Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why are so many Indian restaurants in the US so pretentious?

 ….he is not a man obsessed with the freshness of quality of his ingredients.  Cooking for him is a craft of spice and oil.  His food burns the tongue, and clogs the arteries.   The Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s description of a cook in “The Third Born” aptly describes more than 90% of the cooking done at Indian restaurants in the United States.  These are blunt instruments that downsample Indian food into a monochrome of caricatures.  And they do so in restaurants named after the India of the princes and the India of the British, an ambiance desperate for an illusion of what was an illusion to start with.

Evoking grandeur and the exotic is an old formula. Here is the Indian writer R. K. Narayan, describing his experience at an Indian restaurant in the San Francisco of 1956: “Its elaborate and self-consciously planned Indian atmosphere, dim light, long coats, bogus Indian tunes out of gramophones hidden in the arras, more bogus bric-a-brac are deliberate, but I suppose, commercially successful.  Chappati and Indian curry are genuine and are not bogus.  A waitress clad in a sari, an usher in a long coat buttoned to the neck, create an Indian atmosphere, which seems to appeal to San Franciscans as I find all tables booked, and women dressed in caps and gowns, which outdo Fifth Avenue style, sit with an air of facing an impending adventure, while reading the menu card, and utter little cries of ‘delicious, delicious’, when they sample a curry.

This could be a restaurant in Los Angeles today.  Gentle sitar music, can make it easier to chew on a tough naan.

Credit for this brand image has to be given to the first Indian restaurateur in the US, Prince Ranji Smile, a minor social character in the New York of the early 1900s, and a man of uncertain orgins and tall claims.  Ranji came to New York and spent several years as an Indian chef who held visiting appointments at some of the big restaurants of the day.  While he was never able to fulfil his dream of opening his own restaurant, he, more than any other, brought the message of Indian food as being something exotic, something brushing royalty, that—as he advertised—would make women more beautiful.

To be sure, Indian food is not considered highbrow.  Inglis and Gimlin give an interesting statistic in The Globalization of Food.  In the hierarchy of Zagat 2006 check averages, a measure of the “exclusivity” of the food,  Indian check averages stand at $33.85, below French ($47.81), Japanese (46.72), Italian (42.27), Greek (38.71), and Spanish (37.73).

Starting about 5 years ago, a new theme emerged in Indian restaurants—desi chic, inspired by Bollywood and the folksy color combinations promoted by Indian ad agencies.  The developments were apparent to me in the tale of two restaurants, almost next to one another, in Mt. Kisco, NY.  One of them is A Passage to India, straight out of E. M. Forster, a member of the old colonial genre that—as far as I could see—had been languishing for years.  Then came the impulsive upstart, a colorful chunky little joint called The Little Kebab Place, with remixed disasters of 70s Hindi classics thumping on its speakers, and truck art on its walls--nobody would trace its genes to Rajput royalty.  And this restaurant was packed.  So packed, that its owner bought out the two adjacent stores and expanded out into a couple of other restaurants.  The three places burst at the seams, while the old brand languishes.

There is a lesson to be learnt there.

And then there are the contemporary east-west fusion experiences in upscale Manhattan that will charge you the price of your first born for Indian street food presented as if it were French.  These are the places that get various assorted stars, from assorted city newspapers, from assorted critics who know Indian food like Indians know rock music. 

Indian food has always had to put on an act, the projection of an image that isn’t.  As if the food simply wasn't enough.  And, in many cases, it isn't.  There are exceptions to this hypothesis.  One is Shalimar in San Francisco, a rough-hewn Punjabi-Pakistani place that my friend C thinks could be a transplanted truck stop from India.  Mallu Cafe in Philadelphia, has the kind of unashamed originality that makes you want to throw back your collar and shove a handkerchief in it to soak in the heat. A third is Saravana Bhavan on Mary Road in San Jose, part of a successful international restaurant chain, that has maintained its stainless steel and tubelight like lighting innocence of a dosa place, where no means yes with a headshake.  And finally there is Neerob, in the Bronx, a Bangladeshi place, so original in its speech, being, and sounds that I find myself speaking in the rounded English of the Bengali when I am there, as in “nayeen owan phor” area code.  These are places that give you the ambiance of the original because—as far as I can see—there has been no attempt at gaming this.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shalimar on Jones Street in San Francisco

Off O’Farrell Street, on Jones Street, in a slightly seedy block in San Francisco, there is a cluster of Indian and Pakistani restaurants.  There are shadowy characters that hang around the footpaths there, disheveled in appearance, minding their own business, each preoccupied within his or her own bubble.  Did not look the kind who always obeyed the letter of the law.  There was a conference, and I was walking past with a distinguished colleague and good friend, when a familiar whiff--the kind of whiff you half expect to linger on a San Francisco street where the nation’s mandate on whiffs are not always obeyed.  You smell that? I asked.  My friend, who was going to receive a major award the next day, and had grown up always at the top of his class permeated with nothing but goodness and academic excellence, took a nose to the air and replied, smells like coriander.  And indeed, in addition to this whiff, there was the smell of coriander, for we were walking past Shalimar, a hole in the wall Punjabi restaurant on Jones Street.

Later that night I came down for dinner to Shalimar with my friend K.  Orders are taken from a soggy menu that looks like yesterday’s newsprint.  We ordered haleem, naans, biryani and seekh kebab.  Then we grabbed a couple of diet cokes from the freezer and sat down on rickety chairs at a laminated table.  Paji aap baithiye, hum khana ley ayengey  said the man, so we sat and waited.  Haleem is generally not too common here: chicken that is made into a paste with lentils.  There was brain fry (bheja fry), but good sense prevailed. 

Authenticity is a hefty compliment that one does not wish to give away lightly, and authenticity does not necessarily equate to exceptional quality.  The food at Shalimar is what one would get at an authentic truck stop in India.  The food is hot and virile, made with muscular vigor. Served at the table by a man with a wrist of iron ringed with a stainless kada. A dishabille kitchen that looks as if it grew out of the pit of the earth.  Rough hewn naans flop half hanging from the edge of the plate like a drunkard passed out.   The biryani flung onto your plate with disdain, angry pieces of goat glaring from within the rice.  The brown haleem sits, a viscous medieval mess plotting vengeance on your innards.  The meat is fresh, the spice is in your face, and the seekh kebabs are moist on the inside.  What more can one ask for on this temperate San Francisco evening where one man’s coriander is another man’s something else?   Do not look for contrasting flavors, or pairing of textures, but here, twenty bucks will bring you a satisfying meal for two that a forty dollar meal of Savitri Amma’s Avial and assorted flavors from the “Chutneys and Savories” section at a dainty joint in Westchester will not.

