whiteness," exclaimed Lemire, as translated by Peters.

The Role of South Indian Migrants in Forging Vietnam's Middle-Class Identity

When the French settled in Vietnam, South Indians from the French colonies in Pondicherry and Karikal, most of them Tamils, also migrated for trade and job opportunities and mainly lived in Saigon, Cho Lon and the Mekong Delta.

Later waves of settlers came to Saigon as the city's status as a commercial center grew, while during the interwar years, there were roughly 2,000 Indians living in the city. 

Rue Ohier (modern-day Ton That Thiep Street) used to be an Indian enclave. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

While the relationship between Vietnamese and these migrant Indians is often portrayed as antagonistic thanks to discrepancies in political privileges, economic power and beliefs regarding social order, historians argue that this antagonism didn't prevent many Tamil migrants from forming marital ties with the Vietnamese and Chinese communities.

Lam, a Saigon native who operates a spice shop in Ben Thanh Market, told Saigoneer about his family's history as it relates to curry. His maternal grandfather, who was Indian, moved to Vietnam as a teenager, where he worked as a cook and later married a Vietnamese woman. Not long after they married, he opened a shop selling imported spices such as cardamom, cumin and ready-made spice mixtures for curry, bò kho and ragout.

Lam, who is in his forties, is the third generation to run the family business, which continues until this day. "You know, many Indians who came here were mostly cooks," Lam said in Vietnamese.

Occupying a humble corner inside the busy market, Lam's spice shop, Ca Ri Anh Hai, has been around for over 70 years. It's not hard to tell that this a spot frequented by many — as we were about to start our conversation, a man in a chef's uniform appeared and asked to get his curry powder order. On the shelves and the counters sit a smorgasbord of jars and containers of different spices and mixtures that could double as a museum. 

Lam's paternal grandfather is a Cantonese expatriate who also married a Vietnamese woman. According to Lam, his family's partial Chinese identity played a crucial role in shaping Ca Ri Anh Hai. Like many Indians who came to Saigon under the French administration, most of his maternal family members left Saigon in 1978 for France, except for his mom.

When the spice shop was passed down to his father, whose nickname Anh Hai is the shop's namesake, Lam's father started to experiment and incorporate more flavors adapted from Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine to develop more mixtures. Today, one can find almost anything here: from ngũ vị hương (five-spice) and rare spices to ready-made powder for phở, bò kho, bún bò, kebab mixes or Thai hotpot, although curry powder remains the shop's forte.  

Many curry powder producers today are still run by children of migrant Indians, or developed from Indian businesses in Saigon in the early 20th century. Ca Ri Ba Tam, a popular brand in supermarkets and local grocery stores, is another example. Its website suggests that the brand was established in the 1940s by Indian spice sellers in Vietnam. Viet-An, which has now become Vianco, was started as a joint business between an Indian migrant named Hari who came to Saigon in 1950 and a Chinese-Vietnamese man named Chau Vinh Co. Their website claims that its curry powder has been adjusted through several rounds of integration with local spices, giving its flavor a Vietnamese essence. 

"Different from the 'original' Indian version, [our] curry isn't too spicy and is less strong because it was toned down to suit the Vietnamese palate," the website reads.

Curry powder packets. Photo by Thi Nguyen.

Demand for curry and curry powder among the Vietnamese public was consistent with the emergence of a modern Vietnamese middle-class starting at the dawn of the 20th century. Although the middle class didn't fully develop until the 1920s, a sense of modernity emerged at turn of the century through literature, public discourse, print capitalism and fashion. In Reinvention of Distinction, Erica Peters states that the consumption of foreign cuisine and food products was a major aspect of embracing concepts of modernity.

Indian spices and ingredients were also popular. Natasha Pairaudeau points out that in Franco-Tamil press at the time, "[for] an Indian, or more often specifically Tamil, cultural allegiance was openly displayed, in notices advertising everything from the latest Tamil music [that] just arrived at Saigon’s biggest department store, to troupes of visiting Tamil performers, to local Indian restaurants and suppliers of curry powders, chutneys, and palm toddy." In the early 1930s, Au Comptoir Hindou at 139 La Grandiere (Ly Tu Trong) was already selling "Garouda curry powder" and arrack, an Indian distilled spirit.

