The balti is back – and its return couldn’t be better timed, says Richard McComb.
Balti curries favour again.
There was a time when eating out in Birmingham meant only one thing: the balti.
The dish reigned supreme and reached its zenith in the mid-1980s and 1990s, garnering national publicity for the city and attracting the chattering classes with its mix of spice, value-for-money and ethnic earthiness. The balti was as Brummie as Jasper Carrott and as honest as the day is long in Sparkhill.
And then came the backlash.
Cheaper imitations jumped on the bandwagon and the balti express looked in danger of being derailed. The original powerhouses of the food movement kept cooking to the same high standards, but soon anywhere with flock wallpaper and sitar music started calling itself a balti house.
Andy Munro, Birmingham’s guru of all things balti, says: “When baltis became a big thing, everyone jumped on the balti bandwagon. A true balti is a genuine Birmingham creation. It is not a Bangladeshi curry house thing. And if anyone offers you a jar of balti sauce, take them to court and sue them.”
Andy laments the spread of the dumbed down balti, the wishy-washy curry-lite churned out by establishments whose idea of a special sauce is tomato soup and curry paste. Then there was the challenge posted by Birmingham’s new generation of swanky Indian restaurants, cool bars offering street food (noodles and dim sum to go) and an emerging taste for brasserie-style cuisine. The recent triumph of the city’s three Michelin-starred chefs stole the media spotlight, so much so that when people talk of Brummie cuisine these days they reflect on the city’s inimitable interpretation of classic French cooking, not its dexterity with butter chicken.
Fortunately, though, reports of the balti’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The authentic exponents of this terrific cooking art are still going strong – arguably stronger than ever – and to mark their longevity, creativity and downright tastiness, Andy has produced a new guide, The Balti Triangle, The Essential Guide. It lists the top authentic balti restaurants where customers can be assured of great cooking at fantastic prices.
These are the places where it is possible to have a great meal for under a tenner a head. What’s more, you will be supporting a Brummie tradition – and looking after your cholestrol levels at the same time. Unlike other curries, the traditional balti uses vegetable oil, not ghee, which is a far healthier way to cook. Neither will you detect homogenous curry pastes and powders. The flavours, aromas and subtle punch of proper baltis come from spices, fresh herbs and chillis, not Mr Patak. Exotic vegetables also have an important part to play in imparting taste and texture with widespread use of arabi, duddi, karela, mooli and rivye. The balti emerged in the south east of Birmingham in 1975 and was a product of Birmingham’s entrepreneurial Pakistani Kashmiri community. Its chefs wanted to create a flavour of their homeland which would appeal to local tastes and generate a few quid for the family coffers. Many of the businesses have remained true to their roots and are family owned and run, which ensures overheads are kept down.
A thin, pressed steel wok-like pan was developed in Birmingham and it is used for the balti style of stir frying over a very high heat. The “balti bowl” was also made in Birmingham, again using thin steel rather than cast iron.
Andy says: “Fusion food is pretty trendy and the Birmingham balti is the original fusion food. It is a marriage of the flavours of Pakistan with the tastes of the local community in Birmingham.”
Andy, 58, was born and bred in the Balti Triangle, that throbbing, vibrant area bounded by Moseley Road and Stratford Road, with Ladypool Road running slap bang through the middle. He started eating the local curries when he was a teenage and hasn’t stopped since. He’s a one-a-week guy and is hooked on the style of cooking.
Typically, onions or tomatoes are used as the base with freshly cooked chicken (or part cooked lamb) comprising the meat of most baltis. Ginger and garlic puree are added with a selection of spices including fenugreek, tumeric, cumin and garam masala. Fresh coriander is sprinkled on top just before serving.
Depending on whose statistics you go by, either Birmingham or Bradford has the highest number of Pakistani Kashmiris in the country – but only Birmingham can lay claim to the authentic balti. Andy warns newcomers to be wary of the balti bandits.
“When I did the first balti guide many years ago there were 40 or 50 restaurants in the Balti Triangle area. There are still 40 to 50 but a lot of them are fast-food outlets and a lot of them are not proper baltis,” says Andy. “Real baltis offer terrific value for money, particularly in the credit crunch. A balti cost about £5.50 – and with a naan and a starter it comes to £9 or £10. You get a really nice meal.”
And because customers can take their own beer or wine (there’s not usually a corkage charge), there is no sting in the tail over drinks when it comes to paying the bill.
Mo Ahmed, the boss of award-winning Al Frash, says the best balti restaurants, of which his Ladypool Road outlet is definitely one, have moved with the times. He well remembers the fateful day he took over management of the restaurant – it was September 11, 2001. “It was very quiet the first night,” recalls Mo, whose expertise is in IT. “We had about two customers and I put my hands on my head and said, ‘What have I done?’ I took over Al Frash and the whole world changed.”
A combination of great food and service ensured the business took off and Mo, who was born in Moseley, quizzed his customers to see what they did and didn’t like. Today, Al Frash is the model of the new-look, contemporary balti and although the menu has had some tweaks on the way the food remains that fabulous, unique mixture, of Asian and British tastes. “We have stayed true to what our customers want,” says Mo.
His head chef, Azam, originally comes from Attock in the far north of Pakistan. He is given a free rein to create wonderfully spicy dishes such as the ever-popular butter chicken and Mirch Masala, a tandoori lamb tikka with seasoning a special masala and a dash of chilli.
One thing that comes as a pleasant surprise to the novice balti eater is the lightness of the dishes. Mo says: “You don’t feel like you have just had five kilos of food because it has not got loads of fats in it.”