This is the place that will remind you of all the greasy joints that you frequented in college, and paid for with wrinkled single notes that came out from the deep cotton folds of your pant pocket.

Shalimar on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sharpening a kitchen knife with waterstones

Years ago, as a student of metallurgy, I was given this piece of advise by a steel plant manager: “If you can make a good steel, you can make a lot of money”. I never ended up making steel, turning to semiconductors instead, but I remember this message every time I look at kitchen knives.  I have bought several kitchen knives in the past 20 years, but the ones that have been able to stand the test of time have always been the priciest.  True to the plant manager’s advise, in steel you get what you pay for.

If steel kitchen knives are not sharpened properly, they are useless.  There are plenty of gadgets around but I have found none satisfactory.  The method I use was taught to me by a patient Japanese knifemaker on Kappanbashi Street in Tokyo—an entire street dedicated to the sale of kitchenware. It works very well.  Here is what I do.

Get yourself a couple of Japanese waterstones.  One with a grit of about 1000 and another with a rating of about 4000-6000.  There are natural waterstones available but these are expensive and geared towards loaded purists.  I buy artificial waterstones which work well, cost between $40-45, and are available on Amazon or any woodworking store. Soak the waterstones in water for at least a few minutes before you sharpen the knives and then make sure the surface is wet during sharpening.  

Hold the the knife on the 1000 grit waterstone with the front index finger holding it in place in the manner shown in the figure above.  The cutting edge of the blade should be against the waterstone pointing away from you and the blade should subtend an angle equivalent to putting two coins underneath the trailing edge of the knife. I do not actually put coins, but I like to think of this in Gedanken mode and simply eyeball the height. Just try to keep the subtended angle as constant as you can keep—and go by feel.

The waterstone is typically 2 inches wide and so this is the length of blade that it will sharpen at a time.  Divide the knife mentally into 4 or 5 sections of 2 inches-- each section will need to be sharpened separately. Start from the section closest to the base of the knife. Firmly and slowly move forward and backward for about 10 cycles, holding the edge down with the right index finger and steering with the left hand as shown in the figure above. This should take about 10-15 seconds.  The index finger should hold the blade at a steady angle.  Firmness and uniform motion rather than pressure is key.  The sharpening act occurs mostly on the push stroke and after a few strokes a slurry of grit particles will form.  It is this slurry that wears against the blade, sharpening it.

Now flip the knife so that the cutting edge faces you, and this time hold the knife and the angle in place with the thumb (see figure above).  Go back and forth again this time for about 7-8 cycles.  Now the major sharpening action occurs on the pull stroke. 

Repeat this process for each of the 4-5 sections of the blade, working your way from the base of the knife to the tip, till the entire blade has been sharpened.  Then go through this entire process one more time.  It is a lot quicker than it reads.

Try to slice a newspaper edge with the knife.  It ought to slice through cleanly.  If the edge is really sharp, you can also shave the hair off of your arm, but I am not a hirsute person and I don't need this depilation.  The thinking man cuts a newspaper.  It the knife does not cut, it needs some more sharpening, so go over the process again.

After the 1000 grit sharpening, go over the same process using the 4000 grit waterstone to give the edge a mirror finish.  I usually do just one round of 10 forward/8 backward strokes.

This process usually works.  If the knife has severe nicks then the blade needs to be sharpened on a coarser stone.  You could try a 400 grit waterstone or an oilstone.  When you buy the waterstones, it is helpful to by a cheap and coarse oilstone as well. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Quick trip to Shanghai and Nanjing

If Manhattan wears black and England is grey, then China is red.  Red is the theme coming off the jetway at Beijing airport, an enormous airport with acres of stainless fixtures and designer stores.  Not a brazen hussy red, neither the dark crimson that suggests an obsession with the past, but a sanguine statement of strength and vitality for a nation at full gallop, a Mao Little Red Book Red (banned in the India of the 70s, but we had a copy anyway), not a red splattered with abandon, but one of effective restraint; enough to impart just a dollop of tension, paired at times with a bright deep yellow.  The last time I was this close to China was 1962, when my mother—pregnant with me—fled the border town of Tezpur as the Chinese marched into India. But those times are long gone, and today I witness nothing but unfailing politeness and friendliness.  A lady at the counter asks me where I am originally from. She then smiles and tells me that she finds Indian women very beautiful.  With no other Indians around, I, of balding crown and graying beard, feel compelled to accept some indirect responsibility and find myself thanking her. 

I have some Thai food at Beijing airport.  It tastes as bad as the Thai food in Thornwood, except that this one had expletive inspiring quarter inch slices of chillies (the red kind) that added one more layer of torture to this complex dish.  I decided to stick to Chinese fare while in China. 

I had escaped an impending storm in Westchester that would go on to lay 6 inches of snow where I live, a second storm in a matter of weeks, bringing to mind the Hindi saying, that when the Lord gives, He delivers till it perforates the roof.  A limo ride to Newark with a driver who lectured me on Latin American writers while waving a copy of  Vargas Llosa for President in his hand, was followed by a grueling 14 hour flight to Beijing.  A two hour flight then brought me to Nanjing, followed by an hour long drive through fog infested roads where the driver lost his way multiple times, till—after the third time—he set aside his machismo and pulled out a perfectly working GPS system from a small plastic package.  Peace arrived late at night in the form of a beautiful conference center and resort with a quiet lakeside room and forbidding mountains in the dark beyond. 
The next evening I travelled to Shanghai on the bullet train.  It is one thing to see impressive infrastructure in a small country, but seeing it tackled at the enormity of scale that China presents boggles the mind.  Like Tokyo, Seoul and Dubai, Shanghai follows the tradition of the grand Asian super city - mile upon mile of skyscrapers, serpentine flyovers, and enormous buildings that impose their magnificent sense of indestructibility with hunks of steel and glass and with the hubris of a city in its prime; these are beacons of civilization sucking the population out of the rural hinterlands like some giant capillary force driven machine of humanity. Looking out the window from my hotel in Pudong, I see other common elements of a large Asian city: a grandly lit river with barges and cruises, a well-kept promenade and a park along its banks.  I see a Prada at one corner and a Rolex store on another block.  This is cosmopolitan Asia’s one weakness—a fanatical obsession with Western luxury brands among the affluent.  Most likely originating in India’s princely past, this obsession resurfaced in Japan, and today appears to embrace any Asian economic segment as soon as it crosses the threshold of a certain level of economic development. 
In the morning I cross over from one side of the river, Pudong, to the other, an older embankment called the Bund that is lined with stately old buildings in the European style.  How incongruous this Urdu-Persian word sounds today in the midst of the center of commerce in China!  Yet it stands as a reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of old Shanghai.  One of the pleasures of walking around in Shanghai in the Bund and Nanjing Road area is to suddenly come upon entire small blocks full of charming one and two storeyed old buildings and narrow alleyways segregated, intact, from the encroaching construction. These are the remnants of old Shanghai: greying yet dignified counterpoints to the present and the future, scattered exclusions from the near total metamorphosis of this city.  Each building is different, each with its own twist, multicolored clothes hanging on a clothes line, a ramshackle bookstore here, a quaint shop selling tea there, a bit decrepit perhaps but full of soul; places that remind me of the back alleys of Esplanade in Calcutta. The Bund’s soulmate is Calcutta, and decades later when Calcutta will be able to afford to fix up its old buildings and mansions, I would imagine that it will look something like the Bund.   
 I cross back into Pudong and return to my hotel walking along the banks of the Huangpu.  Vendors from the Central Asian regions of China are hawking street food wearing Muslim prayer caps. Their equipment consists of a modified bicycle with a coal grill built into the pillion.  Smoke and the familiar smells of kebabs and naans rise in the air.  I have my camera with me and people on the streets have generally been co-operative.  A quiet. older kebabwalla is selling kebabs and when I ask him about being photographed, he waives me off furiously with rapid shakes of his hand.   He does not want his sense of dignity pimped.

