If you’re looking to try an authentic Birmingham Balti sourcing the real deal is harder than you might think.
Outside of Birmingham and even outside of the Balti Triangle you’ll find the word ‘balti’ on pretty much every BIR (British Indian Restaurant) menu in the country, but the vast majority will not be cooked authentically. Deceptively, your 'balti' is likely to be served in a bowl that looks, on first inspection like a Birmingham Balti bowl.
So where can you eat real Birmingham balti? Why is it different to other curries? And what's all the fuss about the bowl?
Balti, its origin, authenticity and heritage is Birmingham Pakistani. And whilst it perhaps rightly falls under the label of 'BIR', by comparison the huge majority of BIR restaurants in the UK are Bangladeshi owned opposed to Pakistani or Kashmiri. The 'balti' served at most BIR places outside of the Balti Triangle area, often has little in common with the Birmingham Balti, being usually a regular BIR style curry served, but not cooked in a bowl with handles -an ornamental stainless steel Kadai bowl for example. Both bowls have handles and a similar (but not identical shape), and that is where the similarities with Birmingham Balti usually end and the story of Birmingham balti can start;
In the 90’s Balti boomed, such was the popularity and demand for a balti, the essence of the dish was lifted from Birmingham and the Balti ‘band waggon’ set off; BIR restaurants and English pubs up and down the country attempted to recreate the dish, seemingly without clear reference and probably without having visited one of the Pakistani and Kashmiri owned Birmingham restaurants to sample a real one. Nationwide, in restaurants, in pubs, in supermarket jars, in football stadium pies and in noughties chefs cookbooks fake 'Balti' was king.
Balti is a method of cooking, 'Balti' sauce is just generic curry sauce.
Like eating a Valencian Paella in Barcelona, it’s unlikely to meet a Valencian’s expectation of their dish nor be true to its origin...but for Balti a victim of its own success, tracking down the authentic dish is harder than ever before. Many of the original restaurants are no longer in existence and there are a number of reasons for this but primarily;
* In some cases the sons and daughters of the original restaurant owners are choosing not to continue in the family business meaning the restaurants are closing and the expertise of the original chefs is lost as they take up their well earned retirement.
*The 2005 tornado tore up the Balti Triangle area of Birmingham and many restaurants could not recover from the damage done to their properties and subsequent loss of trade. Some took this as the moment to cease trading.
*Increased competition. When Balti appeared it was the most exciting new development on the Birmingham and BIR restaurant scene for years, and provided a culinary attraction more appealing than the largely average offerings found in Birmingham city centre at the time. It was also a very affordable and informal option for people wanting to eat out. By contrast Birmingham is now the most Michelin starred UK city outside of London, with a celebrated street food scene too. For many, venturing out of town to the Balti Triangle area is not appealing enough, especially given the poor public transport links. And for many, who may have only ever had an imitation balti, their stomach won’t be rumbling for the real thing, having never had the pleasure of enjoying one!
*Balti is a British (Brummie) Pakistani invention. In Pakistan, the locals describe 'Balti' as being an English invention and balti to them is a very large bucket used to cook for festive feastings- little in common with Birmingham Balti. Following on, the modest nature of this community doesn't on the whole lend itself to self promotion or blowing it's cuisines trumpet! Compare this to the excellent and accessible spokespersons of authentic Indian food such as Madhur Jaffrey, Asma Khan, Meera Sodha…a plethora of brilliant folk busy on social media and publishing recipe books. Or the BIR scene, which has a wealth of enthusiasts, and published cooks such as * 'The Curry Guy'. The BIR scene, until fairly recently didn't wholley recognise balti as 'one of their own'. Add to this the numerous Bangladeshi curry awards to celebrate BIR restaurant cooking- few (none?) reference or recognise the Pakistani Kashmiri contribution to BIR, in the form of Birmingham's balti and yet most places serve a sudo version of it.
* The Curry Guy is a great advocate of the real Birmingham Balti.
It seems balti is both a cultural and culinary outsider.
The survival of this unique immigrant born, brummie loved heritage curry, relies on continued custom, especially local but also tourists visiting Birmingham keen to seek out and try what is perhaps the city's signature dish. Journalists seeking it out to write about it, media researchers who do their 'research' and find the real thing to present to the public and food bloggers who get beyond the new places opening to seek out this sizzling bowl of perhaps (currently!) unfashionable but loved piece of British culinary history.
