Few sounds are more satisfying than the sizzle of a tandoori mixed grill.
A base of burning onions piled high with red chicken tikka chunks, wings, blackened lamb chops, and seekh kebabs. Fiery like a lit sparkler, the starters are transported from clay ovens to hot plates and across the dining rooms of Britain’s Indian eateries. Nearby punters pause their conversations, turn their heads, and wonder if the sizzling meat belongs to them. You experience the unique thrill of hearing your meal long before you taste it. Thick steam rises, fills your nostrils, and blocks your view. Chutney is dolloped onto plates. This may be one of the culinary world’s greatest sensual overloads.
“The grill has to be on point,” says Pav Singh, owner of African Queen in Hounslow, West London when I ask the secret to a good tandoori dish.
African Queen is a proud Desi pub, “Desi” being a colloquial term for “South Asian.” To get there, you must make a pilgrimage into the depths of residential suburbia: under the Heathrow flight path and through roads of houses which themselves smell of home-cooked Indian food bubbling on kitchen stoves. Pav bought the pub in 2015, after working there for six months and taking in the empty tables and rowdy customers. He decided to fix things and today, the African Queen is thriving—it’s even the preferred spot of People Just Do Nothing’s Chabuddy G.
“I started closing at odd times so the gangsters stopped coming,” Pav says. “I only play Bhangra when I can trust the crowd, otherwise it makes people aggressive. I made the restaurant more family-friendly, so now we have regulars coming from the other side of leafy Surrey to watch the football every weekend.”
Desi pubs may be hidden, but they are not new. The Midlands has a longstanding Desi pub culture, with a number of public houses serving British ales alongside homestyle Punjabi food and hosting pool tournaments and Bhangra dance classes for several decades. At the Prince of Punjab, a pub wedged between terraced houses on a quiet residential street in Leicester, guests are greeted by plastic figurines of dancing Punjabi villagers. The Soho Oak in West Bromwich shows Sky Sports and serves an impressive array of curries, as well as a veggie mixed grill featuring its signature “gunpowder paneer.” Local arts group Black Country Visual Arts and blog Daily Entertainment Xpress have both documented their region’s proud cross-cultural establishments, with the latter creating a league table of Desi pub mixed grills.
The Desi pubs of the Midlands can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s, when South Asian men arrived in Britain following the partition of India to work in the area’s factories and metal foundries, with family members later joining them. In subsequent years, as South Asian communities became established and English-owned pubs struggled to stay open, many Indians bought these buildings and reopened them as ventures of their own. Profit margins proved much easier to chase with hearty curries on the menu, and Desi pubs flourished because they were able to use food as well as drink to sustain themselves financially.
“The food,” Pav tells me, blowing a cloud of vape smoke into the air, “the food is everything. You make your money in the restaurant, not in the bar. English people have started to realise that high street curry houses are not the real deal. So, they come to us.”
Desi pubs aren’t confined to the Midlands—far from it. I grew up in the greater West London suburbs, an area where South Asian immigrants have settled since the 1950s. My mum is White British and my dad is Indian Punjabi, so I have come to see the Desi pubs that dot these outer margins of the city as both a bizarrely well kept culinary secret, and a mirror of my own hybrid upbringing. I enjoy the English practice of congregating around a wooden table to drink draught beer after a long day at work or a country walk, but I also cannot go longer than a few weeks without a flavourful hit of tandoori starters from a trusted karahi house. While there is no doubt that Desi pubs can be male-dominated, given that they are an amalgamation of the patriarchal curry house and British pub culture, they are one of the few establishments that let me tap into both sides of my identity.
“It’s the fresh food,” asserts Chandan Singh, manager of the Prince of Wales in Southall, West London. His family has been running the pub for 16 years. “We have to make sure what customers are eating is as good as what they get at home.”
He continues: “It’s like a family here. Guys who have grown up in Southall come back because it’s what they’ve been doing for years. We get Romanians coming here on their lunch breaks and Goans, who have Portuguese passports, coming her to eat after days working at the airport. You should come on a football night—you can never predict when the Bhangra’s gonna come on. Things get fun!”
The Prince of Wales doesn’t advertise or even have a website, but its long-held reputation as the go-to meeting place for Indian men in the area ensures it stays busy. I visit on a quiet weekday afternoon and after order a tadka dhal, mixed grill, chili garlic naan, and saag paneer. A few elderly men sit alone, one reading the paper and another playing on an old fruit machine. A group of three others sit at the bar nursing pints of lager and sharing bowls of masala peanuts. They tell me that they don’t want to be photographed because they “aren’t supposed to be here, mate,” before bursting into laughter. I find out that they have all been visiting the pub since they were teenagers.
“I’ve seen over 30 pubs try and fail,” one of them says. “You’ve got to create an atmosphere.”
I came to the Prince of Wales to watch the final of the ICC Cricket Champions Trophy in June 2017, when India played Pakistan. Every inch of floor space was taken up as people queued at the bar and yelled at the play on the television, while staff wove through the crowds with plates of curry. When I came here on Diwali, there was a complimentary buffet and I danced to Bhangra as teenagers threw fireworks in the street outside.
“The only reason pubs like this do well is because of the food,” a local sharing a mixed grill with friends today tells me. Chandan jovially refers to the group as “the BA uncles” because “they all work for British Airways,” and tells me that they have lived in Southall for over 50 years.
“There is nothing around here for anyone any more,” the local adds. “We used to have proper parks, libraries, and a football club. But this part of the city is forgotten.” The rest of his table nods in agreement.
The last establishment on my Desi pub crawl is the undoubtedly the plushest. Regency in Queensbury, North West London looks more like a members club than a local boozer. British Asian families sit around polished tables, enjoying Sunday evening comfort food as the England versus West Indies cricket test match plays on flat screen TVs around the bar. I order crispy okra and lamb chops to start, and get talking to two men on the next table, Raz and Ranj.
“We grew up round the corner,” Ranj says. “Nowhere has a better reputation than Regency. It’s opened up into more of a restaurant now, but it used to have booths and be more of a pub.”
“All the same older guys still go to the bar,” he adds, pointing at the front of the restaurant, where men sit at the bar stools, shirts tucked over bulging bellies.
Ranj goes back to his dinner, and I speak with Pravin and Pankaj, two immaculately dressed front-of-house staff who have worked at Regency since the early 1990s. What has changed since then? Pravin says, “nothing” and Pankaj says, “many things.” Judging by the classic curry dishes on the menu and the newly polished furniture in the dining room, it seems they may both be right.
Starters finished, I move onto one of my favourite Punjabi dishes for the main course: baingan bharta, smoked aubergine cooked with tomato and fresh coriander. I also order a tangy fish curry and tandoori roti to mop everything up.
As I leave Regency, a waitress named Katka, who had greeted me earlier in an Eastern European accent, starts addressing me in Punjabi.
“I never learned,” I reply apologetically.
“What?” she exclaims in jest. “I’m Bulgarian. I used to run my own Indian restaurant in Sofia. I speak Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi.” She smiles and adds, “I even run my own Bhangra classes.”
Only in a Desi pub.