For years, Shanghai was the only city after which a word existed in the English language.  To be Shanghaied meant to be tricked into an undesirable circumstance.  Today there are two more members to this club.  To be Bangalored is to lose one’s job to outsourcing.  And  Californication refers to the spread of California’s (and by extension today, the West’s) mindless urban development style or its sex and violence driven entertainment culture. Today California is getting Bangalored and one might argue that both Shanghai and Bangalore are getting Californicated.  In other words, some might say that the East and the West are mutually Shanghai’ing one another! 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Taj Palace Restaurant, White Plains


There was a time, several years ago, when the East Post Road area of White Plains had two Indian restaurants within a stone’s throw of each another—the remarkable Dawat, and the not so remarkable “Bengal Tiger” which neither did justice to Bengal, nor to the majesty of this big cat.  Dawat shut down for reasons unknown.  A few years later Bengal tiger burned down, raising the average quality of Westchester Indian food in the process.  Recently, the new Taj Palace Restaurant opened for business in the same vicinity and we tried their lunch buffet today. 

The afternoon lunch buffet is a good time to test the mettle of an Indian restaurant for this is where they can advertise with original creations, or try to pass off a slipshop dish.

The buffet quality was mixed.  The idli and sambar was reasonable, the kebabs stone cold.  There was fluffy rice and soft naans.  The baigan bharta and daal makhni were decent, the bittergourd-potato curry--a first for an Indian restaurant here—was superb and a unique offering on the menu.  The non-veg dishes sounded like a caricature of the stereotypical Indian restaurant menu: Chicken Tikka Masala, Madrasi Lamb, and Tandoori Chicken.  The lamb was tender and had undertones of actual South Indian spices (Madras is in the South).  Take this honesty in nomenclature as good news for not all establishments will do this. The kheer and Gulab Jamun were oversweetened, and will not gain any converts.   I give them points for the bittergourd.  I take away points for what I suspect was the addition of food coloring to the dishes—this is an old practice that has no place today.

The food here was not bad—it was decent.  But I am perplexed by the lack of creativity on a humdrum buffet menu of an Indian restaurant that has opened its doors in 2012.  Certainly, the clientele's demands have a lot to do with what a restaurant puts out.  This buffet will be a litmus test.  If the current menu does well, it will be because Indian restaurant diners in this county refuse to evolve and are comfortable with the tikka masalas of  the past—Indian food will degenerate into what the neighborhood Chinese restaurant has become today.

Taj Palace on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why is silver foil used in Indian confectionery and sweets?

Many years ago I returned from an Indian vacation carrying a box of Indian confectionery for my friends at the Midwestern company where I worked.  Things like barfi, kalakand and such, solidified milk based creations with sugar and other additives.  This was the early nineties, Indian food was not common in Minnesota, and it was likely their first exposure to Indian sweetmeats.  One of them looked with some doubt at the thin silver foil that covered one of these confections (it is meant to be eaten along with the piece).  Eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he popped it in.  But his hesitation got me thinking.

Silver foil, called varak, vark or chandi ka waraq,  has been used in all types of Indian sweets made with milk, dates, and nuts for at least a few hundred years and India uses up about 13 British tonnes of silver foil every year for this purpose.  Most likely this is because the antibacterial properties of silver has traditionally helped increase the shelf life of the confections.

This is not only an Indian thing.  More than a hundred years ago, milk would be preserved in the West by throwing in a silver coin.  Before penicillin came along, silver was part of wound dressings used in WWI.  The fact that silver, along with other metals such as copper and zinc can destroy living cells was figured out around 1893.

Why silver acts this way is not known for sure.  There are a few theories.  One is that the silver strips away and reacts with elements like sulfur present in bacterial cell membranes.  This affects the ability of the bacteria to respire, or to absorb energy so that it eventually dies.

Muslim artisans from Hyderabad specialize in hammering waraq out in micrometer thick foil between pieces of leather. While waraq  is supposed to be 99.9% silver, today there is likely far more danger from the spurious alloying of the silver—there are reports of this happening frequently.  The good news is that alloying silver reduces its ability to be “worked” into very thin sheets so there is a limit to the extent of contamination possible.

Visiting a regular, middle class Indian confectionary in a large Indian city can cause some anxiety to the tourist.  There are usually flies hovering around inside the glass cases where the food is stored.  Indian sweets however are unlikely to give stomach infections.  Quite aside from the silver foil, which not all confections have, the high sugar content can dehydrate and kill bacteria, curbing their growth.  Syrupy confections such as rossogollas are particularly effective in this regard. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Oh Calcutta

3rd Floor, Silver Arcade, 5 J.B.S. Halden Avenue, E M Bypass, Kolkata

Oh Calcutta is a nationwide “upscale” restaurant chain that serves Bengali food.  I visited the one in Delhi in 2005.  This time we went to the one on the Eastern Bypass in Kolkata.

For someone living in the United States, it is a pleasure to walk into an Indian restaurant with normal décor.  No hints of the colonial British Raj, no splash of Bollywood colors and tonality, none of the gimmickery used to promote Indian restaurants in the West.  Rabindra Sangeet, instead of sitar, wafted through the loudspeakers—Ei Monihar anay nahi shajey—the song Tagore wrote as he rejected his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh incident.

