Dishes that Changed Manchester: Rice & Three

Seemingly unique to the Northern Quarter, these small, independent curry houses changed lunchtime forever...

By Manchester's Finest | 2 March 2021

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No matter how many new restaurants turn up in the NQ, with shiny new lights, cocktails that have been designed by NASA and food made to make Michelin sit up and take notice – nothing can beat a ‘Rice & Three’ at lunch time.

The origins of the Rice & Three phenomenon are contested by many, but what we can all agree on is when they began turning up in the city and why.

Back in the very early 80s, the Northern Quarter certainly wasn’t known as the “Northern Quarter” yet, it was just a series of grid-like roads filled with textile warehouses, dodgy pubs and the occasional run-down or derelict husk of a building.

This was long before Urban Splash decided to create apartments in the area, and as a result, the NQ was primarily a working part of town, except for the small residential area up towards Swan Street. Post-war, the streets had been awash with workers from the warehouses, and even though there were a lot less of them about by the 80s – these workers still needed something for their lunch.

Industrious Indians had been serving up curries in the UK ever since the days of the Empire, and even from the mid-19th century, you’d easily find a curry house down in London. In fact, the earliest record of an Indian in the UK dates back to 1810, when Sake Dean Mahmed opened up the ‘Hindoostane Coffee House‘ on George Street near Marylebone Station.

The Kohinoor on Oxford Road

Up here though, you’ll have to flick through over 135 years of history before the Kohinoor arrived in Manchester, which was shortly followed by The Everest, the Monzil and The Orient in the 60s. Still open today is Rajdoot on Albert Square – which opened up in 1966 and is still a cracking place for a curry.

1971 saw a huge explosion in the number of curry houses in the city (and the UK), as Bangladeshi independence was granted and immigrants moved to Britain – many of them entering into the catering business. Even today, between 65%-75% Indian restaurants are owned by Bangladeshi families.

Anyway, back to the Northern Quarter. It was full of warehouses, so business at lunch time amongst workers was brisk, and it was a bit of a shit hole too – meaning property and leases were extremely cheap. Two factors which quickly facilitated the influx of low-cost, hearty Indian restaurants into the area.

The concept of Rice & Three perhaps comes from the popular THALI style of eating in India. Meaning “large plate” in Hindi, the Thali is essentially an all-you-can-eat dish consisting of a range of curries, rice, bread and salads.

Basically, you go into a restaurant, sit down and are presented with a huge steel dish with a naan bread on it, rice and a few chutneys and salads.

A traditional Thali

Walking around will be the ‘servers’, who come to your table to spoon a choice of 5/6 curries onto your plate. Once you’ve finished, you can call them over and ask for more on there – until you can hardly move and need to have a nap.

Each Thali restaurant will have it’s own choices of curries available, with a menu that changes daily – exactly the same way the Rice & Three restaurants operate in Manchester.

Kabana Rice & Three

Made fresh each day, the choice of curries changes every day, with a selection of meat or veggie ones on the menu. Keeping things quick and cheap, the whole process is done ‘canteen style’ meaning you can get more people through the door, with less staff, within those tight lunch time hours.

Each café has developed and created it’s own unique tastes and experience over the years, with owners using family recipes as well as seasonal variations and specialties to set their offerings apart from the competition.

Probably the most well-known Rice & Three joint in the city is This & That, a tiny little café that opened up on a back street in 1984 and is still massively popular today.

Take a waltz through the streets of the NQ today and you’ll be spoilt for choice, from Kabana, to Aladdins, Café Marharba to Finest favourite Yadgars – each one is still serving up delicious Rice & Three to hungry workers today.

Speak to any self-respecting Manc and they’ll each have their own favourite Rice & Three joint which they will actively defend and champion at every opportunity.

Even within the small confines of the Finest office, there’s those that swear by This & That, the Yadgar lovers and then there’s me – who is a Cafe Marharba man ALL THE WAY.

This & That Rice & Three

Whichever one you love, (and it’s okay to love them all), these cafes are an integral part of the fabric of the city – and we should cling onto them for as long as possible. Next time you’re thinking of buying a Meal Deal from Boots – sack it off and have a huge plate of curry instead. You know you won’t regret it.