Curry has always occupied a small – yet significant – place on pub menus. And while it may be tellingly absent from the increasingly locally-and-seasonally-devoted gastropub and premium pub world, there’s hope for it yet in the sector.
Much to the chagrin of old school, family-run curry houses, pub giant JD Wetherspoon is currently the biggest seller of curries in the UK. And Wetherspoon’s reign looks set to continue for a long time.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Wetherspoon’s extensive curry club offer draws widely from traditional British staples (think madras, tikka masala and the like) – there’s zilch in the way of adventurous choices, but catering to adventurous tastes has never been ’Spoon boss Tim Martin’s way.
In fact, Wetherspoon has been so successful in monopolising its segment of the market, the Financial Times reported earlier this year that the shift in where customers head for their curry fix has begun to threaten the traditional curry industry.
Speaking to the FT, Oli Kahn, vice-president of the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association (which, to put things in context, represents roughly 12,000 businesses) blamed the shift in attitude on a drop-off of interest in traditional curry among young people and growing awareness that those “classic” curries are not actually representative of true Indian cuisine, which can differ vastly from region to region.
So while Wetherspoon dominates the market for “classics” (the majority of which, one might add, were explicitly designed to cater to the British palate), the rise of street food and its blossoming relationship with the pub trade has facilitated a renewed interest in “authentic” curries and their accompanying cuisine and culture.
Wetherspoon’s curry hegemony doesn’t translate into the wider pub sector.
“My sense is that – while curry is a mainstay on the value-led pub menus – it’s far less important as you go up the value chain,” muses Steve Gotham, projects director at MCA Insight.
Gotham refrains from declaring outright that curry has disappeared from mainstream and premium branded pub menus, but makes clear its prevalence has greatly diminished over past years.
“More premium pubs clearly focus on a more contemporary British offer,” he adds. “And a problem with some curries is that you can end up doing them poorly or you risk being considered on more of a value-led basis. It’s not really a good idea.”
Gotham points out that, as a rule, the higher up the value spectrum you go, the less curry you find on the menu.
This, he explains, is because every dish has a more important role to play on a briefer menu and, if the offer is contemporary British, it is unlikely Indian-informed dishes will play a part.
That’s not to say curry and Indian cuisine as whole is dying out across the sector. MCA’s research pertains solely to branded establishments. The picture when it comes to independents is, predictably, more varied.
“A decade ago, the typical pub curry offer was chicken in a fairly mild sauce served with chips or rice,” says Ron Hickey, catering and on-trade sales director at Bestway Wholesale.
“Pub curries are now far more authentic and ambitious and independent pubs have a clear advantage over the big, managed players.”
Hickey agrees with Gotham when it comes to the considerable decline of curry on branded menus – bar Wetherspoon, of course.
Typically, he says, “Branded managed operators will hold a curry night once a week and keep the menu fairly conservative in order to appeal to customers across the country.”
Independents, the way he sees it, are far better positioned to cater to variable local tastes.
Leaf the competition behind
When Brighton’s Curry Leaf Café opened offering authentic, modern south Indian cuisine and thoughtfully matched craft beers, it quickly became notorious among the city’s spice-inclined diners.
The owners, commercial director Euan Sey and executive chef Kanthi Kiran Thamma, recently expanded the concept by taking over the kitchen of Indigo site the Temple Bar, on the city’s Western Road.
The Temple Bar, Sey explains, fits well with Curry Leaf’s ethos thanks to its vast selection of craft beers. And Sey is keen to stress how fundamental a focus on serving great beer alongside his business’s food has been in driving it forward.
“It seems a bit ridiculous that nobody’s really done it before, to take the beer as seriously as the food in the Indian market,” he says.
“Kingfisher and Cobra on tap are classics but those beers have dominated for a long time – I don’t really think the owners of the average Indian restaurant have any understanding of craft beer. But we do, so we thought ‘let’s really make this core to what we do’, and people have responded really well.”
Curry Leaf’s pop-up at the Temple Bar serves a range of relatively unheard-of dishes including kadala uralakizhangu; a Keralan curry with chickpea, potato, butter beans and peppers and chicken xacuti; made with tomato, onion, fresh coconut sauce and spiced with star anise, fennel, cardamom, cloves and poppy seeds.
Unaware of British curry
“[Chef Thamma] was completely unaware of what a British curry was until he landed on these shores five years ago. So there was not question of doing anything that wasn’t authentic, and there never will be.”
Curry Leaf’s food leans strongly, but not entirely, towards south Indian cuisine, incorporating whole spices and fresh, occasionally bitter flavours.
“It’s not just blended into a homogenous sauce, which is the north Indian and Bangladeshi style which influenced what we’d call the British curry,” he explains.
“South Indian doesn’t do that. It’s not just the piece of chicken that has the texture and the flavour – each mouthful has lots of different textures and flavours because you’ve got pieces of the vegetables and components that release different flavours when you bite into them.”
South Indian cuisine also tends to express the influence of neighbouring countries. It’s not uncommon to find coconut – a staple of Thai and Malaysian cooking – in Thamma’s dishes.
Sey adds: “And a lot of it is more rice-based rather than bread based. And when it comes to dairy, cows are sacred creatures so you don’t end up with so much cream in the sauces. It really does change the flavour palate.”
While the menu does feature fish and chips – albeit masala-fried fillets coated in spiced rice flour, ginger, garlic and curry leaves – Sey stresses that this is not just ‘a take’ on a pub classic, but a dish that is commonly consumed in bars in India.
Indian pub food scene
“The café is slightly more focused on south Indian than the pub kitchen. When we were putting that together, [Thamma] wanted it to be inspired by the sort of Indian pub food scene in places like Bangladesh – because you can go and get craft beer and street food in Bangladesh, in Hyderabad; it’s a growing scene out there.”
It was also important to make sure the pop-up’s menu was accessible enough to attract passing trade.
While the café may attract diners with a specific interest in south Indian food, a large portion of income at the pub comes from drinkers who may not initially be familiar with the cuisine.
Hence the inclusion of sharing platters and ‘ever so slightly more generous portions’, as Sey puts it.
“[At the pub] we’re less likely to put on something a bit more challenging that uses fermented rice flour and things like that because people won’t know what it is. But equally there is stuff on there – Indochinese dishes, for instance – where there’s definitely scope to push the palate a bit.”
So while it may yet become impossible to order a chicken tikka in any pub that isn’t owned by Tim Martin, there’s life in the old sauce yet.