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, it is likely to be served in a bowl that looks, on first inspection like a Birmingham Balti bowl. You may wonder where you can eat real Balti? What’s special about it anyway? What's with the bowl?
An often overlooked and important fact regarding Balti, its origin and authenticity is that it is a Birmingham Pakistani invention. And whilst it frequently falls under the label of 'BIR', by comparison the huge majority of BIR restaurants in the UK are Bangladeshi owned. The 'balti' served at the majority of BIR places outside of the Balti Triangle area (and even in Birmingham too) usually have little in common with the Birmingham Balti, being frequently a regular BIR curry that is served but not cooked in a bowl with handles, reminiscent of a Birmingham Balti bowl.
In the 90’s when Balti boomed, such was the popularity and demand the essence of the dish was lifted and the Balti ‘band waggon’ set off; restaurants up and down the country attempted to recreate what they thought was a Balti without clear reference and probably without having visited Birmingham to sample one. Nationwide, in restaurants, in pubs, in jars, in pies and in noughties chefs cookbooks fake Balti was king.
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 the difference is somewhat more stark and 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 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 option (and still is) for people wanting to eat out. By contrast Birmingham is now the most Michelin starred city outside of London, with a celebrated street food scene too. For many venturing out of town to the exotic Balti Triangle area is not appealing enough. 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 digesting one!
*Balti is a British Pakistani invention. 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 more 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, published cooks such as 'The Curry Guy' and numerous Bangladeshi curry awards to celebrate BIR cooking.
Balti is both a cultural and culinary outsider. Its survival relies on continued Brummie custom, tourists visiting Birmingham keen to try what is perhaps the city's signature dish having read about, journalists seeking it out to write about it (!), media researchers who do their homework and find the real thing to present and food bloggers who get beyond the new places opening to seek out this sizzling bowl of perhaps unfashionable Brummie heritage.
With the dish being so bastardized, misunderstood and ignored and with competition for a slice of culinary customer cake bigger than any other UK regional city it’s a wonder it’s survived at all. But, for now at least the authentic dish can still be found…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.
*Glass topped table with menu-encased beneath- now you know you’re in the right ballpark. Balti is served piping hot, the bowl would mark a table cloth so the glass is practical. Balti is also traditionally eaten without cutlery- just naan bread used to mop up the Balti like a spoon…glass topped tables are also very practical for this purpose!
*BLACK BOWL. I repeat 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 pressed steel, 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 this would happen more or less immediately!)
*Handles so hot that if you touch them you are going straight to the bathroom to douse in cold water. 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 when cooked authentically.
*Pakistani desserts. Ok, 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.
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’ that could be bought in Waterstones such was demand for this uniquely Brummie speciality! 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 renowned 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 THREE 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 Garlic Chilli Chicken at Adil , Stoney Lane where the Balti phenomenon first appeared in the seventies. See one of the original Balti bowls (made in Birmingham) from Adil’s in Birmingham Museum.
4.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.