Back in 2008, I visited Pondicherry, a small coastal city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As the former capital of French India, I was interested in finding out about its French colonial culinary legacy.
While talking with a chef about such influences, he mentioned an Indo-Viet woman who had recorded the recipes of the Pondicherrian kitchen. He also noted there were a few older women who sold chả giò, Vietnamese spring rolls, door to door. I didn’t have time to go in search of them, but this “in-passing” culinary connection between India and Vietnam remained with me and came to the fore again during a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, another French colonial capital.
While there, I took some time to uncover more about these connections and the origins of South Vietnamese curries, cà ri and bánh xèo, which is reminiscent of a dosa, particularly in its preparation.
Vietnamese chicken and seafood curries, cà ri gà and cà ri đồ biển, are most likely descendants of Khmer curries, but goat curry, cà ri de, and vegetarian curry, cà ri chay, have more obvious Indian influences. The flavoring for vegetable curry cà ri chay comes from the use of a mild Madras-style spice mixture and curry leaves, from trees planted in the Mekong Delta by Tamil shop owners. Unlike the other curries, which are typically served with rice or the French-influenced baguette, the aromatic coconut milk broth is served with bun, vermicelli rice noodles.
With their rich histories, curry dishes share similar flavors
As I tasted my way through the various Vietnamese curries in Ho Chi Minh City, one thing stood out: The spicing was consistent with virtually each dish. It turns out the cooks I met all bought their spice mixtures and curry leaves from the same spice vendor at Ben Thanh market. Anh Hai spice shop, run by third-generation Indo-Viet brothers, has been blending and selling spice mixtures for these curries since their chef grandfather started the shop sometime after his arrival in what was known as Saigon in the 1920s.
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To begin to understand the evolution of South Vietnamese curries and bánh xèo, you need to look at the history of the region. From the 7th century to 1832, the Hindu-influenced kingdom of Champa was based in the south-central coastal region of today’s Vietnam and southern Cambodia. The Cham, seafaring people dedicated to trade were integral to the movement of goods along the Spice Route, which extended from the Persian Gulf to southern China. Through the centuries, the Cham people were heavily influenced by their trading partners in Cambodia, India, Java and China.
In the mid-19th century, with the French having control of the major port cities of Pondicherry and Saigon, extensive maritime trading of goods occurred between the two French colonies. Naturally, along with this came the movement of Indians from British and French Indian territories to Saigon, with total populations reaching almost 6,000 by 1939. During this period, “Indian shops,” mainly run by Tamil Muslims, were ubiquitous in the large Vietnamese urban centers of Saigon and Cholon and also spread through the smaller towns in the rice-growing regions and transport hubs of the Mekong Delta.
For me, it is in Vietnamese goat curry where the Indian influence is strongest. The dish relies heavily on the same curry powder as other curries, but instead of solely using coconut milk some cooks I spoke with also use cow’s milk in their recipes, including a couple of older Indian sisters who grew up in the former Saigon and still sell their curry near the Dong Da mosque. Why cow’s milk? This is most likely a result of increased demand for dairy products by the Vietnamese created by the European presence — a demand met primarily by Hindu Tamils.
In her thesis, doctoral student Natasha Pairaudeau highlights that from the beginning of French colonial rule in Cochinchina, Hindu Tamils tended to cattle and sold milk door to door. But why not continue to solely use coconut milk for the goat curry? It may be the result of Vietnamese wives, married to some of the Tamil milkmen, being resourceful with leftover milk or limited finances.
Bánh xèo probably did not travel from modern India — the Indo-Vietnamese families I spoke with did not eat dosas as part of their predominantly Indian diet. Nor is it influenced from the French crepe, as commonly suggested, as it requires neither eggs nor milk. One needs to simply compare the ingredients used in preparing the thin, crisp shell to those of an Indian dosa to see that these are close cousins, although comparisons stop there, as the fillings reflect accessible ingredients and local tastes.
Traditionally, both separately soak rice and a pulse — hulled mung bean for bánh xèo and urad dal for dosa — overnight before grinding each batter separately and mixing together. Dosa batter is left to ferment overnight, while bánh xèo requires a short, half-hour rest before cooking.
Chef Bobby Chinn, previously based in Ho Chi Minh City, believes the Cham probably picked up the dish trading along the Indian Ocean. He indicated to me that as they were forced to move south, so did bánh xèo. This seems to be supported by Nguyen Thi Le Thuy, the owner of Bánh Xèo 46A, known as the first modern bánh xèo restaurant in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy said her grandmother brought the recipe with her from Quy Nhơn, which was the next Cham capital of Vijaya until 1471. Notably, there is the strikingly similar Cambodian dish banh chao – again the Cham legacy.
Cơm nị, a biryani-style rice dish cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, spices, lemongrass and coconut milk, is another dish most likely brought to Vietnam via the Cham people. The name of the dish most likely comes from the Vietnamese word for turmeric, nghệ.
Very few Indo-Viet — and no long-term Indians — remain in Ho Chi Minh City. The community was ostracized after independence from the French and then post-Vietnam War, but their legacy remains in the food we associate with Vietnam today.
Goat Curry (Cà Ri Dê)
The following recipe is from Hanoi-based, chef Tracey Lister‘s upcoming book, “Real Vietnamese Cooking,” which will be published by Hardie Grant in April.
It is a variation of a dish by famous Vietnamese chef Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van. Goat is a strong-tasting meat and available in many Asian and middle-eastern butcher shops. This is a big-flavored curry, and if you can’t get goat, try duck and replace the eggplant with sweet potato.
4 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, finely chopped
1 long red chili, de-seeded and finely chopped
4 tablespoons curry powder
4 cups milk, divided
2 tablespoons sugar
1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) diced goat, preferably the shoulder
2 onions, finely diced
¾ teaspoon salt
800 milliliters (two 13.5-ounce cans) coconut milk
5 lemongrass stalks, white part only, cut in half lengthways
2 medium-sized eggplants
150 grams (⅔ cup) butter
½ handful coriander sprigs
Oil for frying
1. To make the curry paste, fry the lemongrass and chili in a small amount of oil until fragrant. Add the curry powder and stir for 1 minute to prevent the spices from burning and becoming bitter. Add 250 milliliters (1 cup) of the milk and the sugar and bring to the boil.
2. Remove from the heat and let cool before pouring over the diced goat. Allow the goat to marinate in the curry paste for 30 minutes.
3. Heat a small amount of oil in a large pot and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Then, add the marinated goat and season with salt. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly until the meat has browned. Pour in 2 cups of milk, keeping aside the remaining cup of milk to add at the end. Add the coconut milk and lemongrass stalks and simmer the curry for approximately 1 hour until the meat is tender.
4. While the curry is cooking, cut the eggplant into 3-centimeter (1-inch) chunks. Place them in a colander and sprinkle with extra salt and let them sit for 30 minutes to remove the bitter tannin. Wash off the salt from the eggplant and pat them dry with a paper towel.
5. Heat some oil in a frying pan and cook the eggplant in batches until it is an even, golden brown color. Then place the eggplant on a paper towel to remove excess oil.
6. When the goat is tender, add the eggplant and the remaining milk and butter. After the butter has melted, transfer the curry to a serving bowl and scatter with the coriander leaves.
7. Serve with steamed rice or crusty bread.
Top photo: Goat curry. Credit: Cameron Stauch