Here’s a bit of history about one of the most popular dishes in the world, and some favourite places to sample the different varieties in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Curries tell a story. The spice combinations communicate where the meal originates. Who its native eaters once were. With the increasingly globalised nature of our technological, meme-based society, curry has become even more international than even its globe-trotting history can attest for.
The style of cuisine that has been associated with the finest curries stretches deep back into the annals of time. Researchers have tied the dish back to around the 1700s BC, in what is now known as Iraq.
More than likely the utilisation of curry spice blends grew out of the Indian subcontinent, the curry leaf and its culinary compatriots were in use in Britain potentially as long ago as the 14th century. There are records of warm-spiced curry contained in the first English book focussed on cooking, written during the era of Richard II.
One can find curry in nearly every country around the world. You might find yourself in a posh cocktail bar in London being served a fancy drink with a curry powder rim, or perusing a restaurant’s menu in South Africa, only to find that they have their own unique style of curry as well. The options are seemingly endless for the curry chameleon.
The etymology of the word traces back to the Tamil language, spoken in southeastern India, coming from their word “Kari”, which later morphed into “curry”.
Many people think curry powder is but one spice. This is probably due to the fact that there is indeed a curry leaf, stemming from Murraya koenigii, known as the “curry tree”. However, this is only one ingredient in a curry powder. Additional botanicals and spices vary, but typical ingredients include: coriander, black pepper, turmeric, fenugreek, mustard, ginger, and a slew of others that lend their aromas and colours to distinct blends that vary in heat
Living in Southeast Asia affords anyone with a hankering for complex, spiced gravies, an opportunity to try a wide variety of different dishes from around the region, and beyond.
We wanted to highlight some of the establishments in Ho Chi Minh City that have firmly planted themselves as fantastic purveyors of the specific regional curries that they craft in their kitchens. From Vietnamese traditional duck curry, to the best Japanese kaire raisu in the city. Explore Vietnam’s southern capital with an adventure in tantalising spice and global experiences.
The Queen (or King) of curry. Seemingly where all curries have their roots. All flavour profiles from the various curries one can find around the world always cycle back to the curry tree, and the other gorgeous warm spices that erupted out of the Indian subcontinent. There are so many different varieties of curry to choose from when at a solid Indian restaurant, that it can be tough to choose, or even understand what’s what. Here’s a quick list for any newcomers to curry land, some of the most popular plates, from mild to hot: Korma (cashew nut, saffron gravy), Tikka Masala (British favourite dish), Dopiaza (heavy on the onions), Rogan Josh (no tomatoes, yoghurt seasoned meat), Madras (green, red chillies, tomatoes), Vindaloo (typically the hottest option).
Parivar Indian Cuisine – 5A Nguyen Sieu, D1
The great thing about Thai curry is that the dishes are color-coded like poisonous Amazonian frogs. They let you know the extent of danger you are in for, usually. Kaeng kari (yellow curry) is a mild option traditionally served with cucumber relish, and kaeng khiao wan (green curry) is a much spicier dish owing to its green chilies. Meanwhile, kaeng phet (red curry) ditches the green chilies for red ones, in case that wasn’t extremely obvious. Other Thai picks include the potato and peanut-filled massaman curry and the sour kaeng som. Either way, you’re usually in for a hearty helping of coconut milk and kaffir leaves.
Thai Street – 26 Thao Dien, D2
Owing to its close proximity to India, Malaysia was one of the early adopters of curry, picking the recipes up through spice merchants, according to Collingham. Wander the country’s hawker stalls, and you’ll find plenty of curry laksa (or curry mee), a noodle soup often featuring deep-fried tofu and bean sprouts. Or you can try the beloved nasi lemak, a curry with hard-boiled egg, anchovies, and chili paste.
The Daun Restaurant – 194 Le Thanh Ton Street, D1
Like Cambodia, Vietnam also serves its curries with baguettes — as it turns out, the French hung there for a while, too. But the most well-known dish here is probably the cari ga, or chicken curry, which utilizes one of your favorite Thanksgiving sides. Breathe easy, it’s not green bean casserole — it’s sweet potatoes.
Xa Tay Market – Nguyen Trai District 5. Look for “Ca Ri Vit”, a fantastic Vietnamese duck curry.
Curry is practically as big as bizarre Kit Kats in Japan, which is kinda shocking since, as Collingham explains, the country has no colonial connections to India and basically shunned any food culture but its own for a long time. Still, curry managed to sneak in, and now manifests itself in such common forms as karee raisu (curry rice), karee udon (curried wheat noodles), and karee pan (curry stuffed inside a roll). Curry roux bars — spice blocks you dump into a pot at home — are also very popular.
Curry Shika – 1/4 Nguyen Van Trang, D1
You know a country’s serious about its curry when it declares one variety the national dish, and that’s exactly what Cambodia did with amok, the curry pictured above. If fish cooked in banana leaves isn’t your bag, though, you can try num banh chok, a rice-noodle fish soup often served for breakfast. Bonus trivia: curries in Cambodia tend to come with a baguette, due to the lingering Frenchie influences.
Just take a bus to Phnom Penh. Check out AsiaLIFE’s last issue, where we cover insider tips on where to eat and travel in Cambodia.