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WILL TRAVEL FOR CURRY: Birmingham balti, a Brummie invention

Balti is a fiery curry, quickly stir-fried over high heat, in a small flat-bottomed pan or balti bowl — here's where to find it and how to make it.

Birmingham Balti is cooked in a balti pan – a Brummie invention – and brought sizzling from the fire to the table.

By CINDA CHAVICH

If you love spicy aromatic curries, fluffy naan breads and succulent kabobs, forget Bombay and Bangalore. Try Birmingham. It might not be as exotic as a trip to the Bay of Bengal, but Brummies love their curry joints, and Birmingham is all about the balti. Birmingham is Britain’s biggest city outside London. It’s famed as the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, a model for early working class reforms and as home to the first – and fiercest – football clubs. But it’s the balti – a specific kind of curry created here in the Midlands – that’s really put Birmingham on the culinary map. So much so, that they’ve formed a Birmingham Balti Association and applied to the EU to protect the name. And I’ve come to Birmingham to find out why.

Andy Munro - my Birmingham balti guide

“Balti was invented here – a curry cooked and served in a balti bowl,” says Andy Munro as we stroll through the crowded streets in Birmingham’s Balti Triangle sampling this local specialty. “A true balti is a unique Birmingham creation – there’s nothing like a real balti from Birmingham.”

Dunking a crisp chunk of surprisingly sweet Peshwari naan bread - studded with raisins and almonds and glazed in honey - into my private pot of spicy red-sauced chicken chana balti, I’m inclined to agree. Sizzling and aromatic, this is like no curry I’ve ever tasted.






We’re sitting in the cosy Shahi Nan Kabab, one of Munro’s favourite Birmingham balti houses, along the edge of the famed Balti Triangle neighborhood in south Birmingham. Shahi Nan Kabab, one of Munro’s favourite Birmingham balti houses, along the edge of the famed Balti Triangle neighborhood in south Birmingham.


When I visited, there were more than 40 balti houses in this mainly Kashmiri Muslim neighborhood, where Pakistani fruit and vegetable markets, sweet houses and posh dress shops filled with glittering bridal lehenga and bolts of exotic fabrics crowd the high street.




It’s a real working class neighborhood, like so many in Birmingham. We’re just a few minutes from the city centre, but this “triangle” — bordered by Stratford and Ladypool roads, Highgate and Mosley — is really the heart and the birthplace of Balti. It’s where Pakistani and Kashmiri expats, often single men, gathered in small cafes for a taste of home. A simple, cheap, one-dish dinner that could be scooped up with naan, eaten quickly with little fanfare.

Munro, who grew up in this neighborhood, remembers these corner curry houses popping up in the 1970s to feed the men who flooded into Britain’s industrial heartland for work.




“Two or three restaurants lay claim to creating the first balti restaurant – it was like a fusion thing in a way, an informal café,” he says, pointing out Adil and Imran’s, and other spots that make up the Balti Triangle, the subject of Munro's books on the topic, Essential Street Balti Guides and ‘Going For A Balti’, a history of the Birmingham Balti.




But what exactly goes into a Birmingham Balti? That’s debatable.

Almost any meat or vegetable can turn up in a Birmingham Balti – at least at places like Shahi Nan Kabab - but it’s probably fair to say it’s a dish with roots in northern India or the Baltistan region of Pakistan.

Still, Munro insists there’s nothing like it on the sub-continent, because a Birmingham Balti is always cooked in a small individual balti pan – a sort of flat-bottomed wok – that’s brought sizzling from the fire to the table.


Along our balti tour route, he steers me into Uncles, a crowded housewares store where the pans are stacked in the back and proprietor Surinder Singh has a tale about their origins.

“It all originated from here, designed and made by Mr. Santokh Singh, an engineer by trade,” he says if his uncle’s invention.


It’s the only place on the planet, he claims, where you can still buy an authentic balti bowl from the family that invented it.

“I have plenty of Pakistani mates and I’ve asked them to bring me a balti bowl when they travel home, but they can’t find one,” Munro confirms. “The balti bowl is a Brummie invention.”

And if you take a few home it won’t break the bank. The basic double-handled spun carbon steel pans sell for about five pounds ($10), and when you enter one of Munro’s favourite balti houses, they’re stacked like blackened sculptures by the big gas stoves, ready to turn out a meat and aloo or bindi balti, a minced keema and prawn balti, or even a methi chicken balti.

Unlike many curries, a Birmingham Balti always uses boneless meats, cooked at high heat with oil, not ghee. And though the dish is individual, there’s often a gigantic Karack bread, a table-sized naan designed for sharing.

Birmingham’s Balti Triangle has many restaurants and shops to keep a curious visitor sated, whether you hit Punjab Paradise or Al Frash for lunch, or just duck into Royal Sweets for the handmade carrot halwa and creamy coconut barfi.

The historic public library and baths on Mosley, both Victorian heritage buildings, speak to an earlier era and make a great diversion when you tire of shopping for sparkly Bollywood-worthy saris along Ladypool Road.

If you’re looking for a more sophisticated Indian dining experience, restaurants outside the triangle, like Itihaas delivers Mogul cuisine downtown on Fleet Street while Lasan – named best local restaurant in Britain by Gordon Ramsay - takes Indian into contemporary territory.

But don’t go to Birmingham without a casual night out for balti. Get Munro’s Essential Balti guidebook or join him for a Balti Triangle walking tour (www.balti-birmingham.co.uk).

And if Munro and his group are successful, their beloved Birmingham Balti may soon be a TSG (traditional specialty guaranteed) product, joining other British foods, from Stilton blue cheese to Arbroath smokies and Melton Mowbray pork pies.


COOKING BALTI

A balti is a curry, stir-fried quickly over high heat, with fresh spices and oil (not the traditional clarified butter or ghee) in a small flat-bottomed pan or balti bowl. Quick-cooking boneless chicken is a popular meat for balti, though there are lamb, beef, fish, even vegetarian versions. High heat and caramelization in the pan is key to a perfect balti. Balti is served right in the pan with naan bread on the side for scooping – no utensils required!


GARLIC CHILI CHICKEN BALTI

This spicy dish is based on a recipe from the late great Royal Naim, one of Birmingham’s original balti restaurants, now closed. Serve with naan bread or chapattis on the side.


Serves 2


2 tablespoons canola oil

2 medium onions, minced

3 roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped

½ teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon chili powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks

6 cloves garlic, minced

2-inch piece fresh ginger, grated or minced

4 small medium hot peppers (like Banana, Anaheim or Hungarian peppers), slivered

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro


Make sure you have all of the ingredients, chopped and measured, ready to stir fry. In a wok or nonstick sauté pan, heat the oil over high heat until smoking. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add a little water to keep the onions from burning. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes, until they begin to break down, then add the turmeric, paprika, chili powder and salt. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add the chicken, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry together until the chicken is starting to brown. Reduce heat, add a little splash of water and cook until the chicken is tender – about 8-10 minutes in total.

Stir in the slivered banana peppers and the garam masala. Stir fry for a few minutes longer, until peppers are tender. Stir in the cilantro and serve immediately.


UPDATE:

According to this 2023 story in The Guardian newspaper, many balti houses have sadly closed in the city's Balti Triangle in recent years, but you can still find some of Andy Munro's faves in his latest list of best balti haunts in Birmingham!



This story originally appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper


©Cinda Chavich

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