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In his new book, Desi Pubs, award-winning journalist and beer writer David Jesudason travels across the UK, visiting more than 200 pubs run by British-South Asian landlords who have stamped their unique identities on their establishments. He speaks to Shafik Meghji about the history of these much-loved institutions, how they have become a great success story of multiculturalism, and the importance of mixed grills.
What is a Desi pub?
It’s a pub that has an owner of [South Asian] origin who, crucially, stamps their identity on the pub. So you wouldn't say a Wetherspoons was a Desi pub just because an Asian guy was running it, for example. The culture is usually manifested in the food, the music – such as bhangra – or things like [the Indian sport of] kabaddi. Historically, Desi pubs were set up because of the colour bar and brown people not having a safe space to drink in or not being allowed into segregated pubs or [even] pubs in general.
The idea of Desiness, of being a Desi, is very important to me. It’s that thing of being a child of empire, being displaced, finding it very difficult to fit in with mainstream British culture, but also finding yourself very disconnected from the homeland. There’s only one term I’ve found which really unites these ideas – Desi.
But there are lots of different interpretations of the term. Ultimately, I think a chef from Brighton, who said that Desi is a feeling, [summed it up best]. That gets to the heart of being children or grandchildren or great grandchildren of empire. We’re making our identities ourselves.
‘These pubs are at the vanguard of multiculturalism, but doing it very quietly, without shouting about it’
What were you first experiences of Desi pubs?
I never had them growing up. I grew up in a majority white town – I was the only person of colour in my school and the local pubs were outright hostile to me. I later moved around the country a bit, but didn't really discover them until I was in my 20s.
I went to one called the Blue Eyed Maid in Borough, which is now closed, though the frontage is still there. It was essentially a dive bar – a sticky floor, that kind of thing – but upstairs was an Indian restaurant comically called Chutney Jane. Most importantly it had a team of bouncers of Asian origin and was run by a guy called Jay, who was from Bangladesh.
It was the first time I wasn’t outnumbered colour wise [in a pub]. I also felt empowered by being in Jay’s presence. I don’t think he actually drank, which is quite different to the other landlords I’ve met. But he definitely understood the role he played and how important he was a figure.
I then started to go to [Desi pubs] in Southall like the Scotsman and then ones in Smethwick like the Red Cow. I was expecting them to be Asian drinking clubs. But times have changed and what was brilliant about it was that these were white as well as brown spaces. White people go to them frequently and love them.
That set the idea for the book in motion because they were a great success story of multiculturalism. These pubs are doing the ‘dirty work’ of multiculturalism, being at the vanguard of multiculturalism, but doing it very quietly, without shouting about it.
I get approached a lot to talk about diversity and inclusion. But once you see it in action being done like that, it’s really quite simple. You can never really achieve diversity and inclusion until people of all social groups start mixing.
Can you give us a flavour of the kind of food they serve?
When you look at the history of Indian food, it is indelibly marked by empire and colonisation... Indian food is really good in this country. But what Desi pubs offer is a pub experience – they’re much more communal than restaurants. The big dish is the mixed grill – loads of meat cooked together on a bed of onions, with lemon on the top, that comes out sizzling. It's pure theatre, and you share it with your mates.
‘They welcome strangers in and you become part of the family straight away’
With high interest rates, energy bills and inflation, it’s a very difficult time for pubs in general, with more than 200 closing in the first quarter of 2023 alone. How are Desi pubs faring?
It’s been a few months since I finished the book, but when I spoke to landlords they were were very busy but basically operating with hardly any profits. Charcoal prices have gone up numerous times, as have the costs of vegetable oil, tomatoes, lettuce, all of the things that they use as staples.
The pubs are really not keen to pass the [higher] costs onto the customer. I mean, that’s a very Desi kind of thing, wanting to please in hospitality. But since I've done the book, only one pub has moved, and that was nothing to do with it being a non-successful business. And one pub has temporarily closed while the owner finds another [venue]. So I think that’s pretty good.
Are there any Desi pubs you would particularly recommend?
I really recommend the Red Cow in Smethwick because the food is so good. You get a big Black Country welcome – regardless of it being Desi or not, people are happy to chat to strangers there. And then you get great food, too. I'm a big, big fan of that pub.
The problem with recommending the Regency Club [in Harrow] is that it’s so popular now that you have to book a table, which you [can then only have] for an hour and a half. But it’s got all this history – it was one of the first Desi pubs in London – and it’s got great beers.
The one I recommend the most for beginners is the Gladstone Arms in Borough. Because it is a party pub, really. And the food is very different to other Desi pubs – chicken tikka pies, that kind of thing. What landlords Meg and Gaurav do really well is they welcome strangers in and you become part of the family straight away. Every person I've sent there just raves about it.
Because of that, I think it’s a good place to start, and then you can go on to the ones in Southall, Smethwick and so on.
Desi Pubs: A Guide to British-Indian Pubs, Food & Culture by David Jesudason is out now.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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