After the success of the Manchester Curry Mile tour, we set out again to the next most infamous curry location in the UK - The Balti Triangle in Birmingham. Our goal was to find out more about the Balti - what is it, where did it come from, why, as a nation, do we love it so much when we don’t even know what it is?
Let’s find out …
We pre-arranged to meet up with Andy Munro, the ‘Balti King’ who has definitely earned his stripes. I doubt there is anything we could have asked him that would have tripped him up. Andy confidently expressed his undying love and passion for Birmingham, the Balti Triangle and the Balti itself.
The infamous Andy Munro AKA The Balti King ~ A bustling shop on the high street selling everything from fresh spices to camel's milk!
Andy walked us around the Triangle describing how it’s changed over the years from the vibrant Balti scene in the 90’s to the more eclectic version we see there today.
The now closed Adil's restaurant, thought to be where the balti began! ~ The endless supply of spices available at local shops in the area
Andy contests that the balti was invented by Balti Triangle restaurant Adil's and says that the name has a less romantic origin than we may have been led to believe. A quick Google suggests that the name comes from the Urdu word for bucket - the vessel used to contain the curry and cater wedding parties. Andy instead says it is just an easy word to pronounce for the western diners and that the ‘Balti has as much to do with Baltistan as Jam does with Jamaica’!!
Andy told us that the Balti was created by Mohammad Arif of Adil’s restaurant in the 1970’s. He brought the recipe over with him from Kashmir in 1977 and adapted it. Arif told the BBC that before he arrived, curries were cooked in the morning and microwaved then served in the evening. He brought a new, fresher, alternative and won over the culinary hearts of Birmingham with his lighter, healthier and quicker option!
Robyn, excited to find camel's milk to try in the local shop! ~ Freshly made curries, snacks and sweets to buy from a corner shop
Pakistani restaurants in the Balti Triangle were booming in the early 90’s, with this new concept of dining which offered fast and cheap catering to Western customers. People would leave the pub at closing time and end up going for a Balti as most of these restaurants were open till early morning and more importantly were BYO making a meal out much more affordable!
Naans and roti for sale on a back street ~ Selection of take-away curries
However, competition grew as more licensed Bangladeshi restaurants opened up all over Birmingham and in seeing the popularity of the balti, these restaurants also put it on their menus (although most without serving the balti in the balti dish it was cooked in!) meaning you no longer had to go to the Balti Triangle to get a balti as they were now served in every curry house, on every high street.
Post WW2, many Irish people moved from Ireland to big cities in Britain, including Birmingham. However, as the Irish community, once huge in Birmingham, dispersed, the pub culture declined with it. And with that, so did the Balti House. Now, The Balti Triangle has a wide range of restaurants and shops catering to the cultural shift in the area. There are Turkish restaurants, burger joints and even dessert bars dotted along the streets, something you wouldn’t have been able to imagine back in the 90’s.
So what is a Balti?
A ‘proper’ balti is made in an authentic ‘Balti Bowl’. These are made in Birmingham and characteristically have a flat bottom and flat handles, made from pressed carbon steel and are NOT non-stick - the caramelisation adds layers of flavour. Andy claims that these bowls give the curry 3 times more iron than one that has been cooked in a pan, the equivalent of 15 pints of Guinness!
A delicious, caramelised balti, hot from the stove in Shababs ~ Fresh fenugreek for sale
A bit like the perhaps better known ‘tagine’, the ‘balti’ refers to the vessel and cooking method of the curry, not the curry itself. We are used to seeing balti curry sauces in supermarkets and the ‘Balti’ on a Curry House menu but you in fact can have any curry in a balti style - a Jalfrezi Balti would be a curry of red and green peppers and onions, cooked fast over a high heat in a steel Balti Bowl then served in that same bowl, securing the charred flavour. ‘Balti is a method of cooking, ‘Balti’ sauce is just generic curry sauce’ - Andy Munro - The Balti King
How to spot an authentic Balti?
- Usually, the restaurant will be unlicensed but offer BYO
- The ‘family naan’ is on the menu - traditionally, you wouldn’t expect rice on a pakistani curry menu
- The bowl it’s served in should be black - you know from this that your balti has been cooked in the bowl it’s been served in! Also the handles should be HOT!
