John Porter looks at how pub caterers can make the most of Oriental flavours on their menus in the forthcoming Chinese year of the rabbit.
Despite claims often made for Indian food being our new national cuisine, Chinese food can justifiably fight its corner in the popularity stakes. Eight out of 10 people eat Chinese food regularly, compared to seven out of 10 who eat Indian, according to figures from analyst Mintel last year.
When other cuisines such as Thai and Malaysian are also factored in, it's clear that consumers have a strong affection for the sizzle and spice of Oriental food.
The same study, Ethnic Cuisine, found that the number of people who had eaten out at a Chinese restaurant in the past year was up by 2%, while the number eating at pubs was flat. This reflects a trend identified by Mintel resulting from the economic downturn, for consumers to see a takeaway eaten at home as a cheaper 'treat' than a meal eaten out.
For pubs, this can be an opportunity as well as potential competition.
A number of managed pub groups position Oriental dishes as good-value choices on their menus. JD Wetherspoon offers sweet chilli noodles as a vegetarian option or with chicken breast. Orchid Group's carveries serve edamame beans, tossed in ginger, garlic, soy and chilli, as an upmarket nibble priced at £2.50, as well as Oriental sticky chilli beef as a main course.
Orchid also operates the Dragon concept pubs, which combine an authentic Thai menu with a mainstream pub feel. Sharon Hammond, Orchid marketing manager, says: "Thai food is very popular in the UK, and also has a more special-occasion feel to it than Chinese food. For example, many of our Dragon restaurants are already fully booked for New Year's Eve, and so we're looking at doing takeaway banquets, so customers who can't get a table can make an occasion of it at home."
For further proof that Thai food and the British pub are a great match, there are few better examples than the renowned Churchill Arms, in Notting Hill, London, which has served London foodies with authentic Thai meals in the pub's butterfly-themed conservatory dining room for more than two decades.
Manager Gerry O'Brien celebrated 25 years at the pub this year, and says: "It was no more than two years after I took over that I introduced the Thai menu, so it's now 23 years and counting. I do sometimes pinch myself and ask whether consumer tastes will change, but it just goes from strength to strength."
There are various factors that come together to make Thai cuisine work well in pubs, he believes. "It's a good match with cask beer, which helps, and the fact that Thai food is freshly prepared gives it a strong customer appeal. The range of flavours is also great."
The Churchill's kitchen team prepare authentic Thai dishes, ranging from soft, pad siew noodles to the very hot kaeng par curries. The dishes are made to family recipes by the pub's Thai chefs, "and while we refresh the menu once a year, all the dishes are somebody's favourite, so we keep to the formula," says O'Brien. "Ultimately, it's very good value at just £6.50 for one of our big dishes, and that's as important as ever."
The current kitchen team is celebrating 20 years at the Churchill Arms, a track record most pubs would envy and something that will be formally marked during the Thai new year celebrations at the end of January.
"We began celebrating Thai new year a couple of years ago — I thought that since we celebrate St Patrick's Day, why not? It's a great occasion, with special menus and entertainment. This year, to mark the team's 20th anniversary at the pub, it'll be even more special," says O'Brien.
The Chinese factor
While the union of pub culture with Chinese food is not as common as Thai, it can be just as successful. The Star Inn at Malvern, Worcestershire, has combined a conventional pub with a Chinese restaurant and take-away for the past eight years.
Licensee Kenneth Tse Wai Kwonge and his team had previously run a restaurant and takeaway, and Ken, as he's known, was intrigued when the Star's freehold owner suggested he take over running the pub. "We were looking for a change from our old business, so we decided to try to make the combination of Chinese food work with a pub.
"I think customers liked the concept because it was a way for them to enjoy cask ale and our Oriental food in the same place."
The Star has a traditional bar for the drinks trade, including an outdoor heated smoking area, along with a separate restaurant area, as well as a takeaway area for customers collecting meals.
Popular dishes include Singapore chow mein, crispy shredded beef, honey lemon chicken, crispy aromatic duck, beef in black-bean sauce, chicken and satay skewers. Customers are advised to book at weekends due to the pub's popularity. "I won't say we're the best restaurant in the area, but our customers appreciate what we've done," says Ken.
Having run a successful Chinese takeaway in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Paul Lee found a move into the pub trade to be the best way to expand. He took on suburban pub the Windsor on a lease with Enterprise Inns just before Christmas 2009. "I was looking for a business where we could operate a restaurant as well as a takeaway, and when the Windsor came up it was the right opportunity."
The pub's regulars have adapted well — "spring rolls are a great bar snack served with a pint, and our curries and sweet and sours are big sellers" — while the restaurant attracts trade from further afield. "Our takeaway was very popular, and since we don't deliver quite that far, many of those customers have followed us."
The pub has a large function room, and regular entertainment nights have proven popular. However, with trade challenging across the board, "you have to give it a regular push to drive business. We're planning a big New Year's Eve party with a Chinese buffet, and we're starting to sell tickets for that."
While most pubs may not want to specialise to the same extent, adding Oriental flavours to the menu and specials board is a way to vary the mix of dishes on offer, as well as to make ingredients go further — that surplus Sunday roast makes a great stir fry on Monday.
Chinese New Year
The new Chinese year, which starts on 3 February 2011 by the western calendar, is the year of the rabbit. That's better news for pubs in menu terms than last year, which was the year of the tiger. While tiger prawns, tiger bread and even Tiger beer are fine, this time there's the opportunity to make a feature of the star of the show. Contact your trade butcher or local game dealer and start planning — Oriental-style rabbit stir fry, rabbit casseroled in black-bean sauce — the possibilities are endless.
• Thai snack attack
Daloon Foods has introduced the Great Dragon range of Chinese and Thai snacks. The range includes the royal Thai dim-sum selection pack (100 pieces per case), which includes seafood crackers, vegetable money bags, prawn balls, and fishcakes.
The seafood dim-sum selection includes seafood spring rolls, seafood money bags, prawn balls and seafood samosas. The mixed dim-sum selection pack includes prawn crackers, duck spring rolls, sweet chilli vegetable wantons and chicken Thai green curry money bags.
For more information email email@example.com.
• You've got to roll with it
DelhiBites cocktail vegetable spring rolls are ideal for pub caterers looking to theme their menus around Chinese new year celebrations.
Individually made to ensure that each one is packed full of locally-sourced ingredients, the rolls include fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, hand-wrapped inside fine layers of traditional spring-roll pastry.
Available in a 1kg pack (20g x 50) they can be oven cooked from frozen in 12 to 14 minutes.
For more product information visit www.brand-innovations.co.uk