The Quizzical Origins of the Thai Curry Puff


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?

Myers of Keswick’s Cornish pasty

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.

Samosas from Little Pakistan Deli

Ethiopian sambusas from the now-defunct Red Sea 47