- You should see the caramelisation - look for the maillard effect
- The curry should be made with veg oil, not butter or ghee. The veg oil can reach as far higher temperature allowing for the distinctive balti flavour
As an example of perfect Balti cooking, we were led by Andy to a restaurant that was under heavy renovation, Shabab’s. Shabab’s restaurant, at the heart of the Balti Triangle, is as busy as ever and one of three remaining authentic balti restaurants left, it’s a good job it is too!
Jess, outside Shababs restaurant which was under some heavy renovations when we arrived! ~ A view of one of the main streets on the Balti Triangle
Shababs Balti House opened in 1987 and rocketed to fame in 2016 after a visit from the Hairy Bikers! The tradition of the Balti house lives on here with the glass topped tables displaying the most impressive wide ranging menu (a common feature among Balti houses - no white tablecloths here!).
The balti is the perfect dish for the Pakistani restaurants that don’t sell alcohol. There is no benefit to keeping diners lingering as they aren’t making money on alcohol sales so a dish like the Balti, which cooks in just a few minutes, is perfect! Shebab’s restaurant will seat over 400 covers a week!
Watching the Master at work
We were lucky enough to witness the head chef of Shabab’s, Zaf, knock up a chicken balti before us. We squeezed into their tiny kitchen and watched as Zaf threw chicken, veg oil (very important!) and pinches of various spices into a flaming balti dish. Within minutes he was adding splashes of their house gravy, a handful of chopped coriander and he was finished!
Zaf, adding handfuls of spice to the flaming balti that he was creating before our eyes ~ The rows of spices ready to be added, in various quantities, to the curries on the menu that lunchtime
This house gravy is their base sauce which cooks for 6-7 hours after which subtle additions are made to create the different curries on the vast menu - more chopped tomatoes, a pinch more chilli, a dash of cream - small changes that make a huge difference to the end result.
The brave tandor chef, rolling out the naan dough before placing it carefully in the burning hot oven for a minute or so then brushing with butter and serving!
We also watched as the tandoor chef whipped up a naan bread. The metal tandoor that they use at Shebab’s restaurant is 225 degrees, the perfect temperature. Too cold and the naan will stick, too hot and it will immediately burn.
We were seated on the best table in the restaurant as we got to enjoy the balti and naan bread that had just been made before our eyes. The taste was nothing like what we’ve ever experienced before - the taste of the curry was almost barbecued, the charring and heat from the balti bowl really came through.
The flaming balti, almost cooked! ~ The finished article, just before we dug in!
Andy kindly gave us a Balti Bowl from his daughter’s company ‘The Birmingham Balti Bowl Company’ which was set up back in 2017. They commissioned a Birmingham manufacturer to make the bowls in the heart of Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, using pressed steel, just like the original 1970's bowls which gave birth to this iconic dish. They’ve been selling them ever since enabling people worldwide to get to experience cooking a true Balti at home!
The branded Balti Bowl, embossed with Shababs logo ~ Our delicious curry, placed on the glass topped table, typical of a Balti restaurant
Making a Balti at Spicery HQ
We took the Balti bowl back to Spicery HQ and tried to recreate the Balti that Zaf had cooked for us. Andy told us that, after a few uses, the flavour would really start to seep into the bowl and we’d notice a big difference in the flavour of the curry.
Robyn starts making our version of the balti by heating the Balti Bowl over a high flame ~ Sizzling the chicken
We made a base sauce (Zaf wouldn't tell us his secret House Gravy recipe!) with onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, water and our Curry Legend Spices. Then over a high flame we heated 3 tbsp of vegetable oil and added our finely chopped chicken, green peppers and more fresh spices. Once the chicken was almost cooked we added some of our base sauce and continued to cook on the highest heat.
Robyn, carefully watching the balti come together ~ Feeling proud as the curry takes shape!
After 10 minutes the Balti was done, and we were so impressed with how similar it was to our Birmingham Balti! Upon taste test we could taste the caramelisation and charring that’s synonymous with a Balti - utter deliciousness!
Almost there - our balti having one last minute over the heat ~ The finished article - ready to be tested by the Spicery team!