Rugeley couple James Lant and Anna Riley are bringing Indian street food to the masses – with a classically English twist. Amy Norbury discovers more
For James Lant, it was love at first bite. A six-month trip around India nearly 20 years ago sparked a love affair with the country – and more importantly, it’s food – which has led to a business venture bringing that passion to the masses with an homage to Indian street food.
James and his partner Anna Riley are the brains behind one of the Midlands’ most successful street food companies, The English Indian. Serving up their signature spicy twist on that most English of takeaway treats, fish and chips, you can catch James and Anna at events up and down the country enticing huge queues of hungry punters with the deliciously fragrant scents which waft over from their gazebo, their love and enthusiasm for India and its cuisine poured into every morsel they serve.
“I didn’t know much about India when I set out on the trip, but I fell in love with it while I was there,” says James.
“We flew into Delhi and went all round Rajasthan, then down to Bombay, Kerala and Goa, and onto the Andaman Islands which was incredible. I just fell in love with the people, the country, the food and they way they cook, especially in a tandoor oven.
“It’s an amazing cuisine and so diverse, and when you get it right it’s really the best food there is. And the best part of Indian cuisine has got to be the street food.”
Just two short years after James and Anna started cooking up their tasty wares, in 2017 The English Indian was named as a finalist of the prestigious British Street Food Awards – marked them out as one of the country’s best.
Anna owned clothing boutique Cure in Lichfield while James was working in sales for a company providing an electronic point of sales system to businesses when they were struck with the idea to turn their love of Indian food into something more.
“James’ passion is Indian cooking and he was in a position where he wasn’t enjoying his job and was looking for something else,” explains Anna. “James used to go out for a lot of curries with friends and he used to really complain about the food, and one evening one of his mates said ‘well if you think you can do better then why don’t you do it?’. And James was thinking, ‘you know what, I can!’
“We’ve had a tandoor oven in the garden for about ten years. James’ chicken tikka masala is out of this world, he makes his own naan breads which are amazing, and our friend Jon Toovey, who runs Sauce Fine Foods, suggested we do curry nights at his sister’s pub in Colton.”
The local curry nights went down a storm, but it was a trip to Digbeth Dining Club, Birmingham’s popular weekly street food event, which sparked the idea that James could combine his love of Indian cuisine with a new venture.
“We ate food there and I just thought James’ food was better than what we were eating,” says Anna. “These guys were really busy, flat out, and I thought ‘hold on a minute, we could do this.”
Getting into Digbeth Dining Club proved to be a huge challenge for the fledgling business. The organisers – James and Jack – are inundated with traders wanting a pitch and Anna and James were concerned that their application would get lost. Emails, tweets and Facebook messages were getting them nowhere.
“So we came up with the idea that we should take our cooking equipment there one night when the owner was there and cook for him,” says Anna. “Anyone can say their food is brilliant so we wanted to prove ours was.
“We spoke to a lovely lady who said we could set up behind her gazebo, we took a camping stove and a frying pan and we made our kati rolls and pani puri. And that was it; we were in.”
As regulars at Digbeth Dining Club, James and Anna were soon a mainstay of the burgeoning street food dining scene. But something just wasn’t quite right.
“So after a year we decided to change the type of food we were serving,” says Anna. “It was delicious, but we just weren’t competing with the other street food traders. We’d do an event and I’d be looking around and seeing other traders with massive queues, but I knew our food was better.
“It was frustrating and we didn’t know what the problem was; what were the other traders doing differently, what did they have that we didn’t? A lot of them had a bit of theatre going on, maybe their stall looked really good, and perhaps the customer understood a bit more about their food.
“We felt we had to really educate people as to what it was we were selling; it was traditional Indian street food native to Kolkata, which lots of people had never heard of.”
Anna and James racked their brains to come up with something which would set them apart from the rest.
“We’re called The English Indian, which is a name that just materialised; between ourselves James referred to himself the English Indian, a few friends called him the English Indian because he’s obsessed with India and obsessed with the food,” says Anna.
“We decided we needed to bring the English in somehow. So we started thinking about what our favourite things to eat are and, other than Indian food, we’re mad on fish and chips. Wherever we are we always try to seek out a really good fish and chip shop. And what could be more English?”
And so, The English Indian’s signature dish was born. Chunky cod goujons coated in a light, spiced pakora batter served with chat masala seasoned chips, fresh chilli and mint mushy peas and a madras curry sauce combined James and Anna’s foodie passions and gave them a dish they hoped would catapult their street food business to the next level.
“White fish works really well with Indian spices and pakora batter makes it really light,” explains Anna. “Then you’ve got hand cut potatoes with a lovely Indian spice mix sprinkled on. Peas also work so well; if you ever have a vegetarian curry there’s always peas in it so that became mushy peas with fresh mint and chilli, and curry sauce is what you’d get in a chippy anyway – we just put our twist on it to make it more of a madras.”
James and Anna invited some friends over to taste test their new creations – and the verdict was a unanimous thumbs up. With a deep fried halloumi option to cater for vegetarians, they were on to a sure-fire winner.