We started off with Mocha (banana flower) Chop and Prawn Cutlet as appetizers.  Preparing mocha is a labor-intensive process, and is therefore convenient to have at a restaurant. Eaten with a kasundo (mustard) dip, the “chops” were perfect—a crisp, browned batter free of oil on the outside, and a mashed matrix of mocha inside.  The prawn cutlets were also well made: the chopped prawn filling had a satisfying texture, and it was garnished with little bits of chili and coriander. 

As the main course, the four of us shared three plates.  One was Daab Chingri: prawn and coconut milk cooked inside a green coconut and then served inside the coconut.  The second dish was Kumro Pata Aam Achar Ilish—hilsa fish (shad is a close American relative to the hilsa) cooked with pumpkin leaves and a mango pickle. These are not every day household Bengali dishes, and are culled from old recipes going back two or three generations.  The third dish, Railway Mutton Curry, owes its name to the goat curry that is served on Indian trains, and is a straight up concoction of goat meat, potatoes, generous amounts of gravy, and fresh roasted spices.  These dishes, as is the Bengali way, were had with white rice.  The Daab Chingri was terrible.  A graduate student could cook better with a can of coconut milk and some garden variety frozen shrimp.  The other two dishes fared much better.  The deboned hilsa was tender and the mango pickle gave just the right highlights.  The railway mutton curry had nostalgia written all over it.  It is a simple curry that, with rice, can spin a devilish web of overindulgence.

While at the restaurant, we noticed the barman concocting some South Indian coffee for a customer, where the coffee is aerated by pouring the hot liquid repeatedly between two tumblers at a vertical separation of about three feet.  We asked for some, but were politely turned down-- this was not in the menu and was being made for a special customer.  The VIP lifestyle is sewn in to the Indian way of life! 

For dessert we settled for Nolen Gurer Ice Cream—ice cream flavored with liquid date palm jaggery (made by boiling the fresh sap of date palms).  While Nolen gur, a traditional syrup that is best had during the time of winter, is used extensively in the making of traditional confections, its introduction into ice creams is a recent development.  It had a somewhat fibrous texture and it was not unpleasant.  It will take me a few more tries before I can endorse it whole heartedly.

All in all, Oh Calcutta provides a decent array of Bengali food that is somewhat uneven in quality.  The food is not in the same league as in Kewpies, the Bengali restaurant near the Forum.  It is a chain restaurant and therefore there is some unavoidable routineness to the dishes. It is a quiet place with tasteful wooden décor, and a nice place for a business meal.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

India trip part II: Guwahati, IIT Kharagpur, and meeting the master blouse maker

We reach Assam to witness the mass exodus of Assamese and North-Easterners from Bangalore and a couple of other cities—an example of the hysteria that can be triggered by exponentially propagating text messages. In retaliation for anti-Muslim violence in parts of Assam, a few North-Eastern Indians are attacked in Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.  Scared by circulating text messages forewarning of a large-scale attack, thousands return back to Assam in a matter of days clogging train stations.  The news makes headlines.  Eventually, Pakistan is blamed.

Guwahati is a dense city, yet the jungle is not far.  There is a wildlife sanctuary less than 50 kms away. Some months back a leopard entered a busy section of the city, injuring and killing one person.  Inspite of this, it was then sedated and safely repatriated to the forests.  Such refinement and respect for animal life is unheard of in the United States.  Yet Guwahati was also the infamous site for a viral video (the 2nd most viewed on Yotube for a week) documenting the shocking molestation of a young girl in a public bar in front of a number of onlookers. A friend of my mother’s, a newspaper editor who was passing by stopped his car to investigate, and eventually rescued her.  “Save me uncle,” screamed the girl, running towards him.

The city is a concrete mess wholly out of plumb.  Houses that are beautiful inside, have bare unpainted concrete on the outside that soon starts succumbing to the elements. There is no wall of a house that runs straight or lies unmolested--they have been added onto, subtracted from, without harmony with the previous design. The native Assamese aesthetic of design and proportion has been overrun. There is an innate beauty to a house in a roadside Assamese town: a small front yard: a 1 storey wood frame and thatch wall construction with a slanted corrugated roof, a wide, cool concrete veranda facing the street, a cowshed by the side, some hay, a little motorcycle a hundred feet away from the litchi trees. Aside from an occasional building, this is now almost all gone.

Wifi spots are mushrooming in Guwahati.  Sitting at my parent’s home, I start picking up multiple locations on my laptop.  One of them is named “waheguru”.  Fingers crossed, I venture “sat sri akal” as the password.  No such luck.

Dripping rain in Assam is mesmerizing, and seemingly from an endless reservoir.  The rain bounces off leaves and walls and cornices, sounding like a mild drumroll all around. The humidity and the warmth provide an enormous driving force for organic growth, and surfaces precipitate to a blackish green slickness made of moss and algae.  Little puddles of water agglomerate on the streets.  Pedestrians navigate around them and each other on tippy toes, their raised umbrellas making love to one another like entwined serpents as they cross.  An empty cigarette packet that would otherwise have hidden amidst the dry grass now glistens and opens up to the foreground beneath the rain. Inside the house, the bedsheets have a damp feel, and there is steaming cup after steaming cup of tea to while away the morning reading newspapers that don't crackle anymore when they are opened.  Inspite of the randomness of this shamble of a city, there is a deep poetry to Guwahati that the rain and the surrounding hills bring about.

We are back in Kolkata, headed to the blouse maker’s establishment with a motor mouth of a cab driver.  He gives us a running commentary on the city, and speaks with instant authority. Educated, and as a professor, he would have made a successful fund raiser. He even recommends a blouse maker from CE market.  Our destination is on Chakraberia Lane, but he takes us to Chakraberia Road.  When I point out the discrepancy, he shrugs it off with “unish bish”, i.e. “19/20”: a small difference, something with an error bar well within the general scope of things.  Fear not, he says—I know this place like the palm of my hand.  When we are lost and find ourselves situated by a rectangular pond perimetered by four roads, he decides to call the blouse maker. 
“I am by the side of the pond.”
”Excellent—keep going, take the second right and we are located right there”. 
With this brief exchange our cabbie meaningfully drives off.  I feel like I am missing something about the mathematics of the situation.  We get lost again.

