A Summer Spent in India on Lake Kashmir and a Chicken Curry Candle

Curry, when properly made, is a fiery combination of sweet and savory spices. Cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, and bay leaf give the curry an earthy smoky flavor while spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg add sweet highlights. When combined with a rich broth that’s seasoned with garlic, onions, and peppers; a curry can be absolutely delicious.

The term, “curry” is actually an English word that was first coined by the British during their colonization of India. The type of curry that’s probably best known outside of India is properly known as garam masala. Garam means spicy warm or hot. Masala refers to a mixture of spices. This spice blend originated in Northern India.

garam masala

A basic spice blend for garam masala includes cumin, black pepper, mace, cinnamon, and turmeric. There are many regional variations. For example in Kerala which is a state on India’s Malabar Coast, garam masala includes a sweeter anise flavor that comes from the addition of fennel and star anise. In Kashmir, where I first learned how to make curry as a boy, lightly smoked black cardamom is paired with a generous amount of black pepper. To the west of Kashmir in the Sindhi province of Pakistan, garam masala is made without any peppers at all. This gives the curry a light and aromatic flavor.

I first visited India when I was 8 years old. During the summer of 1969, my father took the family on vacation to Kashmir in Northern India. Instead of staying at a hotel, my parents had rented a hand carved teak houseboat on Dal Lake. This lake is in Srinagar, the state capitol of Kashmir. It’s surrounded on three sides by the Shankracharya Hills which form the base of the Zabarwan mountain range.

hand carved teak house boat

The cool water of the lake was a welcome relief from the humidity of Bangkok, Thailand where we were stationed. As a doctor in the U.S. military service who specialized in tropical medicine, my father was in charge of USOM, the military’s malaria research program.

Although I enjoyed living in Thailand, the heat and humidity was sometimes challenging. Within moments of stepping outside of our air-conditioned apartment, my glasses usually fogged over and perspiration plastered my clothing over my body. Summer vacation was always a welcome relief, partially because of the break from school but also because our vacations usually took us someplace cooler.

On the day we arrived, our majordomo (butler) was waiting for us. The majordomo was a Sikh who wore a turban and had a fierce black mustache and beard. Instead of the formal suit worn by a European butler, he was dressed in a kurta (similar to the one pictured left). The kurta was a long tailored shirt with side slits that he wore over loose trousers.

After introducing himself as Amar, he directed us into a pair of gondolas which took us out to our houseboat. The trip from Bangkok to Srinagar had been tiring. After being shown to our bedroom, my sister and I bedded down in separate twin sized beds. Although I didn’t think I could sleep, the breeze blowing across the lake brought a pleasant coolness to the houseboat and I soon fell asleep.

I remember awaking just before dinner. While my parents napped, I explored our new home The houseboat had an electric generator which provided lights and power for a small refrigerator that was stocked with fruit and a variety of cold beverages. I was disappointed to find that the pantry had no cookies or candy. In addition to the bedroom I shared with my sister, my parents had their own room. We also had a living room, a dining room, a bathroom with a large tub, and a large covered deck that served as our porch.

At sunset, Amir announced that dinner was served. Since cook fires (whether by wood or gas) were both a hazard as well as an insurance liability, all cooking took place on the shore. Our meal was delivered by a boat boy who motored up to the gangway where Amir had been waiting to receive the food.

Our dinner was served in the dining room. The table was covered with a white cloth. A floral centerpiece added color to room which was brightly lit by candles.

Indian gondolas

Our first meal in Kashmir featured a cucumber salad, a chicken consommé, and curried chicken with cauliflower that was served with steamed white rice. This sweet and savory dish was made with coconut milk which added a sweet and creamy contrast to the spicy tones.  I thought that the spices were quite mild in comparison and said as much to my father. Dad made a hushing gesture and told not me not to be rude. He later suggested that the dish was bland because Amir didn’t know us and had assumed that Americans only ate mildly seasoned foods.

To learn how to make a chicken curry, click here to watch a YouTube production demonstration film that I made for my culinary students.

50 years have passed since my visit to Lake Kashmir but I still remember the first curry that I ever had. Having recently received an order of curry fragrance oil, I decided to make a chicken curry candle.

After melting some Golden Soy Wax 444, I added 10% of its weight with a mixture of fragrance oils which included curry, hot sauce, coconut, and garlic. Memories of my summer in India washed over me as the aroma of curry filled the kitchen.

This candle was made using fried chicken tenders and cauliflower that were paired with a spicy curry sauce. In addition to now craving curry with rice (the latter of which I’m not allowed to eat since I’m on a Keto diet), I also want a large portion of lentil dahl (lentil beans that are boiled, mashed and seasoned with spices). Since I can’t eat rice, I also can’t eat lentils. The good news is that I can make as many chicken curry candles as I’d like without having to worry about calories.

Close up of a fried chicken tender with curry sauce

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