Keith Flett reviews Desi Pubs, a guide to British-Indian Pubs, Cuisine and Culture, by David Jesudason, CAMRA Books, 2023
CAMRA has recently published a new book on Desi Pubs, which explains what the term means and lists some of the best examples around the country.
There have been some excellent books recently about the wider culture of beer and community. One example is Pete Brown’s Clubland, which looks at the history and evolution of working men’s clubs.
Jesudason’s book is one of the most important to appear on beer and culture in recent times. It looks at how ethnic minorities, faced with racism, have developed a distinctive pub model that appeals in 2023 to a genuinely multicultural audience.
At one level the book might be seen as an intervention in a political debate, perhaps even a culture war. Earlier in 2023 there was a furore about a pub in Grays, Essex that displayed a collection of golliwogs. Eventually the police investigated complaints of racism, despite the reported disapproval of the Home Secretary. Big Beer acted where the authorities hesitated, and the likes of Heineken and ABInBev refused to supply the pub. It shut.
The pub had been listed in the Good Beer Guide and won a local CAMRA Award. CAMRA itself has exemplary policies on racism and discrimination and ones that it actively pursues. The pub has since been deleted from the Good Beer Guide. Even so the impression was that were some people who put a good pint of beer above the ugly realities of racism at the bar.
Desi Pubs is an answer to that and a highly political one. Jesudason is clear that the definition of a Desi pub is fairly loose. It refers to the creation of a pub run by someone of Indian origin, based not on what might be found in India now, but what it might have been when their parents and grandparents were living there.
The key feature of the Desi pubs is the provision of high-end Indian food such as might be found in an expensive restaurant, in a pub environment, with beer and at pub prices. Their origins can be traced back to the West Midlands in the 1960s. A colour bar operated in many pubs and people of colour were either refused service or made to feel distinctly unwelcome.
Hence the setting up of Desi pubs were those of Indian origin could go and socialise safely and enjoyably was a political act and was seen and promoted as such. The book has an interview with Avatar Singh Jouhl, a leader of the Indian Workers Association, who sadly died in 2022. He details the history of racism and the fight against it of which Desi pubs were a part.
A thriving community pub
The book however makes clear that things are changing. In a visit to one Desi Pub in New Southgate, North London, Jesudason finds a Desi pub where the clientele is split between Arsenal and Spurs fans. The windows are blacked out but inside there is a thriving community pub, where people from middle and working-class backgrounds, and different ethnic origins, happily get along – as happens in many good pubs.
There is a history here, however. Historically the view was that pubs sold beer and restaurants sold food. The idea that the two should mix and that the clientele should also be mixed did not go down well with some authorities in the 1960s and 70s. Hence some Desi Pubs started out as private members’ clubs.
Jesudason does not shy away from the reality that both institutional and direct racism still exists, and this can be reflected in some who find their way into Desi Pubs. His point is that this is in a process of change and one for the better.
Neither does the book avoid some of the issues that might come to the reader’s mind. The Campaign for Real Ale is after all about good beer – so do Desi Pubs sell it? Here the picture is mixed. Indian food is often matched with lager, but Jesudason argues that a cask pale ale is at least as good a match. He points to the fact that some Desi pubs, for example the Gladstone at Borough in London, sells both cask and craft beer.
He also looks at the question of whether women are welcome in Desi Pubs. Again, historically it might have been the case of men at the bar but the Gladstone for example has a woman landlady. The wider point is that CAMRA is not just about good beer but also the pub as the hub of local communities. Desi Pubs are certainly much more like that than many chain-owned pubs which served the products of Big Beer companies.
The majority of the book provides a guide and reviews to some of the best Desi Pubs around the country. It is a reasonable bet that many people will be unaware of the mix of great Indian food and decent beer that they sell. A thriving pub culture that has been hidden very largely from history and the current day.
The reality, however, is that craft beer in particular remains hideously white. There are now a few Indian and Black-owned breweries and their beer does make its way into some Desi Pubs. However, many craft beer pubs and events have very far from the mixed crowd to be found in the pubs that Jesudason describes.
An alternative but also popular development is the small chain of Bundobust restaurants and bars which are to be found in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, and a craft brewery and bar in Manchester. The food is vegetarian Indian and the beer is top notch. It is not the Desi Pub model but it equally moves beyond traditional markets for both the beer and food.
There are also a number of craft beer bottle shops owned and run by families of Asian origin, which display a keen interest in the latest trends. In short, the times they are a changin’ – and David Jesudason’s book is a very important contribution to the chronicling of that process.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.