OPINION: Don't restrict pub food to just the classics

Welcome all: Ayesha Kalaji encourages diversity of food at pubs (credit: Vicki Steward)
Welcome all: Ayesha Kalaji encourages diversity of food at pubs (credit: Vicki Steward)

Related tags Chefs Opinion Ayesha Kalaji Food

The first pubs were a place to provide food, drink and rest to weary travellers, conceived around 43AD, with the Romans bringing the concept with them to Britannia.

They have evolved into places where people gather: to socialise, to unwind and ultimately to satisfy an appetite for food and drink.

The pub is where we celebrate, commemorate, commiserate, while away the hours, and are to fulfil an important need in the human experience.

Pub food is something intrinsically familiar to most people in this country; whether through childhood memories of salty cornucopian baskets of chips in a countryside inn or stopping in for a much-needed drink after a long day at work, bolstered with a restorative Scotch egg.

Michelin stars not so uncommon

But why do we only designate certain foods as belonging in pubs? There are the staples: the ploughman’s, fish & chips and pies. But how familiar must a dish be to designate it as pub food? Curries and Thai food are now commonplace in many drinking establishments and Michelin stars are not so uncommon with a pint anymore.

We expand our idea of what we eat in our local as each year passes, and I’m here to say, long may it continue.

In a food scene that is constantly evolving, must we hem ourselves in with such pigeonholes? For me, pub food is defined by the building, not by the offering.

I am the chef-patron of a 17th century coaching inn and nothing on my menu is ‘typical’ pub food. I have had people walking out because I do not serve chips or a roast. But I do make a laverbread falafel (which is rather delicious if I do say so myself) and I find the salinity of the Welsh seaweed, the satisfying crunch of the crispy fried surface and the unctuous lemony tahini underneath are a perfect pairing for a pint of Guinness.

Does this make my falafel pub food? In my opinion, yes! A pint of IPA pairs incredibly with charred bread and creamy hummus with a kick of Palestinian fermented chilli. Baharat, barberry and venison merguez are wonderful with deeply spiced red wine. Babaghanoush laden with pomegranate molasses is a delight with a vodka cola. Irish whiskey is a match made in heaven with kamouneh spiced lamb heart skewers cooked over coal. Embrace the different.

Entice people

In a time of economic difficulties, we need to entice people into our sector. It breathes a different kind of life into our industry and allows chefs and publicans with a different viewpoint a chance to succeed.

I’m not alone in this. There are amazing chefs up and down the country doing their own spin on pub food. I was recently fortunate enough to try the most incredible Japanese dumplings at the Black Bull Inn in Sedbergh. My goodness – give me a mountain of them and a beer as cold as a penguin’s foot and I am a very happy lady!

Before my inbox fills with angry comments, I’m not saying let’s do away with the classics or all suddenly change our menus. I absolutely adore a pack of pork scratchings. Bangers & mash can make my heart sing. I will exuberantly expound the joys of a Sunday roast. There will always be place in my heart for pub food at all gastronomic levels.

I’m just a chef standing before you saying all food can be pub food if you allow it to be.

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