Jayesh the designer sits at his desk like a maverick mathematics professor at “Miss Chief”, his small fashion establishment tucked into a quiet upper middle class neighborhood in Poddopukur.  Children have interrupted a street soccer game near the entrance to let us through.  A large man with an unruly shock of hair, Jayesh’s desk is piled with textiles and design notes, and M has come here to get a few blouses tailored.  He shows us some examples and I am impressed at the both the designs and the technology.  He sits there like a sculptor with a 90 cm length of cloth and cuts and slices at it, till the finished piece is a fine tension between elegant design and an intricate support system worthy of its own finite element analysis.  Some textiles are gauzy and the weave is weak—they need an underlying fabric support; some have backs that plunge precipitously and require intricate halters and strings. M has settled for a more conservative design.  While she is in the trial room, I chat with him.  He comes from a 4th generation Marwari family in Kolkata and is comfortable with both cultures.  He has his own workshop for cutting, stitching and finishing and has dedicated groups of people who specialize on different pieces.  Mostly focused on salwar kameez’es and blouses, he is planning to introduce a line of designer sarees.  He talks about the trend in Kolkata today to use traditional weaving and printing methods, but with new designs and colors that veer away from the traditional combinations like “beige and maroon”.

One morning we drive to IIT Kharagpur.  A journey that used to be almost exclusively made by train is now comfortably short due to a new 4 lane national highway.  The drive down is smooth except for the occasional unsettling experience of steering past vehicles that drive in the wrong direction along short stretches.   The cars on the roads today are modern, but most of the trucks are of 70s/80s vintage and woefully unsafe.  There are smart, multi-lane tollbooths and stuck behind a line of trucks at one of them we find a group of men with stout wooden sticks banging hard against the sides of the trucks, while at the same time engaging in amicable banter with the truck drivers, the banging seemingly just a physical response entirely disconnected from the conversation.  There appears no action sought on the part of the truck driver and as the  line inches through the toll booths, the truck driver eventually moves on.  Our driver explains the situation—some of the lanes are exclusively reserved for cars, but the truck drivers willfully ignore this as a matter of procedure.  There is a team of baton wielding employees who are supposed to rectify this situation and the banging constitutes their token response to their duties.
Nivedita Bridge on way to Kharagpur

The road to Kharagpur runs parallel to the train lines.  Halfway through, around Mecheda, the ground starts taking on the reddish hue characteristic to this area.  There is mile after mile of paddy fields, mostly worked on by women sitting or squatting in the standing water.  There is very little mechanization,  and I only saw one tractor. The rest were a mix between hand steered contraptions with on-board engines, and oxen driven ploughs for tilling the land.  Primitive thatch huts dot the land, and clusters of one and two storey simple brick houses form occasional idyllic villages with ponds ringed by palm trees.  Men stand lazily by the shades of scraggly trees herding goats, children walk by to and from school on sun scorched red earth lanes.  Twenty to thirty years ago, one would not have seen so many school children. 

I am back at IIT Kharagpur, my alma mater, after 24 years.  The feelings are that of a stranger after so many years.  While the place has dramatically changed, there remain obvious places of immense geographic familiarity—the dorms, the passageways in the main building, the amphitheater.  But I have a hard time connecting—too many years have passed by and the nostalgia is absent.  I meet some of my older professors that have remained, and some current professors who were my contemporaries as students.  I am received with great warmth.  In the afternoon, I sit in the lobby of the women’s dorm while M walks in to take a look.  It is just after 1 pm and the students walk out of the lobby after lunch headed back to class.  They  leave briskly and individually without interacting with one another.  A little later I see the same phenomenon in the men’s dorm where I used to live. They looked like salarymen going to work, shoulders heaving with responsibility, a lot on their minds.  This is an entirely different mindset from the mid eighties.

In the evening before returning we stop at a Café Coffee Day on campus.  The place is abuzz.  Students sit in groups or are out on a date sipping lattes.  The change in prosperity from our times is evident.  Chhedis, the rudimentary bench and shack student hangout from our times is now banished to outside the campus.  The students appear a lot more health conscious.  At dusk many of them jog around the campus.  In the eighties unless you were a bona-fide athlete, you never jogged.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kolkata trip part I: Dubai, Kolkata saris, and the perfect blouse-maker

For two days I waited for the hummingbird in vain.  One rainy morning it hovered around my back deck, preening, pouting and daring me in mid-air.  I borrowed a telephoto from a friend and then lay in wait with my camera for two afternoons.  It stood me up, flickering by only on the eve of our trip to India in a farewell swoop—its speed, its upredictable trajectory, and the low light conditions preventing me from getting off a good shot. 

It was with this feeling of rejection that I reached JFK airport the next morning, only to await further rejection and find that Emirates had now cancelled M’s confirmed reservation: a slip of electronics somewhere in the labyrinthine depths of the web, her seat gone, with no recourse, no paper trail, and no apologies.  This too was sorted out eventually by a sympathetic Emirates employee, and after this bit of drama we were on the plane and outbound.

Dubai airport, where we changed planes for Kolkata is like a halfway house for India.  Large groups of migrant workers from the sub-continent throng the airport, headed back home with packages and brown boxes with laptops, young men in tight jeans, chunky sneakers, and bulging backpacks made with 21st century polymers that promise a lifetime of rugged adventure.  The man sitting next to me on the flight back to Kolkata is from Bahrampur (Berhampore), a small town in western Bengal.  He is rushing back to tend to an ailing father—the call had come in that morning. After graduating with a degree in telecommunications engineering he moved on to management studies, and from then on to banking, which is what he did in Dubai. 

This apathy towards engineering is a widespread trend.  Indians have historically loathed manual labor and there is little excitement for building things with one’s own hands. As an example, India is among the cheapest wireless and broadband providers in the world today (~$20 for 10 GB of data transfer using a 3G usb dongle); mobile telephony is omnipresent, yet, unlike other emerging Asian nations, India has no presence in the setting of technical standards in the wireless world.  The chipsets are Huawei, the marketing plans Indian. The bookshops and the business intellectual environment are filled with thoughts on management, on brand value, on deals, on things and stuff that can be done with the stroke of a keyboard—the country’s elite has taken to these like a fish to water.  But there is little enthusiasm for noodling around, innovating into and not around the skin of a technology.

Kolkata, for all the derision afforded it by my non-Bengali friends, is on a roll.  An entire industrial sector dedicated to the IT industry is coming up near the airport. It brings to life what a Bengali minister had once mentioned—you can fly into Kolkata, finish your meeting and be back at the airport in the time it would take to get halfway to your business destination in Bangalore from its airport.  The metro rail is being extended all the way to the airport.  Large flyover constructions are in progress along the Eastern Bypass, stifling traffic for now, but beneficial in the long run.  The traffic volume gets less unruly and further regularized every time I see it. 

We visit a new sari shop in Hindustan Park called Byloom (  It is on a residential street in a reconfigured residential house with old stone floors.  A stream of customers flow by and it is popular among high brow Bengali film actresses whose tastes are not to be confused with those of their Bollywood counterparts.  The owners get their designs executed by artisans from various parts of Bengal, adhering to traditional textile making methods.  I try to take a photograph and am sternly warned.  Perhaps I might consternate a private customer.  The saris are unique, elegant, often muted, and with appealing color sense. They are not the loud, often garish designer saris that are immensely popular in the rest of India.  The prices will cause you to raise both eyebrows multiple times. 

