A Gastronomic Journey: How Indian Cuisine Influenced Thai Food
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The far-reaching effects of colonialism are still felt today, especially in regards to food. When the British colonized Thailand from 1821 to 1949, they also brought along their own cuisine when they settled in the country. 

Indian curry was a key component that influenced Thai food immensely. A lot of common Thai dishes contain Indian spices like ginger, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cloves, and mustard seeds. Most importantly, many Thai curries are based on Indian coconut or yellow curry paste instead of traditional green or red chili paste, which is a staple in most other Asian cuisines. 

In this article, you’ll discover how Indian cuisine influences Thai cuisine.

Indian Curry and Thai Food: A Brief History

Indian curry is a blend of spices served with a side of rice. The name "curry" comes from the Tamil word "kari," which means "sauce" in English. The traditional Indian curry is not a single recipe but an umbrella term for different types of curry-based dishes. In fact, curry has so many variations that it’s hard to pin down an authentic recipe for one type. 

It was the influx of settlers and traders to India from as far away as Japan, China, Portugal, and France that spread curry recipes throughout southeast Asia. That said, there is a general consensus that the basic recipe for Indian curry comes from southern Indian provinces like Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 

The earliest documented use of the word "curry," however, was in British colonies like India and Sri Lanka in the early 19th century. Curries were popular not just in the South Asian subcontinent but also in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. These countries have their own variations of curries with distinct ingredients and spices. The Thais, in particular, prepared many curries with coconut milk and ground spices like cinnamon and cardamom. 

Why Curry?

Now that we know the history of curry and how it influenced Thai cuisine, what exactly makes curry so special? Why was it such an influential ingredient? Well, there are several reasons why curry became so important in Thai food culture: 

Curry Powder: The first reason is the availability of curry powder. Most other spices are only grown in specific Indian areas, but curry is a blend of many spices like turmeric, coriander, and red chili pepper. The British were the first to export curry powder to Southeast Asia. The Thais were so impressed by the taste of the powder that they started adding it to all of their traditional dishes. 

Taste: The second reason is taste. Thai food is not very spicy, unlike Indian curries. The Thais prefer to keep their food mild and sweet. The mild flavor of coconut milk and the sweetness of palm sugar make Thai curries less spicy than Indian ones. This is why the Thais were able to incorporate Indian curry into their cuisine without completely overpowering their own flavors. 

Green Thai Curry

Known as Kaeng khiao Wan, this is a basic Thai curry that can be prepared with chicken, pork, or beef and is made with coconut milk and green curry paste, which is a mixture of coriander, cumin, green chili pepper, and salt. The history of green curry is unknown since it was probably invented when the Thais started making curry from scratch. This is why it’s hard to pin down an exact origin. What we do know is that green curry was the first curry the Thais made, and it remains one of the most popular types of curry even today. The coconut milk in the curry makes it creamy and rich, while the green curry paste gives it a distinct tangy flavor. 

Red Thai Curry

Kaeng Phet, also known as Thai red curry, is a popular Thai dish made with red curry paste, coconut milk, and meat. Unlike most other Indian curries, the broth in red curry is very watery. This is the most common and popular type of Thai curry. It’s thicker than a soup or stew and is made with coconut milk, fish sauce, and red curry paste. The red curry paste has a sweet and sour flavor with undertones of nutmeg and clove. 

Massaman Curry

Massaman or Matsaman (an archaic name for "Muslim") curry is the sweetest and creamiest curry among all Thai curries and is known as Kaeng Matsaman. It’s made with coconut milk, peanuts, and a blend of spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and bay leaves. 

The Massaman curry has its roots in the time when Pakistan was a part of the Kingdom of India, ruled by the Maharajah. It existed before Europeans arrived in India at the beginning of the colonial era, when British rule was established there. 

The earliest Indian settlers brought the spice trade to Malaysia, and the Massaman culture eventually influenced the cuisine of the country. This curry has always been something of an outlier in Thai cooking, ever since Indian settlers decided to spread their spice trade throughout the Siamese territory.