The Quizzical Origins of the Thai Curry Puff

P1140085x.jpg
Click on any image to enlarge
A Thai curry puff as served at Thai Market.


You've encountered it in Thai restaurants before, a small braided pastry filled with chicken and potatoes called the curry puff. It's unlike any of the other apps on the menu, which run to papaya salads, tart sausages, steamed dumplings, fish cakes, and even marinated raw shrimp (which represent a Thai adaptation of Japanese sashimi). In addition, the small baked turnover has no Siamese name the way other dishes on Thai menus do, being designated simply "curry puff." But where did it come from?


P1010612xx.jpg
Myers of Keswick's Cornish pasty


P1080812x.jpg
Guatemalan empanada from Pollo Campero


The name suggests an English origin, and many point to the Cornish pasty--an elongated lamb-and-potato turnover eaten by miners--as the inspiration. The pasty itself is sometimes said to be the product of an ancient and international Celtic cuisine which has its home in Asturia and Galicia in northwestern Spain. A tiny version of bagpipes are still played there, and it was in Galicia that the empanada was invented--first as a big round pie, later a hand-held pastry when it was adopted in Latin America as a convenient lunch for agricultural workers.

Another story points to the Indian samosa, a spud-stuffed pastry also known for its odd tetrahedral shape. Or the Burmese samusa, which is flat and triangular, but often filled with the same sort of curried mixture as the samosa, minus the peas. Another cognate is to be found in the Ethiopian sambusa, which contains a filling of either ground meat or lentils, but looks exactly like the samusa. Even more so than the samosa, the sambusa has a well-thumbed passport, and can be found under nearly the same name in NY restaurants from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

The descent of the curry puff from any of these prototypes is plausible, but I have a different origin idea. While the English were all over South Asia and Southeast Asia during the days of the great sailing ships, the Dutch were, too. During the second half of the 17th century, they had colonies or concessions in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Japan. The Dutch make a skinless meat sausage, usually a link but sometimes a patty, called a frikandel or frikadel. In Indonesia, potatoes (presumably newly arrived from South America, carried by the Portuguese or Spanish) were substituted for meat, and round spicy fritters called perkedel resulted, exactly the size of the curry puff, but without the pastry.

Wherever it came from, you can't beat it, especially when dipped in the salty, fishy, sweet tidal wave of a slaw that comes alongside.


P1080132x.jpg
Samosas from Little Pakistan Deli


IMG_0824vv.jpg
Ethiopian sambusas from the now-defunct Red Sea 47

Location Info

Venue

Map

Thai Market

960 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

Pollo Campero

103-26 Roosevelt Ave., New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

Little Pakistan Deli

200 2nd Ave., New York, NY

Category: Restaurant

My Voice Nation Help
6 comments
billydeakin
billydeakin

Interesting post.  While I agree that it does bear a little resemblance to a Cornish Pasty, I'd have to agree with Makanmata in saying that probably wasn't the inspiration in this instance.  All over the world, there are examples in many different cuisines of a savoury pastry "turnover" type dish - The Italian calzone, the Mexican Paste, the Russian Fleischkuekle... While some of these were certainly influenced by the Cornish pasty (typically Cornish miners took pasties to mines all over the world, and in most places a version of the pasty continues to be popular there - Mexican Pastes for example) that's not the case for all.  In this instance, I believe these curry puffs are more likely influenced by fried Indian foods such as samosas or lukhmi.

Very interesting topic though, I'd love to know more if anyone has any further insights.  I'm currently writing a book about Cornish pasties (mix of history and recipes) after winning the World Pasty Championships in both 2012 ans 2013, and I'm including a chapter on world foods influenced by the pasty.  If you're interested, you can find out more about the book and try my recipes at www.properpasties.com

makanmata
makanmata

This is a very interesting topic, and raises a question without a very clear answer -- but we can be certain that the Dutch, nor any Europeans -- had anything to do with introducing these foods to Asia.  In fact, the opposite is certainly true. 

The Dutch didn't arrive in Asia until the 1600s (well after the Portuguese had established trading posts throughout the area), but these foods were already being eaten in India when Vasco da Gama first arrived in 1498, and recorded for many centuries before that, and Arab traders had already distributed them down the Swahili coast.  The Portuguese brought them home as "chamuças," and from there to Brazil as "pastels," the rest of the Iberian peninsula, and then to Northern Europe through "Spanish Netherlands" (now Belgium) and present day Netherlands through the expulsion of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews during the Inquisition.

While it clearly didn't originate in Europe, its impossible to know with certainty whether they originated in India, China, or the Middle East.  The "Thai Curry Puff" specifically though, is not Thai so much as Hokkien Chinese -- a very large ethnic group in Thailand (as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia).  "Pok" is Hokkien for "puff" and curry puff comes from the Hokkien "kali pok."  

effingfoodie
effingfoodie

There are lots of curry-puff-like confections in the chinese repertoire (see char siu pufftaro puff) that seem to suggest a marriage of chinese dim sum and portuguese pastry (egg tarts!). So I'd always assumed that Thai curry puffs were the polyglot babies of the Chinese filled dumpling, Indian samosa, and Portuguese pastry, married with the local palate and preferred deep fat fry of sultry hot climes.


currypuffsRgreat
currypuffsRgreat like.author.displayName 1 Like

"Thai" curry puff? No, it was created in Malaysia, by the Chinese and Malays who were under the British and known as epok-epok.

sietsema
sietsema

@currypuffsRgreat So the Thais borrowed it from the Malaysians? Not sure how the Chinese fit in here (apart from being a substantial minority in Malaysia), but the Dutch were all over Malaysia, too, so the question still remains an open one.

makanmata
makanmata

Actually, the Dutch were only in a small corner of what is now known as peninsular Malaysia, when they conquered the Portuguese settlement of Malacca.  There is still perceptible Portuguese influence in Malacca, but pretty much nothing Dutch.

The Hokkiens, Teochews, and other "overseas" Chinese fit in because they settled in and travelled all around Southeast Asia, incorporating the local ingredients -- including those brought by the Indians -- into their own dishes.  Like the Curry Puff, lots of dishes available in Thai restaurants in the West -- which are often owned by ethnic Chinese -- are actually Chinese in origin.

By the way, the curry puff above is not an especially beautiful example, but the best of them, such as in Singapore or Malaysia, are scalloped puff pastry closely resembling a Neopolitan sfogliatelle.  Given the long period of Iberian control of Naples, this is probably no coincidence. 

Now Trending

From the Vault

 

Loading...