Buying the right sari, I learn, leads to now finding the right blouse maker, a task not to be trifled with.  I ask several of my old high school buddies to recommend a tailor that M could visit.  I receive some, but none that are unqualified.  My women friends of Kolkata, I learn, are in perpetual search for the perfect blouse maker, and there is a fluid pool of tailors who fall in and out of favor depending upon how much the wearer and the blouse have deviated in the interval between the initial specifications and the final product. The perfect blouse maker does not exist, just as the perfect energy conversion engine does not exist. 

I am told that Manohar and Jayasree near Triangular Park and New Market have excellent tailors, and am referred to friendly Shombhuda from Jayasree, but then reminded that they did mess up a few times.  I recall Rajesh Khanna leering over glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose in “Ladies Tailor”, and wondered about his sartorial skills in this Bollywood flick from the 70s.  Debasree’s in Hindustan Park is a bit “nose up in the air”, pricey, but good.  Shantibabu is an independent entrepreneur who will come to your house to do a fitting.  And there is Ladies Creation, on Wood Street.  The choices are many. I like the comforting names—Debasree, Jayasree, Shombhuda, Shantibabu—they permeate the ears with the roundedness of a warm bowl of water.  They suggest new possibilities: perhaps I might find a blouse tailor named Nachiketa, or in a store bearing that most Bengali of Bengali names—Kadombori, or what about Kanakalata—these are just the K’s and the options could be endless.  I learn more about saris and blouses than I had signed up for.  More on this later.

We take a week long break to spend time with my parents in Guwahati.  The road from the airport is long and straight, and the landscape almost rural on either side, though incongruously dotted with large billboards for all sorts of luxury goods. Then, after a few kilometers the road degenerates into the urban mess that is modern Guwahati.  With the Brahmaputra river on one side and hills on the other, a more dramatic setting could not exist for a city.   This beauty lies to waste today as the city looks inwards and relentlessly deconstructs from this ideal in aimless random geometries of concrete, construction and automobiles. 

My parents live on a property settled by the oldest of my uncles in the 1930s, who shared this land equitably with his five brothers. Only two people remain here from that generation—one brother’s wife now 96, and my father, 88.  Until a few years ago my father would walk up the stairs to her house—ramrod straight—every day after dinner and spend a quiet hour chatting and reading the newspaper.  Now, injuries and illness have left them frail, confined in movement, unable to see one another for the last two years.  I took my father by hand one morning and helped him climb the stairs.  Tears flowed down my aunt’s eyes as they both sat in her room in celebration of the days past; both near deaf and unable to communicate verbally.  He was 13 when she married into the household in 1938 at the age of 21 and she had played the role of his guardian in a large joint family household. She sat there, on her 75 year old bed that had witnessed her marriage and the death of her husband, her gaze steadfast upon her brother-in-law, dabbing at her tears, occasionally reaching out for and holding his hand.  They were the last two from their generation, the others long gone. What memories they must be sharing in this moment of silent companionship.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bongo Sanmelan 2012, Las Vegas--the North American Bengali Conference

Rukkho (parched) is a word that the Bengali must have specially crafted for masters of ceremonies to use in Las Vegas in 105 F weather—and they used it often.  The dry desert sparked them like a tinderbox, and in introducing the many performers at the recently concluded North American Bengali Conference,  a series of brightly clad  Bengali MCs thundered through with overdriven hyperbole, and an organic urge to unite—via their words-- this harsh landscape ablaze with lights that they had alighted upon, with the dreaminess of Bengal that they had on their minds.  And thus began the opening ceremonies for NABC 2012 on a Friday at the Paris Hotel in Vegas, in an ocean of a ballroom, with a larger than life master-of-ceremonies, who held back no compliments in describing her performers, at times lapsing into over-the-top English that meandered wildly.  It is the tradition of average Bengali rhetoric to deploy a cascade of descriptive similes in praise when one would have sufficed.  And these words came gurgling out in torrents as the announcers put on a clinic: beautiful gemlike phrases, polished over multiple deliveries till they shone, meaning little but emphasizing much.  Every performer was deemed a maestro, every aspiring singer marked as making the transition from a household Bengali name to a “global” talent.

It is always evening in the Paris Hotel arcade, with cobbled streets, cafes, and a cloudy sky beneath the ceiling in stereotypical verisimilitude to the city that is its namesake.  Under sophisticated mood lighting that brought to mind a Paris evening (sans Vietnamese restaurants or North African neighborhoods), and in between the throngs of weekend tourists, there was the swish of saris and the rustle of silk as 5000 Bengalis descended and clogged the restaurants and byways in celebration of the NABC.
The NABC program kicked off with a grand dance involving a large number of participants dancing to various Bengali tunes on an aesthetically decorated stage.  Once you got past the announcer’s harangue, things were quite straightforward and, indeed simplistic enough, such that when a song began describing the mahouts (elephant handlers) of North Bengal, there appeared an enormous (real) African elephant in the ballroom, right in front of the stage, steered by its American mahout. This was Vegas, there was a real elephant around, and if you are going to sing a song about mahouts, why screw around? It set the tone for the next three days.
This was a quality program over 3 days that covered a range of cultural events catering to many tastes.  There was North and South Indian classical music by Pandit Jasraj and L. Subramanian.  There was Baul music—Bengali folk songs by wandering minstrels who believe in free love and the overcoming of earthly aspirations.  The singer Lakhan Das Baul played the part with his rich earnest voice, long hair, and the orange robes of a Baul, though this did not stop him from falling to the temptations of signal processing on his voice mike.  There was even a Bengali rock band, Fossil, fronted by an intense singer with shaggy hair that he violently and occasionally shook while striking different postures. Though infected with the same verbal bombast that seems an ethnic affliction,  he did manage to get the audience on its feet in a rousing performance.  Here was a band playing in Vegas that was an example of globalization: a bunch of Bengalis playing American chord patterns and melodies, singing songs that only someone born in Bengal would appreciate, and a talented lead guitarist named Allan Ao who could shred with the best of them. 
A reason to attend the NABC is to be able to attend the numerous Bengali plays that are staged.  One of them came from Kolkata, and was centered on Bomkesh, the legendary sleuth.  It was a stylized rendition that—in the end—could not rise above its own vanity.  The rest of the plays were from amateur theater groups across North America—I was impressed at the number of IIT Kharagpur alumni in many of these groups.  Yours truly, a participant in one of these plays, suspects the hand of Piskunov behind this correlation.

