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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Indian Food in the US: 1909-1921

By Anita Mannur |
OCTOBER 18, 2011
What are the historical origins of Indian restaurants in the US? Though ubiquitous in large North American cities and smaller towns that dot the landscape, the history of restaurants serving Indian food in the US remains under discussed. Indeed, very little is known about when and where Indian restaurants first appeared in the United States, who frequented these eating establishments and which cities they were located in. ... very little is known about when and where Indian restaurants first appeared in the United States, who frequented these eating establishments and which cities they were located in.Scholars, notably Vivek Bald and Krishnendu Ray, have documented evidence of the earliest restaurants. Ray for instance, chronicles some of the early restaurants that existed in New York, while Bald goes into more detail in discussing the historical, cultural and social context of these restaurants. If we look through the historical archives, particularly of newspapers from the 1900s -1920s in New York and Chicago, one notes that Indian cuisine was an occasional topic of discussion. Of note is the fact that both restaurants and Indian cuisine writ large were topics that captured the fancy of journalists.

In an article that appeared in the pages of the New York Times on April 3, 1921, Helen Bullitt Lowry discusses one of the first known restaurants to appear in New York. Towards the end of the article, which discusses the changes wrought on the city of New York by the influx of immigrants from Europe, Lowry mentions the role of immigrant foodways in this new New York. Though the article situates immigration largely as a European phenomenon, towards the end of the article, Lowry addresses the new immigrant cuisines from China and India, mentioning a new addition to New York City’s culinary scape: "Six short weeks ago and Indian restaurant was discovered on Eight Avenue near Forth-second Street. Grave Indian gentlemen, with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads used to come in for their curry and rice. Six short weeks—and already the restaurant is half full of tourists, eagerly peering at each other for turbans and local color.” Though Lowry does not know the name of the restaurant, evidence from other sources suggests that she is referring to the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant located at 243 W. 42nd Street. An advertisement for the restaurant appears in the pages of the February 1920 issue of Young India dating the restaurant to a few years earlier, while a search through the archives of the New York Times leads Vivek Bald to note that near boarding houses which were home to South Asian laborers—dock workers, restaurant workers, factory workers—that were located on Eight Avenue were a smattering of South Asian restaurants. Bald notes that only four blocks to the west of the Eight Avenue Boarding house were, “two of the first Indian restaurants in the city, which were four blocks south: the Ceylon Restaurant (est. 1913) on Eighth Avenue at Forty-Third Street and the Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant (est. 1918) on Forty-Third Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, as well as to the Ceylon India Inn, an expansion of the Eighth Avenue Ceylon which was opened in 1923 nearby on West Forty-Ninth Street” (67).

Though there appears to be some discrepancy between the advertisement in Young India and the restaurant’s record of incorporation the 18 May, 1918 issue of the New York Times in terms of where Taj Mahal Hindu Restaurant was located, they appear to be the same eating establishment. And as Bald notes, these restaurants around the four-block radius of Eighth Avenue were also gathering spaces for South Asians to talk about politics, labor and working conditions.

But lest we think Indian food was only a topic of discussion in the early 1920s, we can also turn to the journalistic accounts of Indian food in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Articles from 1909 authored by the prolific writer Saint Nihal Singh frequently address the fascination Westerners in India had for the country’s food. A consistent refrain in Singh’s work is the idea that Indian food is easy to recreate in the US. As such, each article also includes short recipes alongside a narrative explanation of the foodways of contemporary India.

Many studies of Asian American foodscapes focus on the contexts of post-1965 immigration. But as these sporadic articles in the New York Times and Chicago Daily Tribune suggest, Indian food and restaurants were very much part of the affective landscape of the early 1900s. While life would alter dramatically in 1924 with the passing of the Johnson-Reed Act, effectively banning immigration from South Asia, a glimpse into these brief accounts attest to the place of food in the lives of some of the earliest immigrants from South Asia to the Midwest and East coast.

• Bald, Vivek. “‘Lost’ in the City: Spaces and Stories of South Asian New York, 1917 – 1965” South Asian Popular Culture. 5.1. (2007): 59-76.
• Lowry, H.B. “The Old World in New York” New York Times. 3 April 1921: 37.
• ‘‘New Incorporations.’’ New York Times 18 May 1918: 18.
• Ray, Krishnendu. “Exotic Restaurants and Expatriate Home Cooking: Indian Food in Manhattan.” In The Globalization of Food. Eds. David Inglis and Debra Gimlin. Oxford: Berg, 2009. 213-226.
• Singh, Saint Nihal. “Dainty Dishes of the Hindoo Pleasing to American Palates” Chicago Daily Tribune. 3 October 1909. F6.
• Singh, Saint Nihal. “Dishes New to the Occident” Chicago Daily Tribune. 3 June 1909: E2.

Anita Mannur is Assistant Professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies at Miami University. Her book, Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (Temple University Press, 2010) is one of the first full-length studies of food in the South Asian diasporic cultural imagination.