Food

The amazing story of the chef-conman who first made America fall in love with curry

Ranji Smile was the King of the Curry Chefs and a heart-breaker, before an immigration scam led to his fall from grace.

His arrival on the American culinary scene in 1899 was greeted by a headline in the New York Letter to the effect of “America’s King of Curry from India Who Made ‘Women Go Wild Over Him’”. This was no overstatement. A century before social media and digital syndication of news articles, Ranji Smile’s gastronomic exploits received widespread press coverage, from New York to South Dakota. His dishes were particularly popular with women, and Smile was no stranger to the effects it had on them, for he declared: “If the women of America will but eat the food I prepare, they will be more beautiful than they as yet imagine. The eye will grow lustrous, the complexion will be yet so lovely, and the figure like unto those of our beautiful India women.”

Yet, the extraordinary story of the man who was dubbed by several publications as “America’s first Indian chef” or “King of the Curry Chefs,” and whose curries appeared to “have taken possession of everyone” who ate them, can only be appreciated in the context of Indian food’s place in the world at the time.

Curry goes West

By the middle of the 19th century Britain had inscribed and prescribed a staggering volume of Anglo-Indian receipts – of the generic curries or the rather precise vindaloos – into its socio-imperial and domestic culture. Thanks to the likes of Sake Dean Mahomet, who opened Hindoostane Coffee House, the first Indian-owned curry house in London, in 1811, a mongrel Indian cuisine had become fashionable in the empire much before fish and chips.

Around the same time, Indian curry recipes also started appearing in American cookbooks, such as Eliza Leslie’s bestsellers, Direction for Cookery in its Various Branches (1840) and New Cookery Book (1857), Ann Allen’s The Housekeeper’s Assistant (1845), and Catherine Beecher’s Domestic Recipe Book (1846). In November 1887, the New York Times advised its readers to prepare a turkey curry of leftovers from their Thanksgiving dinners.

Sake Dean Mahomed (1759-1851), portrait from Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Sake Dean Mahomed (1759-1851), portrait from Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Before the American Revolution, colonists in the New World purchased numerous domestic items and spices such as tea, cardamom, pepper, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, garlic and ginger from India, via Britain. In 1809, America had its first dock for receiving supplies from India and China, known as the Boston India Wharf. With the Charter Act of 1813, the British East India Company lost its commercial monopoly over trade in Indian items. This opened the doors for America to receive goods directly from India, and as Colleen Taylor Sen writes in her book Curry, “Chicken curry, curried veal and lobster curry were standard items on the bills of fare of Boston taverns and eating houses in the 1820s and ’30s.”

Notwithstanding the easy accessibility of Indian culinary ingredients, Victorian America did not have the native talent or sensibility to refine its curries. According to Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, even until the 1880s, the interpretations of curry in America were largely due to British immigrants or American sailors who had visited India on mercantile missions. The recipes, therefore, were twice removed from the original delicacies. Despite the presence of Bengali settlers in the late 19th century, who were primarily sellers of embroidered silks in Atlantic City or New Jersey, there were few steps in the direction of an American Indian cuisine.

The real disruption in bourgeois American food habits came with Ranji Smile. He was first spotted by Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, a food critic, at the Savoy Hotel in London. In 1896, Smile moved to Cecil, which was then the largest hotel in Europe. From here, Richard Sherry, an American restaurateur, brought him and his English wife over to New York, in 1899, and put him in charge of the kitchen at one of the city’s premium restaurants, Sherry’s, which was located on the Forty Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue and had opened just a year ago. After “sampling Smile’s curries” at the Cecil, Sherry decided to make him his newest exotic acquisition to fire the taste buds of New Yorkers.

Main entrance of Sherry's, 1899. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Main entrance of Sherry's, 1899. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Flavours of Asia

Smile quickly earned a reputation, what with his artistically sculpted beard, impeccable clothing and a lilting accent to go with it. The other chefs were asked to stay away from his business, while Smile was given complete authority to rule the roost, India-style. His usual menu items, such as Kalooh Sherry, Murghi Rain, Muskee Sindh, Curry of Chicken Madras, Indian Bhagi Topur, Bombay Duck, or Lettuce Ceylon, tried to exhibit regional influences from all over India, at least to American diners. They also derived strategically from French or American cuisine. In the process, he accomplished what he believed was a refinement of the American taste and cooking styles of the curry, as well as their crude ways of boiling rice, which would usually be left starchy and mashed, unlike the snowy flakes to which Smile rendered them.

Ranji Smile's dinner menu (Utica Sunday Journal, October 13, 1899)
Ranji Smile's dinner menu (Utica Sunday Journal, October 13, 1899)

And while he was he introducing Americans to the flavours of Asia, he also single-handedly began introducing Asian immigrants to America. Lohman carefully constructs the later story of Smile, based on mixed reports.

In 1901, he was found in London and the press was divided between whether he was there to recruit Indian chefs for Sherry, or he was on his way to India to collect his inheritance after the recent demise of his father. Smile was originally from Karachi, and had worked in hotels in Calcutta and Bombay. Until then he was known as nothing but a celebrity chef with an insignificant past. But now when he checked into a London hotel, he used the prefix “Prince” and had twenty-six attendants waiting upon him.

Smile’s charade did not end there. He began claiming to be the fourth son of the Emir of Baluchistan, a Cambridge University graduate and a friend of King Edward VII. (The king indeed did become his patron temporarily, after taking his other claims seriously.) Later that year, when Smile returned to America, along with his attendants, he was intercepted by the press on the one hand, and the law on the other. The Contract Labour Law of 1885 decreed it illegal to offer someone an excuse for immigration with the promise of a job. Smile had made twenty-six such promises. To the press he said that he had never claimed to be a prince, and that the Indians travelling with him were simply tourists. To the courts he pleaded that he had made no offers to these tourists, however some of them, who were also his friends, may be recruited later to work in a restaurant he was planning.

With Sherry’s staring at a damage of $26,000, it distanced itself from Smile, who according to Sen, “was reduced to giving culinary demonstrations [at restaurants] and marrying a succession of ever-younger American women”. Sometime between 1913 and 1920, Smile left for India with his newest American wife, with the promise of opening a new restaurant there. He was not heard of thereafter, except in the two recent books that have come to record the history of this eccentric character, along with the glorious career of the curry in the US, which spread from New York City to Los Angeles, and many more cities.

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