The closing ceremonies on Sunday involved an ambitious dance on the enormous ballroom stage that included almost every major Indian dance form represented right alongside local Las Vegas dancers.  This fusion was largely successful and then, a few minutes before the end, the lights went off in the room.  I wondered whether the elephant would now reappear. “5000 Indians traumatized in the dark by marauding African elephant in Las Vegas” the headlines would have read.

But, as is the case with the complicated Bengali mind, the closing ceremonies were not the closing program for the event.  That honor belonged to Shankar Mahadevan, the nationally known singer and the event’s big draw.  He came on a couple of hours after the closing ceremony, however he sang Hindi film songs.  And therefore, in order to keep the order of things the way they ought to be, the NABC observed its formal closing ceremony earlier in the evening, signing off on all things Bengali.

M while taping my play made the acquaintance of an interesting gentleman, a connoisseur of drama.  He had read our play, knew the number of characters in it.  No, he would not watch a play in the large ballroom.  He would only watch it in the smaller theater that we were in, for it had the right ambience.  He was fussy, but he was my man—the right kind of person who would watch theater.  He seemed like he wanted to talk.  And to unburden himself.  He had lost his wife a few years ago and was here at the NABC with his young daughter.  He had stopped doing plays now.  I met him the next day, at another event.  After M introduced us, he went back to the subject of my play.  He had plans of doing this play some time.  “Chhok’ey pheley diyechi” he told me.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tokyo food: a quartet of dishes

On this trip to Tokyo, I took my older son along and took a few days off to poke around the city with a focus on the food. 

Daiwa Sushi, Tsukiji Fish Market
The first morning we took a cab at 4:30 in the morning to the Tsukiji fish market and had a breakfast of sushi at Daiwa Sushi, a bit of a tourist trap.  It is a tiny place, with a bar that holds about 8 people.  Serviced by two hawkish chefs who nevertheless smile a lot, they pounce upon you and deploy to your plate a piece of sushi at the rate of roughly a piece every minute.  Once it is all over, which is about 15 minutes, they stand in silence  in polite, but expectant anticipation of your departure.  Customers are lined up outside and your residence time is supposed to be short.  Everything here is sized like the ramshackle shacks that you see in India, except that the insides are anything but ramshackle.  Knowing little about sushi beyond consuming it at New York restaurants run mostly by Chinese proprietors, we found the fish delicious.  The chefs were no doubt expert—there is a legend that the best sushi chefs are able to swoop up a ball of rice with exactly the same number of grains every single time.  It was all good.  Was it worth $45 for about 15 minutes?  I don’t know.  There is something disingenuous about paying so much money for food, as M says.
Sushi at Daiwa

Ramen Museum at Shin-Yokohama
I never go to Japan without hitting up a few Ramen restaurants and this time was no different.  The first was the Mecca of Ramen—the Ramen Museum in Yokohama (, not exactly Tokyo, but close enough). There are 10 little Ramen shops here specializing in regional varieties and run by some of the most famous Ramen shops in Japan.  We stopped at one stall for Shio Ramen.  A tiny, tiny place where you share a table with strangers, and a small kitchen steaming with the vapors boiling off of thick cauldrons.  This was the best Ramen that both my son and I have ever had.  A delicately complex broth with a parallelism of tastes, mellow as a refined piano, and a viscocity that is neither watery nor lumpy.  Ramen houses zealously guard the recipes for their broth and there is as much mystique here as the number of ingredients in them.
Shio Ramen at the Ramen Museum
Shio Ramen near Ryogoku Station

Monja in Asakusa, and Chanko Nabe, the Sumo wrestler’s hotpot
Based upon a colleague’s recommendation, we visited a small place specializing in Monja, in a little alleyway near the Asakusa train station that an old man walked us to out of the kindness in his heart.   Monja is a traditional Japanese vegetable and batter based pancake.   You sear the mix on a hot surface on the table till it gets a thin crusty burnt surface, then scrape it up with a spatula to eat.  This meal was okay, but did not make me a Monja fan.
Monja in Asakusa

The last of this quartet, Yoshiba restaurant in Ryogoku,  (—was a place near the Sumo Stadium known for Chanko Nabe—a nourishing hotpot loaded with mushrooms, vegetables and seafood that Sumo wrestlers consume after the morning’s practice.  This is a big thermal mass of a broth that simmers slowly on your table, and the more you allow it to simmer, the more the flavors diffuse into the watery broth.  Sumo is the central theme of this restaurant. Diners sit around a central area set up as a Sumo ring.  A stand up comedian with three sidekicks, one an ex-wrestler, cracked jokes in Japanese—he was, I was led to understand, quite good.  A drunk businessman in a suit and an Australian associate sat cross legged on mats at a table with two ladies.  The drunk would have moments of clarity during which he would scoop up mouthfuls of noodles and then, without notice, lapse into a near unconscious state . As his head bowed and his torso slipped balance,  his companion would gently revive him by rubbing a wet towel on his bald head.  Five minutes later the man would snap back, and with googly eyes, go back to slurping his noodles.  This pendellosung continued undamped through the evening and I marveled at the elasticity of the man’s liver.  The Australian chatted with the two women. We gently kept at the Chanko Nabe, while watching this miscellany unfold.  All in all, a unique way to end a couple of day’s trip to Tokyo.
Chanko Naben at Yoshiba

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Prince Ranji Smile and the first Indian restaurants in New York

A dinner menu from Ranji (Utica Sunday Journal, Oct 13, 1899)
It has been years since I was back in New York and it felt good as the Pullman car eased into Grand Central Station.  It is 1939 and when I walk out there is a light snow falling while  overcoated men in hats, and women in long skirts mill around.  I have not had an Indian meal in months and I am overjoyed to find that my guide book notes at least four East Indian restaurants nearby.    As I head to the Ceylon India Inn, the oldest among them, I am reminded of my dear friend, the indomitable, larger than life, Prince Ranji Smile, who brought Indian cooking into this city in 1899.

I, Jatindra N. Guha, came to New York City from Calcutta to study chemistry at Columbia University as a student in 1919.  Those first months there was an abiding sense of loneliness and I yearned to be back in Bengal. It was at this time of my personal misery that I met Ranji, already two decades in this country, married three times, a general man-about-town whose purpose in life was to bring East Indian food to the Americans at cafés and restaurants across the Eastern seaboard.  One evening he took me to the Café de Beaux Arts where he was a visiting chef, and told me his story.

