Dabbler editor Gaw explains his role in the popularisation of one of Britain’s finest dishes, the Balti…
Accompanied by a family-nan, there is surely no more restorative, tasty and cheap meal to be found anywhere than a Balti. It means ‘bucket’ in Hindi, and was invented in Birmingham. I gather it’s a version of the wok-cooked curries of the Pakistan highlands – the source of a good number of Birmingham’s sub-continental immigrants – made stew-like to appease local, Welsh-influenced tastes. The authentic Balti, if such a description can be used, is still only to be found in Brum.
I told an Indian friend about the Balti once. To his ears, I must have asked him if he’d ever tried eating a bucket. Even after my explanation, he was fairly incredulous.
I would recommend a mushroom-and-dhal (it’s the only food I’ve come across that’s better vegetarian) with a family nan if you’re a party of more than one. Eat it without cutlery, the bread serves perfectly well. Yasser’s, on the Pershore Road, used to be very good, especially as there’s an offy next door to pick up a four-pack (Balti Houses are generally unlicensed: shop-bought Kestrel makes your meal even better value).
I like to think I played a small part in the popularisation of the dish. I lived in Brum for a year when I was just starting out in the world of work, in an area called Stirchley. Standing in the back-garden you could smell Cadbury’s chocolate as it wafted over from the Bournville factory.
A short while later I was going out with a girl who was a producer on TV-am, the old ITV breakfast channel. She had to fix some features for when the show was to be broadcast from Birmingham. I suggested the Balti – as remote from West London then as its sub-continental origins – would be a great thing to discover on a breakfast show.
She must have been desperate so fixed up the feature. Shortly afterwards the Balti invaded the menu of Indian restaurants in nearly every town in the country. The transformative power of breakfast television. But as I said, these imitation Baltis are generally inauthentic and taste nothing like the real thing. I would guess it’s something to do with the red hot, multi-shelved baking ovens the Brummy Balti chefs use.
I liked Birmingham, even back then, in the pre-Selfridges, pre-International Conference Centre days. The people are friendly, as is the accent, which is now, thanks to Adrian Chiles, acceptable even on national TV. Underrated metropolitan and university art galleries with some nice Pre-Rapaelites. The Central Markets are (or were) good for fish. And of course the Balti.
I believe I had positive feelings about the city even before I’d ever been there (some may say this is when you are most likely to feel positive about Birmingham). Did you know that if you stand not too far from the Rollright Stones on the top of the Cotswold escarpment on a sunny day and look north over Warwickshire’s green plain, you can just make out the glittering of windows as the sunlight catches the tower blocks of the city’s southern suburbs? It may also be that if the wind is in the right direction you can just about pick up the delicate whiff of Balti spices, even at that distance. However, that’s probably just the suggestive power of a well-curried imagination…