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The King of Curry Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006 13:16


Originally published in Food Arts, September 2006

In October 1899, an intriguing figure in New York City restaurant history made his debut at Louis Sherry's eponymous new restaurant at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. J. Ranji Smile was not only the country's first Asian-Indian chef; he was one of the earliest celebrity chefs and one whose culinary skills and escapades would be chronicled in the American press for the next 15 years.

Sherry discovered Smile at London's Savoy hotel and brought him to New York to “initiate the fashionable set into the mysteries and delights of East Indian cooking,” as Harper’s Bazaar put it in an article titled “A Chef from India: Women Go Wild over Him.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Smile was creating a sensation with his “oriental” dishes: “The fancy for curries, which is the foundation for all Indian dishes, seems to have taken possession of everyone who has eaten of them.”

Smile thrived on publicity. He told reporters he had wanted to be a great chef from an early age and learned his trade in his native Karachi and the large hotels of Calcutta and Bombay. In 1894, at the age of 2I, he became a curry chef at London’s Cecil Court Hotel and Savoy; among the latter’s patrons was the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII (who, like his mother, Queen Victoria, was a devotee of Indian food). But Smile's origins are something of a mystery. Ranjit (or Ranji) is a Hindu name, while the surname Smile could be an anglicization of Ismail, a Muslim surname, or a pure fabrication. He also claimed that his father was a wealthy merchant—highly unlikely, since a cook in India, however talented, ranked little higher than a domestic servant.

By all accounts, Smile was an attractive, affable fellow—“a most picturesque Hindoo,” Harper’s Bazaar called him. He normally wore a white linen suit and a pale blue silk turban trimmed with gold braid but on special occasions donned a long black satin-lined coat, an embroidered sash, and a turban bearing a medal from the maharaja of Coach Behar for his service. He asked reporters to call him “Joe,” spoke English fluently, and had “soft insinuating manners.” When serving guests, he delicately transferred rice from a serving dish to a diner’s plate, making sure that each grain fell separately; performed a salaam to the host—“Will you have the curry hot or mild, sahib?”; and gently ladled chicken, lobster, or veal curry onto the rice.

Smile was articulate about his craft. “Americans live too fast a life and die too soon,” he told an interviewer. “Your great trouble in this country is the hurried cooking. I almost feel like fainting as I go to some of your great resorts, look into your kitchens, and see the way the food is prepared. This gives dyspepsia." By contrast, Indian food is very healthful and easily digestible, and that, according to Smile, is the reason Indians lead very long lives. It is not invariably hot, as Americans believe; rather, each dish must be prepared with its own, individual spice mixture, made from freshly ground spices. Curries must be simmered slowly, never boiled. In Smile's view; Americans cannot make good curries, because they are in too much of a hurry. They also use the same spice mixture for beef and chicken and fish (as, unfortunately, some mediocre Indian restaurants still do).

Only one Smile menu has come down to us, and the transcription is so garbled that we can only guess at some of the dishes. It starts with Murghi Kain, possibly chicken cayenne, and Muskee Sindh, which could be a fish dish prepared in the style of Sind. The main course, Curry of Chicken Madras, was no doubt a standard curry similar to those served in clubs and army messes during the Raj.

The side dishes included Magi (vegetables, in Hindi) and Bombay Duck. Bombay Duck is a dried, pungent salted fish that is usually fried, but at Sherry's it was more likely curried duck, which would have been more congenial to Western tastes. The meal was accompanied by a pappadum, a crisp flatbread usually made from lentils, The salad course (not part of a traditional Indian meal) was fancifully called Lettuce Ceylon. Dessert was Melon Kandahari.

After two years Smile left Sherry's, ostensibly to retrieve an inheritance in India. He turned up in London, where, under the name Prince Smile of Baluchistan, he engaged a suite of hotel rooms for a retinue of 30 dancing girls, musicians, and valets. That set off such a furor that the Indian foreign office issued a bulletin asserting that there was no such title. In 1901 the group sailed for Montreal and then took the train to New York City. The attendants were allowed to enter the country on the grounds they were the attendants of a visiting potentate. Smile's boasts that he was a prince had reached New York—much to the amusement of the staff at Sherry's. Smile and his British wife protested that it was all a misunderstanding. With the backing of Roland and Stanley Conklin, he opened a lavishly decorated Indian restaurant at 325 Fifth Avenue, opposite The Waldorf-Astoria, which was then located on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (where the Empire State Building now stands), using his retainers as staff When immigration officials learned of the act, they charged Smile with violating U.S. labor law and deported the poor retainers, who said they had been hoodwinked into believing their employer was a real prince. The restaurant soon went bankrupt.

Over the next decade Smile earned a living by giving lectures and demonstrations under the name "Prince Ranji Smile, the King of Curry Cooks," He worked as a chef in various establishments—a resort hotel in Oscawana, New York; Boston's Fairmont Copley Plaza; Harveys at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.—and owned an oriental grocery store on 42nd Street in Manhattan. His attempts to open another restaurant in Manhattan failed.

And Smile was often in the news, though not for his culinary accomplishments. He was arrested on an almost annual basis for drunkenness and on several occasions reported he had been robbed by his drinking companions, who invariably included what one reporter called “naughty young women.”

In 1907 the Washington Post heralded the arrival of Prince Ranji Smile, the fifth son of the emir of Baluchlstan, his new wife, Miss Rose Schlueter of St. Louis, and a retinue of dancing girls and jugglers. The couple said they planned to go to Baluchistan, where the bride would be presented to the royal court. In the meantime, they remained in residence in the city for the winter. Smile told the capital's reporters (who, unlike their New York counterparts, appear to have taken his claims seriously) that he was a graduate of Cambridge University, a relative of many Indian princes, and a close friend of King Edward VII, who presented him with a set of gold buttons with the royal seal at the time of his coronation.

In 1912 Smile married again, this time to 20 year old Violet Ethel Rochlitz of New York, who announced her conversion to Islam. In 1913 the couple departed for Delhi, where they planned to open “a real Indian restaurant for the poor American tourists, who never have had anything good to eat since they began to look up Kipling's country.”

The same year, New York's first Indian restaurant, Ceylon India Inn, opened its doors, at 148 West 49th Street. It remained at that location until at least the mid-1960s, By the end of the 1920S the city had half a dozen Indian restaurants, among them Rajah, on 44th Street west of Broadway. Mainly patronized by students, they were known for their fiery curries, Today New York City has the largest and most diverse concentration of Indian restaurants in North America. But, sadly, hardly anyone remembers J. Ranji Smile, King of the Curry Chefs.