Story of the week: A balti break in Birmingham

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* Image from meetup.com

The word means ‘bucket’ and reflects the style of cooking.

It’s one of Birmingham’s proudest inventions and, recently, the inspiration for new culinary tours that celebrate the city’s best-loved dish.

It is the Balti and, in time for British Food Fortnight, I’m in Birmingham on a blustery day to see the city through the prism of its Balti heritage.

For the first leg of my Balti Break, I join Tabriz ‘Tabs’ Hussain of the Asian Balti Association for a tour of Birmingham’s so-called Balti Triangle, more precisely three streets in the city’s Sparkbrook district, home to around 40 Balti restaurants and communities of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Yemeni families.

“The Balti was invented here around 1980, adapting a Pakistani recipe for the Western palette,” explains Tabs, as we head down Ladypool Road, stopping to admire exotic fruit and vegetables for sale outside the Raja Brothers store.

“It has helped bring prosperity to a previously deprived area.”

“Tourists never came here until a few years ago,” he adds. “Now the restaurants are packed with visitors to Birmingham,” he explains, highlighting some of the unfamiliar vegetables used in traditional Balti recipes.

Down the road at the Lahore Sweat Centre, we marvel at the vibrant rows of brightly coloured sweats, including chum chum made from semolina and milk, and coconut barfi.

The owners hands us samples and we relish the sugar hit.

The tour complete, we then stroll over to the Royal Naim restaurant on Stratford Road for the final ingredient in our Balti experience: dinner.

An informal, no-frills eatery, we sit at glass-topped tables with paintings of Kashmir adorning the walls.

As I tuck into my chicken and aubergine Balti, using the naan bread to scoop up morsels of chicken, co-diner Andy Munro, author of the Essential Street Balti Guide, explains his rationale behind the tours.

“It’s about unlocking the secrets of the area to foster cultural understanding via its cuisine,” explains Andy, who claims to have eaten over 2,000 Baltis and never once had a bad stomach.

Most of all, it’s about celebrating great flavours.

“A Balti is cooked in five minutes over a high flame and served in the same flat-bottomed wok to preserve the flavour of the spices,” grins Andy, dipping his naan hungrily.

“It’s cleaner and healthier than a typical curry – and it’s proudly Brummie.”

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This story first appeared in The Weekend FT in 2008. Liked this? Try also Raising a glass to British Food Fortnight in Cumbria.

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