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A Brief History of Curry in Vietnam

It is well documented that southern Vietnam’s cuisine has been influenced by the French, but it is also undeniable that the fare has been influenced by another of France’s former colonial hubs: the port city of Pondicherry, India.

The roots of Vietnam’s curries, or cà ri, stretch across Asia back to the Indian subcontinent. To understand the overlap, one must first understand the nature of the spice trade during the time of French colonization, and the movements of an ethnic minority, the Cham people.

For a portion of the 19th century, France controlled both port cities of Saigon and Pondicherry. In addition to the redistribution of raw ingredients between seaports, a population of roughly 6,000 migrated from India to Vietnam.

Southern Vietnam, according to City Pass Guide, benefitted greatly from the spice trade due to “its convenient coastal location making it a perfect trading spot, and its warm climate making it perfect for growing key imports such as chili from the Americas and spices from India.”

Dr. Ariel Hoa, born in Vietnam to French and Indian parents, told Tuoi Tre: “The French, who did not trust Vietnamese people, brought Indians over to Indochina to work for them.”

These Tamil migrants and their subsequent Indo-Viet progeny usually manned spice shops, integrating their herbs and spices to the local market. In fact, Ben Thanh Market’s famous Anh Hai is run by third generation Indo-Viet spice vendors.

Heavily influenced by trade with India, the Cham, “a seafaring people dedicated to trade” played a part in curry spices’ popularity, according to an article in Zester Daily.

Historically, the Champa Kingdom existed in and around what is modern day Hue. Due to conflict, Cham nationals fled south to what was then called Funan, an area heavily tied to Indian culture. Today’s remaining Cham population (roughly one million or less) is still spread across central and southern Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia.

Similar to Cham influence, much of the curry eaten in Southern Vietnam has been affected by Khmer curries – also an extension of ancient Indian culture.

After Vietnam gained independence from France, much of the Indian population left the country. But their culinary legacy remains a delicious part of life here.

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