Oldest Indian Restaurant in United States
Curry India located in heart of New York City in Times Square area sits on the longtime site of the former Ceylon India Inn, one of the first Indian restaurants established in New York City in 1915. It served meals to many of the South Asian workers who lived in boarding houses in the area, who lived in boarding houses in the area, as well as to two generations of inquisitive New Yorkers.
K. Yaman Kira
Ceylon India Inn’s owner was K.Yaman Kira, who was born around 1884 in Kandy, a city in what is today Sri Lanka.
Originally a Kandyan dancer, he toured the United States in 1904 and then returned in 1909 with another Kandyan
troupe, which often toured with American circuses. Kira and the group even lived for a time in Bridgeport, Connecticut,
home of the Barnum and Bailey Circus when it was not on the road. In 1913, Kira married Elizabeth Eckhard, herself
an immigrant from Germany. Perhaps marriage prompted Kira to give up dancing, settle down, and start a restaurant.
What set Ceylon India Inn apart from the other Indian restaurants in New York at the time was that it rapidly
developed into a sort of community center and meeting place for South Asians in Manhattan. According to
historian Vivek Bald, the Kiras offered temporary shelter to Ceylonese sailors who had jumped ship, while
in the restaurant, “Indian seamen shared space with political exiles and students from the subcontinent”
Yaman Kira was anything but dogmatic, opening his doors to just about anyone who wanted to celebrate something. The founding banquet of the India Independence League of America took place at the Ceylon India Inn in 1930, as did the unveiling the same year of a suggested Indian national flag. Kira was a Buddhist and held celebrations of Buddha’s birthday, but the restaurant also hosted a memorial for the founder All-India Muslim League.
Excerpts from the past...
Lunch @ Ceylone India in year 1939
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 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 excited. 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. 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.
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