Spice up your (pub) life

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Desi-gnated drinking time: author David Jesudason at the Regency
Desi-gnated drinking time: author David Jesudason at the Regency

Related tags Beer Food

Like accidentally biting on a cardamom pod, ‘Desi Pubs’ has exploded on our complacent palates and spiced up the way we think about the great British pub.

David Jesudason’s book is arguably the most important volume written about pubs for half a century – since Maurice Graham’s Back to the Local​, Richard Boston’s Beer & Skittles​ and Chris Hutt’s Death of the English Pub​ shaped our understanding of what makes pubs special. Contemporary writers such as Pete Brown and Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey have lately built upon that tradition. But Jesudason has shifted the geography sharply to the east.

Boak and Bailey themselves call it “one of the most exciting books about beer and pubs to have been released in recent years”. Roger Protz, the doyen of British beer writers, describes it as “a remarkable book that will not only have you gagging for a pint and a curry but is proof that good people from all ethnic backgrounds can get together to make not just pubs but society better”.

Pre-orders for the book broke all CAMRA Books records, in spite of initial concerns that its subject matter was “too niche”, and the publisher is already planning a second print run.

Not bad for a guidebook. Though Desi Pubs​, subtitled ‘A guide to British-Indian Pints, Food & Culture’​, is much more than that, of course.

On the northern outskirts of London, past Wembley and past a surprise splash of countryside, you come to Queensbury, an example of 1930s built-for-purpose suburbia, the Tube sign skewered high on a spike, proud of its role in commuter-land.

desi pubs camra

Across the way, David Jesudason pushes open the brass-handled double doors of the Regency Club and is immediately greeted as a regular – even though he lives in Lewisham at the diametrically opposite end of the city.

The Regency is one of those pubs that immediately presents as a well-run, professional operation. And following a major refurbishment a few years ago, it’s quite a swish venue, too.

Above your head as you walk in there’s a colourful stained-glass atrium while, to your left, there’s an area dedicated to sport on screen and, to your right, past an impressive open kitchen, the ‘library’, a play on the club theme and designed for smarter occasions.

In the main bar, the extensive menu is rather different to what you’d find in an Indian restaurant, drawing in snackier items such as grilled meats and seafood alongside the curries. On the taps, there are three own-brand lagers, a pilsner, a helles and a dark, specially brewed in Germany to match the dishes, alongside the full range of drinks you’d expect.

The Regency is run by Rahul Sharma whose father, Navin, converted it from a car parts shop in 1991 to create a safe place for desis to drink. The word desi is a fluid term that means, broadly, people and culture from the Indian sub-continent.

At the time, pubs in the area refused to serve brown people. And it’s a ‘club’ because the licensing authorities felt desis should do their drinking hidden away from the rest of the population.

The Regency story is typical of desi pubs, as Jesudason’s book demonstrates. As a journalist, he is driven to tell these stories. Stories of the Indian diaspora, stories of people who faced racism and who chose to support their communities by opening a pub that welcomes everyone. Stories that haven’t been told before.

“Some publicans were reluctant to talk,” he says. “I had to coax them into it because no one had shown any interest in them until I came along and they didn’t understand why anyone should find it worth writing about. Their culture had been undervalued.

“Why am I the only person to write about desi pubs? Black and Asian people aren’t well represented in journalism nor in beer writing. It skews the subjects that get covered.”

Colour bar

As he sought to put that right, he uncovered shocking stories about the colour bar that operated in pubs in some parts of the country until surprisingly recently. It could apply to whole pubs or certain bars and rooms within what were, in effect, segregated pubs.

When Malcolm X visited Smethwick in the West Midlands in 1965, he went to a pub called the Blue Gates where Asian customers had their own separate room and their own separate glassware. The American civil rights leader declared it to be segregation as bad as anything in the United States.

The local man who took him there was Avtar Singh Jouhl of the Indian Workers Association – Jesudason’s hero in this tale who sadly died shortly before the book he inspired was published.

Jouhl went on to organise opposition to those racist publicans having their licences renewed. Which allowed many of the pubs to be taken over by Asians. Smethwick today is dominated by inclusive desi pubs.

That such racism could exist in British pubs is not something the trade is keen to believe. “White people would say to me there was no colour bar but when I asked black people, it was different,” says Jesudason. “They’d break down in tears when they talked about it.”

Jesudason himself is of Indian and Malaysian descent and was brought up in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. His parents never talked about racism, he says, “but I was the only non-white kid at my school and I had to deal with that”.

As a teenager he was eager to go to a pub but as soon as he walked through the door on his first visit to his local, someone at the bar someone came out with the tired racist ‘joke’: “anyone order a taxi?”.

“Racism is a spectrum, from that outright racism to a pub in Hastings I went to where they expected me to be an expert in curry. They had the best intentions, but it was embarrassing and cringey.