“Neither of us could stop thinking about it,” says Anna. “It must have been five nights in a row where we were both thinking ‘I want that for my tea again’. We really felt we’d hit on something special.”
Armed with a bag of potatoes and a hand cutter, James and Anna took to Digbeth Dining Club to launch their new dish.
“The hand cutter broke, one of the fryers broke and it was a bit chaotic, but the food we were producing was delicious,” says Anna. “We haven’t looked back since, and it’s gone from strength to strength.”
With The English Indian taking off, Anna – who previously studied hospitality business management – decided to sell her boutique and pitch in with the food business full time.
“I felt I’d run the course with Cure,” says Anna. “We couldn’t run the two businesses together and I’d done everything I wanted to do and didn’t know what was next. I knew I didn’t want to open a chain of shops, and then when James started to get really busy it just made sense for me to join forces with him.”
Last summer saw The English Indian on tour, popping up at festivals around the country with Leeds, Latitude and Lakefest among their pitstops. But it was on the festival circuit that James and Anna spotted a flaw in their plans – their fish dish just took too long to make.
“Each goujon is individually put into the batter and then into the fryer; you get two goujons per dish and we just couldn’t make them quickly enough to cater for the huge festival crowds,” explains Anna.
So it was back to the drawing board for inspiration, this time looking at another fast food favourite – southern fried chicken.
“We love KFC as well and we thought we could give them a run for their money,” laughs Anna. “We knew we could make a tastier version so we developed our own spicy breading mixture, cut own own Red Tractor chicken, breaded it all and cooked it on site.
“It enabled us to be much quicker because you can throw it all in at once, rather than with the fish where we’re having to dip and fry each piece individually, which is what you need when you’ve got a massive queue at a festival.
“Festivals are high-risk because it’s expensive to trade there and you need to be able to cope with the high volumes. Some people go in a bit naively because they hear success stories but they haven’t got the capacity to store that amount of food correctly or they just can’t serve quickly enough.
“We’re concentrating on ones where we know the ticket sales are good, because if the festival is a sell-out we know we’ll do well. And festivals are always exciting.”
As demand for The English Indian gathers pace, James and Anna are branching out into catering for weddings and private parties. They are currently converting an old Mercedes bus into a stylish food truck which will enable them to do smaller celebrations at the same time as the large festivals and street food events.
“At the moment we’re having to turn down a lot of work for smaller events like weddings, corporate events and parties where people are wanting to feed around 80 to 100 people because we can’t commit to having our gazebo there when it can be elsewhere catering for more people,” explains Anna.
“And we hate turning work down because people are gutted – they really want to book us for their special event but we can’t because we have bigger jobs on. So with the van I can go out and do the smaller events while James goes off to set up the gazebo for big events.”
Not ones to rest on their laurels, James and Anna are constantly trying to improve and develop new offerings.
“We’re slightly changing the batter mixture so it can hold that tiny bit better,” says Anna. “If we fry it and get it onto the trays really quickly it’s perfect, but if it sits for a few minutes moisture can get into it and it can soften slightly, so James has three different slight variations on the recipe to test at the moment.
“We also want to introduce a cauliflower pakora so that we can do a fully vegan offering. At the minute we can give a pared down version of what we do without the halloumi or the fish, but we want to be able to do a vegan main component.
“I think the reason we’ve done so well is because we’ve kept it really simple; we’ve got a tight menu which concentrates on quality ingredients and we’ve got really high standards in terms of customer service.
“Testing everything is key too; we constantly eat our own food. Some people create a dish and knock it out over and over again, and every so often they need to stop and just taste it and make sure it’s still exactly how they want it to be. We crave our food; we were so excited to get back to work in the new year after our Christmas break because we wanted some of our own fish and chips!”
While inspiration for their dishes can strike anywhere, James and Anna loved returning to India on their travels to immerse themselves in the cuisine they love.
“When we went back to India two years ago, we went into the Muslim quarter in Delhi and Anna had done a bit of research on the best places to eat,” says James. “There was this one place you wouldn’t even have known it was an eatery; people were sat around and this guy was cooking on a barbecue and they served up these buffalo kebabs which was just incredible.
“And we did a homestay too, staying with an Indian couple, and we took the lady back to that restaurant in Delhi and she couldn’t believe how great it was.”
With business booming and exciting developments underway, James and Anna are looking to build on The English Indian brand.
“It’s brilliant; we’re so chuffed with how it’s all materialised and the plan now is to get The English Indian recognised up and down the country,” says Anna. “James likes to do things slowly and steadily to make sure everything is right before we move onto the next thing whereas I’d do everything at a hundred miles an hour. I’m definitely about the ideas and pushing things forward while James makes sure we get it right. We’re a great team.
“We’ve got our first event in London coming up in May, which is a five-day Asian-fusion festival in Camden, and then we’re looking at a few more events up north. And longer term we’d like to look at franchising out the van concept and take The English Indian at around the country.
“But ultimately, well, we want to retire to India; it’s such a special place and that’s where we want to be.”
For more details and to discover where you can find them next, follow The English Indian on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.