Today though I was hungry and my first stop was at the Ceylon India Inn, the oldest Indian restaurant in the United States (though Ranji would dispute this).  It began as the Ceylon Restaurant in 1913 and moved to its current walk up location at 148 W. 49th. Street.  Great men used to come to this place. Rudolph Valentino came by one day and introduced it to his many friends.  How I remembered you, Ranji, as I sat there. 

Do you remember the time you told me about your first job here in 1899 as the Indian chef at Sherry’s at 44th and 5th Avenue? And the sumptuous dinner in 1903 that C.G.K. Billings threw with his guests on real horses in the dining room of Sherry’s?  You were a young man in 1899, you had just arrived, and you truly believed the Indian curry dishes that you served would make American women more beautiful!  Alas, I was a chemist, and I did not believe you—but I went along because you could lift folks up in a whirlwind of hope.

The customers at Ceylon India Inn were a mixed bag this day.  Curious Americans, Americans who were used to curry, East India Englishmen, and a sizable contingent of lascars, the India seamen who came in from the docks. There is enough interest in Indian food to support quite a few other Indian restaurants —Rajah, East India Curry House, Longchamps Restaurant, Ceylon Restaurant (on 8th Ave at 43rd St), Bengal Tiger, and The Taj Mahal Hindu restaurant (43rd St between 9th. And 10th. Ave), which was the second Indian eatery to open in New York (1918).  The red hot Sinhalese pepper steak at Ceylon India Inn seemed a perennial favorite among the firinghees, but the Hindoos avoided it.  There were plentiful curries, fried coconuts, chutneys and even tamarind wine that I had never heard of in India.  You can have lunch today for 60c and dinner for 75c.  Prices have gone up some since our days here.

List of Indian restaurants in Manhattan in 1939 (from The New York City: Vol 1, New York City Guide(1939)

You would spend these past decades, Ranji, up and down the Eastern Coast, pushing Indian fare to Americans.  It was a difficult task for an audience that you said needed to be entertained as much as fed, and who would be oblivious to the difference between Turkish, Persian, and Indian food.  You were a presence, with what one newspaper would call “smooth black hair and the whitest of teeth”, a phantasm between fact and fiction as you stood in your linen white kurta and turban lined with gold braid: gentle, persuasive and ingratiating at the same time, assuring them they would be back once they tried your dish.  And you were so right.  You were a hit with the ladies, who came in droves dressed in their shirred white frocks, Princesse robes and other modish dresses.  They all wanted you to make them a large turban like yours.  You would tell them that you were were knighted by King Edward in 1898 as “King of the Chafing Dish”.  Inspite of your bombast, you did thrill your diners with your cuisine and the leading establishments of the time signed you on as special chef—at the Waldorf, at Louis Bustanoby’s,  and at the Café de Beaux Arts.

After you joined Sherry’s Restaurant as “Joe”, their Indian chef, you were the first to offer East Indian curries to the public in New York and, because Sherry’s was then--like Delmonico’s--the most exclusive of the exclusives, your fame spread far and wide.  It was the most unlikely place ever to serve Indian curry –Sherry’s--with its grand ornamented ballroom, dark velvet drapery with tassels, and the heavy hand of American wealth.  Then coming into some money yourself, you left for India and returned in style in 1903—no longer “Joe”, but “Prince” Ranji T. Smile, the son of Princess Zora Kahlekt and the Amir Haji Narbeboky of Baluchistan, with a retinue of 15 East Indian servants. How your eyes would twinkle when you told this story, and how the befuddled India Office sent frantic wires across the Atlantic on your account as the media went into a frenzy.  

You claimed to have opened the first Indian restaurant in America, “Omar Khayyam” at 325 Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th. St.  in 1903.  The papers tell a different story.  That you brought your retinue to America via London to serve as waiters and staff but that the United States immigration service caught on and deported most of your staff.  So I believe that the restaurant never came to fruition.

I lost touch with you after 1924.  The newspapers had dropped you by then and you have now been swept up and lost in the breeze of this magnificent city.  The buildings that you touched were Indian restaurants at one time that only few others know of today; restaurants with their own curious clientele, tourists for a few moments in their own country.  I returned to my hotel this evening following a long walk along Riverside Park and missed this transplanted generation of ours whose presence has now been peeled off of the face of this city.


I have tried to keep the historical facts accurate in this fictionalized account.  There was a Prince Ranji, referred to variously as Ranji T. Smile, J. Ranji Smile or Prince Rangi Smile—a fascinating minor social character in NYC and the East Coast who probably cooked Indian food well enough to be an Indian chef at various leading restaurants.   It would be accurate to call him the father of Indian cuisine in the US.  He was also a teller of tall tales, leveraging his exoticity to stay in the papers and the public eye. Many newspaper entries from 1899-1913 chronicle his culinary and marital exploits, and his run-ins with the law (he had a colorful existence).  These are Google archive news searchable, and a few of these articles appeared in:
Utica Sunday Journal, Oct 13, 1899
From NY Tribune Aug 7, 1912.
New York Times, Jun 7, 1915
New York Times, Apr 25, 1903

In addition Colleen Sen has an excellent blog entry on Ranji Smile,

Ranji did begin his career in the US as an Indian cook at Sherry’s in New York City in 1899 .  He was probably not around during the millionaire C.G.K. Billing’s (built the mansion in Ft. Tyron) famous dinner party on horseback at Sherry’s (for an excellent account of this see, though I have taken the liberty of suggesting that he was.  The last entry that I could find for Ranji was his entry through Ellis Island in 1924 under the name of Rangi Smile.

Ellis Island records also indicate a Jatindra N. Guha who entered the US a few times starting in 1919.  It appears that this same character was enrolled at Columbia University as a student in 1919 in the sciences/engineering.  Later on, there is a US patent on food processing with Jatindra N. Guha (Los Angeles) as inventor that was issued in 1938.  I have interpolated between these three data points to create this character.  There appears no record that he actually knew Ranji Smile—this is a ficticious addition.

Ceylon India Inn had a successful run into the 1970s and a New York Times article referred to it as a gem in the midst of the porn and sleaze of 1970s era 49th. Street.  It survived until 1985 and throughout the years garnered favorable reviews.  More recently it appears to have been reincarnated as “Bombay Masala” at the same location under new management.  Tripadvisor ratings though have not been encouraging.  The Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant, the second oldest Indian eatery also seems to have survived till the 1960’s, since there is a 1963 article in the Los Angeles Times that refers to its “Maharaja Dinner”. 

( For Ceylon India Inn see for instance, the Berkely Daily Gazette in 1934,

Descriptions of Indian restaurants during this period may be found in The New York City: Vol 1, New York City Guide from 1939 (searchable in Google books), and a concise account in  There have been two scholars Vivek Bald, and Krishnendu Ray who have also referred to some of the early Indian restaurants in their papers.