“I still lack confidence in a bar situation where everyone else is white. I feel I can’t be 100% myself.”

desi pubs 4 ways and Gladstone
The 4 Ways and Gladstone pubs

It was while working on the City AM newspaper in London that he discovered the Blue Eyed Maid in Borough. “It was a gloomy dive bar, with karaoke, but it was run by Indians, it served Indian food. I wasn’t in a minority. It was empowering.”

Then, in 2016, he discovered the Gladstone round the corner, which hosted the book’s launch party featuring a new desi pale ale brewed by the author in collaboration with Meantime Brewery in Greenwich.

Run by a brother and sister team, Gaurav and Megha Khanna, the Glad, as it’s known, is small, cosy and welcoming with great food including desi Sunday roasts and, as a bonus, craft beer.

“It wasn’t until I found the Glad that I realised desi pubs were a thing,” says Jesudason. “After that I went to the Scotsman in Southall, and the desi pubs in Smethwick, and saw there were white people there, alongside the brown, who were embracing the experience. They regarded it as ‘their pub’, and it struck me they were more integrated than I was.

“I started to see then how desi pubs could be for everyone, an entry-level point for diversity. Desi can mean ‘our home’, and a desi pub is a home. It’s really about hospitality.”

With that revelation, the book began to take shape as, at once, a serious consideration of the reality of racism in modern Britain and as a celebration of the multiculturalism possible in a pub.

Strong network

It’s interesting the way in which desi publicans form a strong network among themselves. Quite often they’re related, forming small dynasties in which children follow their parents into the trade, and a successful pub can spawn and encourage others. The Regency, for instance, acts a kind of centre for excellence.

“A lot of the people now running their own desi pubs worked here in the Regency,” Jesudason explains as he tucks into a lunchtime feast. “The training here is great. Staff can progress from bottle washer to bar manager, then take a pub of their own.”

In West Bromwich, the Red Lion – where Satnam Purewal took over the business from his father – forms another hub, helping other desi publicans get started before competing with them fiercely on the quality of their food.

Since crane driver Soham Singh opened what is thought to be the first desi pub, the Durham Ox in Leicester, in 1962, food has become an increasingly important part of the offer, as it has with the trade generally.

Jesudason plainly enjoys his grub, and especially the mixed grills that are frequently a desi pub’s signature dish. Not to be confused with a British mixed grill which combines steak, chops, gammon and sausages, they comprise meat, fish and the occasional vegetable cooked in a tandoor oven to arrive sizzling at your table.

This does not claim to be ‘authentic’ Indian cuisine. Jesudason is suspicious of ‘authentic’, instead enjoying the idea that dishes can evolve in the hands of different cultures. Desi pub food has roots in Punjabi and Gujurati cooking – as distinct from the Bangladeshi roots of the curry house – but it’s given a British-Indian spin.

There’s an informality about dining at a desi. The dishes are often shareable and can be eaten with the fingers. It works well in pubs that are frequently also the local sports bar. Even at the Regency, where trade is split 70:30 in favour of food, there are multiple screens to watch the football or the cricket.

They can also be family-friendly venues, like the 4 Ways at Rowley Regis, a West Midlands suburb, where the garden is dedicated to a large children’s play area. By 6pm on a weekday summer’s evening it’s populated by mainly white families who queue at the kitchen hatch to order copious quantities of food that can be spiced up or down according to preference.

Jesudason has discovered some interesting regional variations on his travels. In the Midlands, for instance, chips are always a part of the order. “It makes sense because chips are less filling than rice and go better with beer,” he says, approvingly.

Rahul Sharma, Regency 2
Rahul Sharma of the Regency

He is insistent, too, that desi pubs do not serve ‘street food’. For that reason, the Bundobust chain with its Indian bowls and burgers washed down by craft beers, is not included in the book.

“There’s nothing wrong with Bundobust, but it’s not really street food, it’s a middle class take on it. And desi pubs are working class pubs.”

In business terms, Jesudason is defining a successful pub model, combining beer, food and sport with a strong community ethos. There has even been a suggestion that desi pubs could be rolled out around the country to shore up a struggling market. At the moment, they are concentrated in London and the Midlands.

It’s true desi licensees have, in many cases, rescued and turned around a failing operation but the interviews in the book suggest the impact of the cost-of-living crisis threatens these businesses just the same as any other pub.

“Desis can’t save dying pubs that are doing nothing wrong,” says Jesudason. “There could be more desi pubs, perhaps, but the margins are low and you need high volumes.

“It’s also important that they are properly rooted community venues. They can’t just be dropped in.

“We live in an age of extremes and pubs can provide social cohesion,” he adds, hoping that his book can “broaden the curriculum that defines what pubs are”.

Many would say he’s achieved that with Desi Pubs. But, for Jesudason, the real test will be whether people make practical use of his guide and get out there to experience desi pubs for themselves.

“I don’t want enclaves,” he says. “What I hope for more than anything is that the book will encourage people, Asian and white, to travel and explore. I want people to go to Southall. There’s the whole of India in that place.”

And if Southall does become an unlikely destination for gastronomic tourism, we’ll know Desi Pubs​ really has made its mark.

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