Lost in the Balti Triangle
Andy Lynes - October 2011
Ubiquitous in Birmingham, a curry-in-a-hurry dish of disputable origins has spread to all corners of the United Kingdom and rivals fish-and-chips for Brits’ affections.
There’s no question that every Brit loves a balti. Yet no one, it seems, can agree on the origins of the aromatic quick-cook curry and exactly how it should be prepared. “Going for an Indian” has been part of the casual British dining scene parlance since the 1960s when immigrants from Bangladesh began to open curry houses across the United Kingdom. But in the 21st century, you’re just as likely to find yourself eating a Pakistani-style balti curry from a pressed-steel double-handled bowl served with a table-sized naan bread as the Anglicized versions of Indian dishes like lamb rogan josh, chicken korma, or a fiery chile-hot vindaloo that have become restaurant staples.
From the Agra Balti House in Brighton on the south coast to Mr. India’s West End Balti and Dosa House in Glasgow, Scotland, from Balti Wallah in Cardiff to Balti Hut in Norwich, the dish has spread to all four corners of the country. Jars of ready prepared balti curry sauce rest on every British supermarket shelf. Jamie Oliver has his own recipe for lamb balti, and you can buy Balti label wine to accompany the dish (www.baltiwine.com/home.htm). Go to Wigan market in the north of England, and they’ll even sell you a chicken balti pie.
Properly prepared, balti differs from the majority of slow-cooked curries served in British restaurants in that it takes under 15 minutes from start to finish. Some balti experts say the only place to sample the real thing is in the Sparkbrook, Basall Heath, and Moseley areas of south Birmingham, the Balti Triangle, where the dish was reputedly created in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Delineated by Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane, and Stratford Road, the area is home to about 70 Pakistani-run balti restaurants. Birmingham is often referred to as the U.K.’s second city after London and receives over 32 million visitors a year attracted by business opportunities, conferences, major arts venues like the Birmingham Symphony Hall, and, increasingly, its food culture. The city now boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants as well as some of the best high-ticket ethnic restaurants in the country, including Lasan and Itihaas.
But the Balti Triangle is arguably still Birmingham’s major culinary draw. Although there are no official figures for the number of tourists visiting the area, restaurant owners, including Saleem Waheed of Saleem’s in Ladypool Road, anecdotally tell of a global customer base that includes guests from America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Maldives as well as visitors from all over the U.K. and a loyal local following.
“I wouldn’t have balti outside of the Balti Triangle restaurants because they don’t do it properly,” says Andy Munro, founder of www.balti-birmingham.co.uk, who grew up in Sparkbrook and claims to have eaten over 1,000 baltis. The food writer and ethnic dining expert Charles Campion agrees, noting that the dish can fall foul of the “three pot masala system” commonly employed in curry houses across the U.K., in which several preprepared base sauces are tweaked at the last moment with various ingredients to produce numerous but only fractionally different menu items. “Balti has become a bit of a magic word in the food industry,” Campion says. “The word itself has spread, but balti where I live in Worcester, for example, is cheap, it’s cheerful, it’s slapdash, and it’s not fresh in any fashion. It doesn’t hit the mark.”
There’s less consensus about which restaurant first served the dish and when. “I would say this is the first balti restaurant,” says Mohammad Afzar Butt, owner of Imran’s, also in Ladypool Road. “We opened in December 1981 and started off as a curry house and began serving balti in 1984.” But go a few paces up the road to Adil’s, and Rashid Adil will say his family has been serving balti as early as the late 1970s. Other claimants include Al Faisals in Stoney Lane and Saleem’s in Ladypool Road.
There’s also fierce debate about where the dish originated. On his website, Pat Chapman, editor of the Good Curry Guide, states that balti comes from the ancient state of Baltistan in the high mountains of north Pakistan (which Chapman says he has visited) and was brought to Birmingham in the 1960s by a small group of immigrants from the area. He points out that in Hindi, balti means “a cast-iron slop pot or bucket,” but that in Baltistan it’s the word for a cooking pan.
Although the view is echoed by the authoritative Oxford Companion to Food, it’s not one generally shared in the Balti Triangle. “It’s definitely a Birmingham dish. It doesn’t matter which restaurant puts a claim to it, it’s 100 percent Birmingham,” says Butt. “There’s an area of Pakistan called Baltistan, but to go as far as say the dish originates there is telling fibs.”
“Balti is a Western word. The official term is karahi, which is similar to a wok,” says Waheed, whose family originates from the Indian side of Kashmir.
To confuse matters further, karahi dishes are often listed alongside balti dishes on both balti restaurant and curry house menus. Although both are served in similar-looking double-handled metal bowls, there’s a difference, according to Butt. “Karahi is cooked in a large iron wok and served in a smaller version of the wok; it’s slightly drier and richer,” he says.
Following balti’s emergence, there was something of a national craze fueled by television coverage and Chapman’s hugely popular cookbooks on the subject, including Balti Curry Cookbook and Balti Bible. The mild hysteria may have died down, but the dish remains enduringly popular. Between noon and 2 a.m. on a Saturday, Imran’s serves on average 600 customers, and of those Butt estimates that between 350 and 400 order balti.
