What is Balti? The literal meaning of the word ‘Balti’ is bucket, but in reality it’s a small round-bottomed wok or bowl with side handles. A Balti meal is a type of curry, fast cooked over a high flame with fresh meat and/or vegetables, marinated, and then cooked with extra spices that are added during the cooking process. The meal is usually served up sizzling in the Balti bowl.
Traditionally eaten without rice or cutlery, Balti bread – or naan bread – is used to scoop up the food (with Muslims using the right hand only). “No knives or forks should be used,” a Balti expert tells me. “No matter where you’re from or who you are.”
Balti food is simple in concept and cooking, yet complex in its flavouring; it has a dry texture, and is slightly oily and spicy. Each Balti restaurant closely guards its own recipes (or so we’ve been told), but typically spices such as ginger, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves and cassia bark are used.
As we sit around a no-nonsense, glass-topped dining table in a restaurant located in Birmingham’s Balti Triangle (also known as Balti Mile or Balti Quarter), mopping up our meal of various Balti dishes with wodges of Peshwari naan, it becomes clear that the occasional tangled disputes about the origins of this particular style of cooking are irrelevant.
Does Balti food really come from the Baltistan region, situated in the Karakoram mountains between the international borders of China and the Northern sector of the Kashmir territories of India and Pakistan? Or is it, as people more often than not say it is, merely an invention of the Pakistani immigrant community of Birmingham?
Do its origins owe as much to China (we can see Szechuan aficionados nod sagely at this suggestion) and Tibet as to the tribal ancestry of the nomad, the tastes of the Moghul emperors, the aromatic spices of Kashmir, and the winter foods of mountain areas?
Frankly (and this is an unbiased opinion offered by a person who can just about tell the difference between a vindaloo and a Portaloo) it really doesn’t matter. I’m in Birmingham for a Balti Weekend, which sounds swish, but isn’t. This is no dressed to-the-nines couple of days – rather, it’s a no messing about, no prosaic menu descriptions, no waiting staff hovering nearby to top up your glass.
It’s a chilly, sunny Saturday lunchtime. Inside Imran’s Restaurant on Ladypool Road, the heat is on and up. Outside, the Balti Triangle is having its three sides tingled by a gradual influx of natives and tourists. The vast majority of Balti houses (about 80 percent of which are owned by Muslim Bangladeshis) are located here, along with the Balsall Heath and Moseley areas of South Birmingham.
My tablemates include Andy Munro, local Balti expert and the man behind the authoritative website balti-birmingham.co.uk, and Usman Afzal Butt, Imran’s Executive Chef (a graduate of Birmingham College of Food and formerly of the Connemara Coast Hotel).
The plan is quite simple: we sit down and chat about Balti, the Triangle, its importance in terms of local economy and culture. We eat from a plate that has a range of starters: meat and vegetable samosas, Pakora Bhaji, fried chicken in spicy batter, Katlama.
The starters are served with a range of sauces, including yogurt and mint, Achaar (a type of Asian pickle), mango chutney, pure chili sauce, and sweet and sour sauce.
Because it’s lunchtime and we’re all quite sensible people who value their sense of equilibrium at such an early time in the day, we drink either water or Coca-Cola, as the restaurant – like most other Balti eateries in the Triangle – is unlicensed (there are off-licenses nearby).
“I used to go to typical flock wallpaper restaurants, Jewel In The Crown jobs, ten pints of ice-cold lager washing down curries from Vindaloo to Tindaloo to Fal, which is the hottest curry there is,” says Andy, a veteran of the Birmingham Balti phenomenon.
Andy is talking about his pre-Balti days in the UK Midlands: “You’d be served up by a guy in a dinner jacket and bow-tie. People then would be well tanked up, and would only be interested in saying they had the hottest curry on the menu. When Balti came along, it was a different sort of experience altogether, not least the informality of it.”
As Andy is saying this, Usman is readying his kitchen for a walkabout. As it’s lunchtime, the restaurant isn’t too busy, which means there is, literally, space to breathe. This is good, as the kitchen is hot, hot, hot.
Usman proceeds to give us a Balti cookery demonstration, talking to us as he works. “The volume of customers we get in the evenings means we have to be quick cooking the food. It’s rare that it takes longer than twenty minutes from ordering it to the food arriving on your table. To me, cooking is about passion and perfect timing. It’s also about the elements of food and how you use them. The use of these can affect texture and flavour in any dish.”
He stands back from the flaming pan, scanning the contents. Then he delivers his verdict: “There’s fine dining, haute cuisine, Gordon Ramsey – and then there’s Balti cooking.”
After lunch, it’s a walk down Ladypool Road, where we mooch around various Pakistani shops and grocery stores. From the latter, we choose vegetables and fruit (including Kerali, Gwar, Baer) that will be cooked with our evening meal at Imran’s. All in all, our stroll is a light lesson in Indian culture – nothing too in-depth, but conversely perhaps a tad too brief. Birmingham city centre, although only a couple of miles away, might as well be in a different country.
Just after 7pm, we gather again at Imran’s, having brought our own alcohol with us. We’re looking forward to a night of really good, superbly cooked food, and that’s exactly what we get. What we also receive is informal and sensible dining, very much in a family-oriented style.
The restaurant is filling up, and that unmistakable buzz of people relaxing and enjoying themselves fills the room. There are no airs or graces, no linen serviettes and not the slightest hint of officiousness.
Rather, it’s a lesson in how to get back to basics; how to embrace and enjoy the food in front of you and not take notice of what your surroundings are like. It’s also incredibly reasonably priced and would make you wish every restaurant you ever wanted to go to had a BYO policy.
Balti has been around for years, we know; it went through a faddish phase in the 1980s; it was taken over for a short time in fashion terms by pan-Indian fusion cooking. It’s been in and out of favour more times than the mini skirt or the polo neck, and now it’s back again (although, personally, we reckon it never went away).
As we pay our bill and make our way out onto Ladypool Road, which is now neon-lit from top to bottom and even more like an Indian city street than it was during lunchtime, I broach the topic of Balti’s origin with Andy.
“Of course it’s not the same food as you would get in a mountain hillside in Pakistan or Kashmir or anywhere where some people say it’s from,” he admits. “It started in Birmingham. It’s a derivation. But hey – what a derivation!”
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.