With the dish being bastardized, misunderstood and ignored, competing for a slice of culinary customer cake is not easy and it’s a wonder it’s survived at all. But, for now at least the authentic dish can still be found in Birmingham…if you know where to look!
Before, we get to the tasty bit there are some things to look out for that may help you identify an authentic Balti house.
*Usually Balti places are unlicensed, which tends to be a contrast to a more typical BIR place. So BYO
*Family sized Naan. This is usually a staple on the menu. Naan bread is traditionally the only accompaniment for the 'Birmingham scoop'
*Glass topped table with menu-encased beneath- now you know you’re in the right ballpark. Balti is served sizzling, the bowl would mark a table cloth so the glass is practical. Also helpful for the Birmingham scoop- mopping up the Balti using a naan as a spoon, it can be messy…glass topped tables are also very practical for this purpose!
*Black bowl. If you are served up a ‘Balti’ in a silver bowl you are eating what is probably a lovely curry but it hasn’t been cooked the Birmingham Balti way (Balti bowls are thin pressed steel, more like a wok, not stainless or cast iron, they start off matt silver but quickly, after a couple of cooks turn mottled brown then black with further use- in a pro Balti restaurant bowls would turn black more or less immediately)
*Handles so hot that when the dish arrives you can't touch them. This is another giveaway; Balti should be charred to within an inch of its spice (sorry) moments before being served up sizzling.
*Caramelisation – the sauce should have a lovely sticky, slightly charred edge, a indicator that the maillard effect has taken place. A normal occurance for the real Birmingham balti.
*Pakistani desserts. Most balti places have the usual 'Euro Ices' selection of frozen oranges and coconuts filled with sweet sorbet but usually you’ll also find really good locally made barfi, gulab jamun and kulfi. This is largely because in Birmingham's Balti Triangle at least, there are numerous ‘sweet shops’ so sourcing is no problem. Additionally, Pakistani families go for a balti in the Balti Triangle so authentic desserts are in demand.
* Long opening hours. Often balti houses are open until the very early hours.
Any BIR style curry can be cooked using the balti method- but you can improvise with balti like with a stir fry, adding in whatever takes your fancy. It’s a fast cooking process with the ingredients taking on a unique sweet and smokey flavor. Balti also has some interesting health properties, including 25 times more iron than one pint of Guinness. Read more HERE.
Birmingham born and bred Andy Munro, blogged extensively about balti in the 90’s, and was the main contributor to a number of ‘Essential Street Balti Guides’ in that decade. He also wrote ‘Going for a Balti’, an expression uttered regularly in Brummie households for the past 40 years. The book is the definitive story and the only existing in depth documentation of Birmingham Balti history. Most of the places that made balti such a phenomenon are no longer in operation, but Andy has kindly shared his favourite authentic balti haunts and his balti of choice in each. All places where you can still try the real thing....but how long for is anyone's guess.
TOP BIRMINGHAM BALTIS
1. Balti Chicken and Spinach at Shababs, Ladypool Road, the Hairy Bikers favourite balti and also the top choice of regular customers, Zaff the chef learnt his balti cooking skills from his Uncle, one of the original Balti chefs.
2.Balti Shahi Chicken at Poplar Balti, Poplar Road Well established neighborhood place, with links to one of the original Balti Triangle restaurants of the boom years. Also try the Aubergine and Gobi Pakora. Read full review HERE
3.Balti Chicken Korma at Shahi Nan Kebab House, Stratford Road...not the mildest but the chef used to be in the Pakistani Navy and knows his onions. Also very good and cheap are the lamp chops- order a stack.
4.Balti Exotica (aka old skool balti tropical) Akrams Pershore Road. A very reasonable bill and despite the sell out crowd, service was exemplary with frequent paper napkin changes and water replenishing. Read full review HERE
5.Balti Lassawalla Gosht. Royal Watan Balti Pershore Road Well established and popular balti house. Once the haunt of the BBC Pebble Mill glitterati. Recently voted one of the top UK Indian restaurants. Read full review HERE
Andy Munro's website
The Curry Guy's Website
Going for a Balti The Story of Birmingham's signature Dish