Part of the attraction is the price point. A chicken, lamb, keema (minced lamb), or king prawn balti costs between £6 ($9.77) and £8 ($13) per portion, rising to about £12 ($19.55) for a “tropical” balti, which includes a combination of chicken, lamb, and prawns. A family or table naan bread—variously described as being as big as a bicycle wheel or a duvet—costs between £4.75 ($7.74) and £6 ($9.77).
“There’s something about the theater of the table-sized naan and the simplicity of the fact that it comes to you in the cooking pot,” says Campion. “If the chef is a good man and he puts plenty of fresh herbs and spices into it and you get it fresh off the stove, it’s very nice, very cheap, and very uncomplicated—and all those things are good.”
With so many restaurants in a small area, it’s not surprising that some owners and chefs are keen to protect their recipes from competitors. Questions about exactly how to prepare a balti are often met with evasiveness or a diplomatic silence. However, Imran’s is happy to demonstrate their complete cooking process.
“Our balti recipe was developed in the early ’80s between my father, Muhammad Afzal, and the restaurant’s chefs. It’s a quick-fire dish, somewhere between a stir-fry and a casserole,” says Butt, as chef Talib Hussain gathers ingredients for a chicken balti. Hussain heats up a large and rather battered-looking round-bottomed pan over a high flame. “We used to cook the dish in an iron balti pan, but we found that you could taste the metal, even if we washed and reoiled them. So we started cooking balti in the frying pan but using exactly the same method,” explains Butt. Although Imran’s serves the dish in a balti pan, it’s a controversial move; connoisseurs like Munro and other restaurant owners, including Adil, insist a balti can only be authentic if it’s served in the dish it was cooked in.
Hussain adds vegetable oil rather than ghee, a concession to healthy eating that makes the finished result slightly less rich. He then begins to add the array of ingredients that makes up his colorful mise en place: chopped onion, ginger, and garlic paste. Fresh chopped tomato goes in next, followed by powdered turmeric, red chile, coriander, and cumin. “We use powdered spices, but they’re ground from whole spices,” notes Butt. “Indians would add the whole spices to their curries; that’s one of the main differences between our styles of cooking.” Chicken breast, cut into about one-third inch cubes, is added to the mixture, along with a few spoonfuls of what Butt calls “Birmingham’s finest”—tap water—and allowed to cook for about seven minutes. “If I were cooking this, I would have added the chicken with the garlic and ginger paste because it would have cooked more quickly,” says Butt. The dish is finished with freshly chopped coriander, julienned fresh ginger, and powdered garam masala, a spice mixture that includes black pepper, cinnamon, dried fenugreek, and cloves, which would make the balti too dark if it were added any earlier. The result is a fresh, aromatic, and delicately spiced dish that’s noticeably different from the richer, slower cooked Bangladeshi-style British curry house favorites.
The family naan bread, introduced in the early ’90s, according to Butt, is made with white flour, baking powder, salt, whole milk, eggs, caster sugar, and vegetable oil and is cooked on the side of a garbage can-sized floor-standing tandoor oven. It takes skill to ensure it sticks to the side of the oven and cooks to puffed, lightly scorched perfection.
In the center of the city, Birmingham-born Michelin-starred chef Glynn Purnell of Purnell’s calls upon childhood memories of celebratory family meals in his local balti restaurant to fuel his highly individual and creative use of spices. “I grew up on a council estate [public housing] in Birmingham. On birthdays we’d get the bus to our local balti. Dad would have his six-pack of lager and us kids would be carrying bottles of fizzy pop. We’d eat the balti with the family naan just using our hands,” recalls Purnell, who has cooked alongside Butt at Imran’s for a British TV show.
Those childhood memories have had a big impact on the mature chef’s menu that includes many of the same spices found in the Balti Triangle and are employed in the same fresh, light, and aromatic way. Curry oil flavors a kedgeree-inspired dish of poached egg yolk, smoked haddock foam, cornflakes (yes, the breakfast cereal), and lamb sweetbreads, along with carrots cooked in toffee, cumin, and passion fruit.
A highlight of The Purnell’s Tour, an eight course tasting menu that costs £75 ($122.23) a head, is monkfish masala: the fish is salted, coated in a garam masala–like mixture of cinnamon, fenugreek, fennel, cumin, coriander, black mustard seeds, and cloves, cooked sous-vide, and finally pan-fried to order to develop the flavor of the spices. The dish is garnished with Indian red lentils and carrots pickled with fenugreek seeds, ajwain seeds, mustard seeds, onion seeds, cumin seeds, and chile flakes.
Balti is arguably the most important and successful home-grown innovation in British restaurant cuisine in the last 30 years. Whether it’s cooked and served in an “authentic” fashion in the Triangle itself, or across the country in a slightly adulterated form in Bangladeshi curry houses or in homes prepared from a jar, balti is ready for its close-up on the world’s food stage. Next up, to no one’s surprise, could be BaltiLorry. You listening, food truck–crazed America?