The Birmingham Balti – My part in its success

curry mile brum

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…

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11 thoughts on “The Birmingham Balti – My part in its success

    August 20, 2013 at 09:33

    Back around 1989 I was reviewing caffs for GQ. I decided to take my elder son to Brum (where his great-grandparents had lived) to do the Balti. I think we managed three meals, certainly two. Neither of us have ever forgotten the arrival of the ‘table nan’ (I assume the equivalent of the ‘family nan’) which in dimension did exactly what it said on the box. And as you note: cutlery not required.

    August 20, 2013 at 16:24

    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? whilst thanking your lucky stars for the invention of distance.
    Stepped out of New St Stn one fine summer morn, in the eighties, and was driven past the Aston football ground to a scene of utter desolation, I swear that Robt Rauschenberg was at his easel at the end of the freeway. Later, as a treat, to the chambers of commerce restaurant with fine views of the bullring. No Balti on the menu just Brown Windsor string soup plus meat and two veg, Nitrazepam for dessert.

    I thought “thank you dear god, now I have seen it all”

    Then I began visiting Coventry.

    • Worm
      August 20, 2013 at 17:00

      I must be one of the few people that doesn’t mind the looks of coventry city centre. I like all those fifties touches like the verdigris roofs, roof top carparks and extensive use of the profil font in signage.

      Once you fill it with the beautiful locals it loses it’s modernist cool somewhat though.

        August 20, 2013 at 17:10

        Yes, but, what other European city has a size 1A Ikea tin shed in the city centre. Why, I hear myself ask, are the filling stations filled with car numberplate recognition cameras?

  3. Worm
    August 20, 2013 at 16:55

    Yeeesh I cant be doing with baltis – those huge bowls and boundless wastes of starchy naan make me sweat just thinking about it; too much volume. ‘bucket’ is about right…

    August 20, 2013 at 19:48

    Ha! Baltis have nothing on the Bradford curries of the 70s. For 35p you got a plateful of mouth-burning brown slop with lumps on rice, tastefully arrayed on a whitish cloth-covered table, while neon lights allowed no scope for imagination and the bare walls no relief. And those places were full even at 2 in the morning. But oh! the glory of that 65p change!

  5. Gaw
    August 21, 2013 at 13:38

    I won’t hear a word against Brum. We travelled back from N Wales via the city a couple of weeks ago, stopping a couple of times in the outskirts. The everyday friendliness came as quite a shock to us Londoners. However, I confess New Street on a Saturday night in the 90s didn’t quite have the same ambience.

  6. Brit
    August 21, 2013 at 13:55

    The other weekend I visited a barber while staying in North Devon. He was a Brummie, and when I asked him why he’d left Birmingham, he said it was because he wanted to live ‘where people are happy’.

      August 21, 2013 at 19:47

      Definition of a place where people are happy…spacious apartment, above a bookies, next door to a pub and across the road from a chip shop, internet connection to Wonga and under the television licence detector van’s radar. Ample parking space (for the BBC news outside broadcast’s hordes, when harassed by the authorities)

    August 21, 2013 at 18:46

    Around edgebaston is nice, and out to the clent hills and bromsgrove. A drive through sparkbrook or alum rock is an experience though. The jewellery quarter is like shoreditch before anyone arrived

    August 23, 2013 at 09:03

    I’ve not seen anyone eat from a bucket, Gaw, but washing up bowls served as receptacles for mountains of rice at Aston University – in the early 1980s, when this part of town was edgy to say the least. The Bull Ring then was all smelly spices and nylon knickers a bit like Church Street market off the Edgware Road. You can also get a great Balti in Southall. Did you live there too?

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