Not only did curry and curry powder enter Vietnamese public life, but it also entered cosmopolitan Vietnamese homes. For example, in one paragraph of a short story published in 1931 by Phu Nu Tan Van, meals prepared by a "Europeanized" Vietnamese woman are described:

In the middle of the table, foods like cà ri chà (Indian curry), Chinese fin soup, Western rotis, Thai braised meat in coconut milk are served in between small plates of Phu Quoc fish sauce...Nearby the flower vase sits beside two brands of wine, one reads Haut Sauterne and another Ngu Gia Bi.

Another clue to the growing popularity of curry among Vietnamese bourgeoisie households is the modern cookbook Bon Day Nau An Theo Phep Tay (Western Cooking For Annamites), written in 1889 by an anonymous author. It contains four recipes for curry, including kari créole, kari parisien, kari de crevettes and canard au kari.

Many recipes published in print media aimed at women also called for curry powder, such as thịt cua đinh xào lăn (stir-fried spiced crab meat), bộ lòng cua đinh chưng (braised crab innards)vịt nướng (roast duck), lòng vịt chưng (braised duck offal).

In this sense, the meaning of curry and curry powder shifted away from a flavor enjoyed exclusively among the French as a marker of difference from their subjects towards a manifestation of Vietnam's middle-class identity. 

From Home to Nation to Diasporas

Considered the first Vietnamese cookbook, Madame Le Huu Cong's Sach Nau An Theo Phep An Nam (Cooking The Vietnamese Way), includes recipes for Vietnamese dishes, as well as Chinese and Cham recipes. Historian David Marr cited the cookbook in his book, Vietnamese Tradition On Trial, 1920-1945, as an example of "self-conscious assertion of a Vietnamese identity."

Besides familiar recipes, the book includes two recipes for cà ri lươn (swamp eel curry) and cà ri ếch (frog curry) in the Vietnamese section. Oddly, they are placed in a category of "different types of nem" (spring rolls). While this may seem trivial, it shows that curry powder, once a commodity associated with other cultures, had been absorbed as Vietnamese. In fact, cookbooks like Cong's were later banned because the French authorities feared that their underlying nationalistic messages were harmful to the colonial regime. Similar cookbooks also acted as platforms for the anti-colonial writings of the revolutionaries such as Phan Boi Chau, Dao Duy Anh and Tran Huy Lieu.

Despite this ingrained nature of curry in Vietnam, there was still a distinction between an "Indian curry" (cà ri chà) and the curry which Vietnamese ate in the public consensus. A recipe for cà ri chà in Phu Nu Tan Van suggests that Indian curry was a different breed, and that "to recreate the true flavor of Indian curry proves difficult, because its spices and ingredients are tough to make; Indians who eat curry won't ever touch [ready-made] curry powder, the type sold in markets," which shows that Vietnamese curry employs curry powder. 

A recipe for "Indian curry" in Phu Nu Tan Van. Photo via National Library of Vietnam.

"Vietnamese can't eat curries like Indians. Indian [curries] have to be thick, aromatic, rich, creamy and spicy. But here we put lemongrass, add sweet potato and taro because [Vietnamese] have a sweet tooth. So the curries we eat here are a hybridized taste, completely different from ones eaten in [India]," Lam, the spice vendor at Ben Thanh, said.

The role of curry powder in Vietnam is constantly changing, especially now that it is sold in neat packets that can be stored for up to two years. According to Lam, this form of packing curry powder is not only convenient, but it also helps with exports.

"In the past...we only sold these spice mixtures within the country or to tourists and expats who came here wanting to find Indian flavors," he said. "Now, we can't just wait for shoppers to come anymore, we have to bring ourselves to them."

The curry packets now travel the world, especially to where there are sizable Vietnamese diaspora communities. Lam has shipped products to Vietnamese areas in Orange County, Texas, Atlanta, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as to a number of Vietnamese cooks in Cambodia.

Here in Vietnam, curry powder and Vietnamese curry continues to evolve. Midway through our conversation, Lam shared that while the powder caters to Vietnamese tastes, Lam often offers cooking tips so that home cooks can improve their curry.

"For example, if someone wants to prepare it with sweet potatoes, I'll suggest using [white] potatoes and replacing lemongrass with ginger to make the dish more aromatic," he said, explaining that lemongrass' strong aroma can overpower the powder.

This shows how curry, as a concept, a dish and a cultural category in Vietnam, can be diverse and ever-shifting within its own geographic sphere. With each path it takes, bounded by social, political and cultural currents, there is always assimilation at every corner, welcoming new layers of meaning stacked above the complexities of its birth.

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